On December 18, 1901, the New York Sun wrote about the new trend sweeping through the New York bars, that of guests requesting “dry” cocktails. A lady had ordered a dry Manhattan—which is to say, a Manhattan with the newly available French “dry” vermouth instead of the standard Italian “sweet” vermouth—and as he stirred the cocktail, the bartender confessed to the reporter that the lady almost certainly wouldn’t enjoy it.
“It is the fashion to order dry cocktails,” the bartender said, “yet 95 percent of those who do order them don’t want them. On the contrary, if they got a dry cocktail they’d think they got a dose of something very nasty.” Much better, he insists, is what a number of “good places” do, which is “compromising to suit the fashion by putting half French and half Italian vermouth in the Manhattans. That is a pleasing combination.”
As best as anyone can tell, this article, unearthed and referenced in the excellent Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, is the first anyone heard of what we now know as a Perfect Manhattan: Rye and bitters, with half sweet vermouth, half dry vermouth. This is not mere historical trivia—it’s particularly useful to see how this cocktail initially took shape, because for many if not most bartenders, the Perfect Manhattan is bizarre. The normal Manhattan is already perfect, so making it mediocre and calling that variation “Perfect” is like claiming the Perfect Cheeseburger has neither meat nor cheese, or the Perfect Afternoon is a layover at O’Hare. It’s confusing.
As it turns out, the half-and-half vermouth thing didn’t always make claims to perfection, and actually started with a different name altogether. In 1930, the influential Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock had four Manhattans, each subtly different: No. 1 (with added liqueur), No. 2 (today’s Manhattan), a Sweet (extra sweet vermouth), and what he referred to as a Dry Manhattan (half sweet vermouth, half dry vermouth). “Dry” was confusing, though, for the reasons our 1901 bartender laid out above, so a couple years later comes “Cocktail” Bill Boothby’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them with an incredible eight versions of the Manhattan, and calls this half-and-half version the “Medium Manhattan.” This was repeated by David Embury in 1948, and as late as 1960, the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild recipe book cites a “Medium Manhattan” as four parts rye whiskey to one part each of dry and sweet vermouths.
Precisely how and when the word “Perfect” affixed itself to the Medium Manhattan is currently unknown, but what we do know is that there was a drink called the “Perfect Cocktail”—gin, sweet vermouth, and dry vermouth—and somewhere around the ‘60s, the Medium Manhattan absorbed that name. It would’ve felt right for a time, because there were a few decades there where practically everything was too sweet, and so a little dry vermouth to thin out an improperly made Manhattan would’ve been much welcome. These days the cocktail limps on among a mostly aged set of devotees, while modern sensibilities have more or less fully replaced it with the more perfect, if less nominally “Perfect,” standard Manhattan.
Still—there’s a place for the Perfect Manhattan. It’s a regular Manhattan that preserves the strength but has less sweetness, with part of the voluptuous fruit and florals of the Italian vermouth replaced with a more austere, hay-like herbaceousness from the French, a way to have the whiskey speak a little louder. For me personally, it’ll always taste like a Medium Manhattan. Some people, however, think almost all the drinks they’ve ever been served are too sweet—for them, this cocktail may indeed be the Perfect Manhattan. All we can be 100 percent sure of is that they both beat the hell out of a dry Manhattan, which is a dose of something very nasty indeed.
- 2 oz. rye whiskey
- 0.5 oz. sweet vermouth
- 0.5 oz. dry vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, add ice, and stir for 15 to 20 seconds. Strain off ice into a cocktail, coupe, or Martini glass, and garnish with a cocktail cherry.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Rye Whiskey: Some of my favorite Manhattans use the 95 percent rye out of Indiana, like Bulleit Rye or Dickel Rye, but for me, when dry vermouth is in the mix, it accentuates the green dill note in them a little more than I prefer. The Kentucky ryes were excellent—Rittenhouse and Wild Turkey 101 are always good choices—though of the few that I tried, the most consistently excellent across different types of vermouth was Michter’s Rye.
That being said, I made 54 different Perfect Manhattans across nine rounds of testing, and I feel like I could’ve made another 300. Vermouth and rye whiskey combine in interesting and unpredictable ways, so don’t necessarily run out to buy a bottle of Michter’s for this. It’s a great rye, but try it first with what you have most near—you may end up loving it.
Sweet Vermouth: Across tests my favorite vermouths were the ones with a significant vanilla presence, because it lingers a bit on the palate and helps compensate for the lack of weight. In my trials, I thought Cocchi Vermouth di Torino had the most clarity, though I thought Carpano Antica was quite good as well. Also worth noting was the deep chocolaty bitterness of Punt e Mes, though as with a standard Manhattan, it feels more like a spin-off than a classic cocktail.
Dry Vermouth: Dry vermouth operates here to take up some space and not be too sweet and add some mild herbaceousness, so once again I’ll say that a bottle of Dolin Dry is really all you need, but any dry vermouth you use will be good here.
Other Aromitized Wines: I’ll say I adored a blanc vermouth in this, which is light in color like dry vermouth but has the body of sweet vermouth. Dolin Blanc in particular, with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and a lemon peel, was lovely, like a lemon pastry. It’s no less sweet than a normal Manhattan, though—again, not a problem for me, because I don’t believe a well-made Manhattan is too sweet—but it violates the spirit of the Perfect Manhattan, which is why it’s not my blanket recommendation. I also tried fino sherry, which is pleasant in a way, but not better.
Bitters: A bunch of recipes call for orange bitters instead of the standard Angostura, but I didn’t prefer them. It’s not impossible that there’s a brand of orange bitters out there that makes a exquisite Perfect Manhattan, but I didn’t find it. Good old Angostura works perfectly for me.
Garnish: If you’re using orange bitters, you absolutely should garnish with a lemon peel. If you’re not, use a cocktail cherry.