From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

Welcome! Today we are going on a little journey. A tour of the world’s finest cocktails — or at least of Joe’s favorite cocktails. And these are not just a random assortment of cocktails. They are a family. Each one is distinct, but they share a common gene pool.  And like any family it all starts with the patriarch. The granddaddy. The king.

The Manhattan

We start with the King of Cocktails. After years of being considered your father’s drink the Manhattan is experiencing a rebirth as more sophisticated drinkers flee from the slums of Appletinis. The Manhattan gives us the core of our cocktail family. Its characteristic boozy, spicy profile is passed on to its descendants. And as is the case with many grizzled old veterans we delight in its straightforward simplicity:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Manhattan wraps you in warmth like a good hug from a loved one. The powerful whiskey flavors are softened by the vermouth and gently melted ice. The vermouth adds depth and a touch of sweetness, which is enhanced by the aromatic bitters bringing a fantastic nose to the drink.

It is bliss. But possibly not perfection. What if you want more off all the good things a Manhattan brings? Can we evolve it? Oh yes we can…

The Little Italy

If the Manhattan is a warm hug, the Little Italy is a warm, lingering kiss from Sophia Loren. It takes the Manhattan and replaces the bitters and a bit of the vermouth with Cynar, an Italian Amaro:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 parts Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/2 part Cynar
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

To quote my brother: “this might be the best damn cocktail on the planet”, and it is tough to argue with that. The Little Italy takes all that’s good about the Manhattan and raises it. It’s a touch sweeter. A touch more herbal. And a touch more bitter.

It is spectacular.

But what if this is a bit too dark and earthy? What if you want to lighten things up a bit? Well, let’s just look to our friends in New Orleans for a little help…

The Vieux Carre

While the Little Italy is dark and sultry, the Vieux Carre is smooth and sophisticated. Some of the bourbon is replaced with cognac making for an accessible and easy taste — just like the Big Easy itself. The sophistication is provided by a double dose of bitters and a splash of Benedictine that provides an almost honey-like finish:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Cognac
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash Peychaud Bitters
  • 1 splash (tsp) Benedictine liqueur
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Vieux Carre is smooth and tasty, but it is a little fussy for me. We seem to have strayed from the simple salt-of-the-earth roots provided by our beloved Manhattan. And I find myself longing for the bittersweet presented by the Little Italy. So let’s get back to basics.

The Boulvardie

The Vieux Carre introduced us to the delightful symmetry of three equal parts. The Boulvardie continues with that theme, but replaces the pretentious cognac with the rambunctiously bittersweet Campari. Dispensing with the other accouterments makes for a delightfully simple, vibrant cocktail:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange twist

Yes! This is delicious. One wonders how the heck Campari  pairs with bourbon, but it works.  I very much enjoy a Boulvardie when I want a change of pace although the drink does have some uneasiness to it.  It’s a bit of an in-betweener.  If I want a whiskey drink then give me a Little Italy. If I want brightly bittersweet then give me a Negroni!

The Negroni

Oh. My. God. There is absolutely nothing like it. Nothing. I still remember my first sip. I heard angels sing. I remember my brother’s first sip. He heard angels sing. The Negroni takes The Boulvardie and replaces the oakey bourbon with crisp, lightly  medicinal, gin:

  • 1 part Beefeaters Gin
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange wedge

The Campari is the star of this drink, so you will either love it or hate it. And I’m a lover. A Negroni starts sweet and clean and brightly citrus. It has a pleasant herbal medicinal quality  and a sturdy bitter finish. But like its star ingredient it is polarizing. Those of us that love it consider ourselves blessed.

But what if you aren’t a lover? And what if all of the above drinks are just a bit too much: too bourbony, or too medicinal, or too bitter. What if you want something full of flavor, but showing some restraint. Well, we have a drink for that too…

The Old Fashion

The Old Fashion takes a Manhattan and removes the vermouth, replacing it with a touch of water, a sugar cube and some muddled orange. While still boozey the Old Fashion stays pleasant and easy drinking. And the following recipe makes it even more accessible by using Canadian whisky:

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • splash of water
  • 1 orange wedge
  • 2 shots Canadian Whisky
  • Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, water and orange wedge in an old fashion glass. Add whiskey and a little ice. Stir well, add more ice and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

A traditional Old Fashion does not muddle the orange wedge, but I like the extra citrus flavor this provides. The bitters and sugar provide the nose and sweetness of a Manhattan without the extra herbalness of vermouth. Using Canadian whisky further mellows the drink making it very easy drinking.

And with that, we are at the end of our tour. I’ll finish with a few notes on the drink recipes.

A Note On The Recipes

I am not holding up the above recipes as definitive. They are just the ones I use. You should consider them as a starting point. As to the ingredients:

  • Bulleit Bourbon. Many of the above cocktails are traditionally made with American rye whiskey, but many of us don’t stock rye in our liquor cabinets. Bulleit is a nicely flavorful bourbon that works terrific in these drinks. And Costco carries it!
  • Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Carpano Antica is a bold, flavorful vermouth that makes for a spectacular Manhattan because it brings so much to the table. There are lots of vermouths out there. Please try them all. You might want to see my vermouth tasting blog
  • Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. The worlds most popular sweet vermouth, and my favorite in a Negroni and other cocktails where the vermouth is in a supporting roll. Makes for nicely balanced drinks.
  • Cynar. One of the more common Italian Amari, Cynar is bittersweet and pleasantly vegetal. I recommend you try some others (see my Amari tasting blog).
  • Campari. Another Italian Amari, but different in that it is highly citrus. Wonderfully bittersweet, Campari is polarizing and, alas, not for everybody.
  • Beefeaters gin. I prefer basic London dry gin in my Negronis. No flowery or boutique gins please.
  • Canadian whisky. Canadian whisky is a blended whisky usually containing some amount of neutral spirits. This makes for a whisky that is less bold than American bourbon and more approachable for some.
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. The original and very pricey. But these are spectacular, and you don’t go through them very fast. Consider this one of life’s luxuries that you should indulge yourself in.
  • Benedictine. An herbal liqueur that adds medicinal sweetness to a cocktail. Also fantastic when mixed 50/50 with brandy.