It’s mostly quiet now. The relatives have gone home, if you’re lucky. The kids are absorbed with their new gadgets from Santa by way of Shenzhen. The air is crisp.
This is the best time of year, when the pace of life lets up a little bit and the news tends to be slow. After 51 weeks of politics, war, scandal, death, more scandal and Jerry Brown, a fella could use a little break, a good book, a comfy sweater and a stiff drink.
Make mine whiskey.
Not Scotch, not Irish, not Canadian – not that there’s anything wrong with them – but American. Kentucky bourbon, or Tennessee, or rye. Especially rye.
It happens to be a great time to be an American whiskey lover. Bourbon has become so popular around the world, in fact, that distilleries are having trouble keeping up with demand. And whereas 10 years ago you might be lucky to find one or two decent ryes on the liquor store shelf, today more than 100 are in production in the United States. Is this a great country or what?
Connoisseurs of American whiskey abound, but I don’t count myself among them. Clay Risen of The New York Times published a book last year in which he reviewed more than 200 American whiskeys. Now that’s dedication.
But for those of us of more modest means and without book contracts, we do our best on the $15 or $20 bottles you can find at BevMo or Total Wine and More, with the rare splurge on a more expensive bottle.
Novelist Walker Percy, not exactly a whiskey connoisseur either, wrote a fine essay 40 years ago on the “aesthetics” of bourbon. He warned at the outset that “persons preoccupied with alcoholism” should probably not read his article. If you’re one of those people and made it this far, feel free to move on, or maybe wrinkle your nose a second time at the political cartoon.
Percy didn’t care how much the liquor cost – cheap was just fine with him. He was more interested in the whiskey’s near-supernatural ability “to warm the heart, reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, and to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.” Change it to the early 21st century and Wednesday evenings – or any evening for that matter – and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
Many like their whiskey neat, and far be it from me to disagree. But for me, ice is nice and the higher the muzzle velocity, the better. My go-to bourbons are Wild Turkey and Bulleit. My go-to ryes are Rittenhouse 100 and Redemption. Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse are spicy; Bulleit and Redemption are smooth. But somehow they all go down easy on their own or in mixed drinks.
Bernard DeVoto, the journalist and historian of the American West, wrote that there are only two cocktails. One is the martini, which he spends roughly a dozen pages lauding in his 1951 cocktail cult classic “The Hour.”
The other is a slug of whiskey. You know how to make a slug of whiskey, right? Pour some whiskey over some ice and enjoy. “The slug of whiskey is functional,” DeVoto writes. “Its lines are clean.”
Indisputably true! Alas, one paragraph earlier, DeVoto veers into a repugnant dogmatism, declaring: “Whiskey and vermouth cannot meet as friends and the Manhattan is an offense against piety.”
Don’t believe it. A Manhattan is an excellent cocktail, if made properly.
Trouble is, most restaurants and a preponderance of bars do not. They mix a Manhattan as they would a martini, which is to say, all wrong. Today’s standard recipe calls for bourbon, but the original recipe called for rye. Sweet bourbon mixed with cloying sweet vermouth and a cherry on top may technically qualify as a Manhattan in some places, but it’s a pale substitute for the genuine article.
Here’s how to make a Manhattan: Mix 2 ounces of straight rye with 1 ounce of sweet vermouth (I recommend Vya, made at the Quady winery, a hop, skip and jump down Highway 99 in Madera) and a two dashes of Angostura bitters. The bitters are crucial. Mixing a Manhattan without Angostura is like cooking without salt. You can do it, but the results will tend to be bland and unappealing.
Oh, and don’t forget the cherry – Luxardo’s, if you can find them.
There are dozens of variations on the Manhattan, but let me share one of my own. I call it Bittersweet Redemption, based on a drink at the Driftwood Room at the Hotel deLuxe in Portland, Ore., called the Bittersweet Symphony. Some of my ingredients are a bit esoteric, but well worth tracking down.
Mix 2 ounces of Redemption rye with a half-ounce of Oregon-made Imbue Bittersweet vermouth, another half-ounce of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and two or three dashes of Miracle Mile Forbidden Bitters. Shake and pour. It’s a little bit bitter, a little bit sweet and altogether magical. Cheers.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at email@example.com.