Whenever I order a Manhattan, I feel just a little bit like a certain dashing English spy in his Majesty’s Secret Service.
While James Bond and I do not share the same cocktail of choice, I’d like to think we share a certain savoir-faire, that comes from having one’s own go-to, classic cocktail.
Despite ordering his martini shaken, not stirred (we’ll permit him this singular gaffe), it’s clearly not 007’s first cocktail rodeo. He doesn’t have to shift nervously about or waste time looking at the house menu or God forbid, ask for some day-glo concoction with a tawdry name.
Rather, Bond is a man who knows precisely what he wants in his glass and therefore, is free to focus his attentions on other more important objectives, like the secret microfiche or his next sexual conquest. Or both.
For me, the Manhattan is such a cocktail and why I order it whenever possible while sipping in my adopted hometown of New Orleans.
Whether in a craft bar or a dive, one never has to apologize for ordering one. Perennially in style, always inappropriate, the very word Manhattan emerges out of the mouth sounding sharp and confident. Neither masculine nor feminine, a Manhattan is gender fluid.
In short, the Manhattan one of the more superlative drinks on the planet, which explains its enduring appeal since it first came into being sometime in the 1870s, in a posh 5th Avenue gents bastion called the Manhattan Club.
There are some who posit that the cocktail was first served at an event attended by Winston’s mum, Lady Randolph Churchill. However, the renowned cocktail historian David Wondrich dubs this theory “horseshit.”
Whether in a craft bar or a dive, one never has to apologize for ordering a Manhattan.
Although their proportions have shifted slightly over time, the Manhattan’s basic ingredients have not: rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, a dash or two of bitters, all stirred together with ice and strained into a cocktail couple, garnish.
But like Martinis, a Manhattan allows for a few acceptable permutations—bourbon instead or rye, regular bitters or orange, lemon peel or cherry, coupe or lowball, even a singular a cube of ice in the latter—all of which mean the Manhattan drinker can be just a bit particular about preparation without coming off as a fusty s.o.b.
Even wider variations exist, particularly in New Orleans where barrel-aged rum sometimes takes the place of rye, offering a slightly sweeter take.
For the ultimate in cool, try ordering your Manhattan “perfect,” named not for the fact that is, but because of the perfect or equal balance of sweet and dry vermouth. The mix results in a slightly crisper bite.
SIX of our favorite New Orleans spots for sampling this American classic:
- 1The Black Duck Bar at Palace Café
Located on the edge of the Quarter, this Belle Epoque styled grande dame from restauranteur Dickie Brennan focuses on fresh, regional ingredients. Head up the iron staircase to the snazzy mezzanine level for a stellar aged rum take on the Manhattan.
605 Canal Street
- 2Black Penny
Though known for its craft beer selection, this dark, hipper than thou corner bar at the back end of the French Quarter also carries a good selection of brown goods—whiskey and bourbon.
700 North Rampart
- 3Barrel Proof
With 300-plus whiskeys on its shelves, this handsome, ever-so-slightly ramshackle neighborhood joint in the Lower Garden District is the right spot for a tried and true rye-centered Manhattan classic. Those looking for a kissing cousin, may want to try the On My Level made with rye, Cardamaro, lemon, and tobacco bitters.
1201 Magazine Street
- 4Lula Distillery
In-house rum made from Louisiana sugar cane provides the base for Lula version’s of the Manhattan at this spacious distillery and eatery along the Saint Charles Streetcar line.
1532 Saint Charles Avenue
- 5Bouligny Tavern
Look up Mid-century modern, and chances are you’ll find this natty Uptown spot on Magazine. With an interior straight out of Mad Men and replete with spinning vinyl, the Bouligny’s booths or sofas are the perfect spot for sipping a classic Manhattan in style.
3641 Magazine Street (next door to sister restaurant, Lilette)
Even for a city steeped in architectural gems and former brothels, CellarDoor’s digs, circa 1830, in the Central Business District are a stand out. The sense of history extends to its vintage-inspired cocktail menu. If you feel like you’ve had enough New York, consider New Orleans’ own rye and Cognac derivative, The Vieux Carré.
916 Lafayette Street