Of course I choose the Manhattan. I come from a long line of starchy New Englanders who settled in and around Manhattan, Kansas, and they brooked no nonsense when it came to their whiskey.
Now my grandmother, who held up one whole corner of the Methodist church in one hand, and a corner of the Republican party with the other would have nothing to do with the devil’s brew, but my grandfather, the cattle rancher, now that was a different story.
He taught me to drink Manhattans which he made up by the bottle full, by simply pouring out about 30% of the bourbon into a Mason jar and filling the bourbon bottle with a locally made homemade sweet wine. They didn’t know from Italian vermouth in those days, but they got the idea of bitter and sweet, and he was certainly salty. He would shake this mixture up, take a few trial draughts, then drip a bit of bitters into the bottle.
Ice? I don’t think so. That bottle was wrapped at the neck with a string and dunked into a cold spring out in the spring house where it awaited those who might need its ministrations. He did keep a little pewter glass out there too so you didn’t have to take a swig from the bottle, which he most certainly did.
All this was kept a great secret from my grandmother whose nostrils would flare at the mention of “drink”, but my grandfather, James Oliver West, my father, Harold Oliver West, my aunts Jamie and Beverly, and my mother, Bessie Lee, made regular trips to the spring house as the need arose.
Actually, when I was a teenager, I would sneak out there with my cousins and we would drink our home grown Manhattans by the light of the moon. We loved that sweet but character filled aroma of bourbon – probably Jim Beam by then, and the tempering that drink got from a shot of sweet wine and a shot of bitters. It made us feel mighty grown up.
I only came to know the name when I went to New York City as an eighteen year old girl. I’d gotten a job as a camp counselor, and as far as my parents were concerned I may as well have asked for an assignment on the Moon.
The camp gave us an allowance to spend in the big Apple during the camp break, but let me tell you, for a kid from the Panhandle of Texas, it was not nearly enough.
I went with my pals into the Metropole, and asked to borrow the phone. I called my dad from that bar and asked him to wire me a hundred bucks. He slammed up the phone in my ear he was so disgusted ith me, but within an hour, the money came.
So I’m just killing time. I’m broke, I’m a little bit hungry, I’m eating peanuts at the bar, but I’m cool because I know my daddy will send me the money. Meanwhile, a nice doctor who I had never met, offered to buy me a drink. 18 was the legal drinking age in New York, which I considered to be proof positive that New York was most certainly a place of vast civilization and superior culture to my bible belt upbringing.
So anyway, this nice doctor asked if I’d ever had a Manhattan. I said of course, NO. And he said, we must have one to celebrate your visit here. So he ordered us two.
I fished out the maraschino cherry and popped it into my mouth, looking over my glass at this stranger.
He looked really old to me. As I look back on it, I doubt if he was on the lee side of forty, but you know, when you’re eighteen, they all look old.
You have to understand, I was as innocent as a lamb at this point in time. It was 1957 fergawdsake. So the first sip of the drink and I was amazed. It was granddaddy’s drink.
I knew I was home.
I have made and served and ordered Manhattans ever since, all over the world. It’s hard to top that drink fished out of the spring in Kansas with my grandfather who would give his sixteen year old grand daughter a drink, and it’s hard to top that Manhattan made at the Metropole while I waited for Daddy’s money to rescue me.
But I’ve got a version of the Manhattan that I make for people now and they seem to like it.
4 Roses Small Batch Bourbon
The Manhattan Kansas Manhattan
2 parts Kentucky Bourbon (the best you can buy. I like 4 Roses Small Batch)….
1 part Sweet Vermouth (I use Martini Rosato which isn’t officially sweet vermouth but works for me)
2 shakes of Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters OR if I’m feeling really daring I’ll substitute Fernet Branca which gives the drink a deep, complicated herbal vibe that I like a lot.
I pour all this over ice in an old fashioned glass. Couple stirs and a Maraschino cherry to finish.
It’s Manhattan. Where ever I am. Home. In Kansas and in New York, and in the World.