It takes more than one word to avoid being a rube

“Manhattan?” she asked, presumably to me even though there was little indication of that.

The one-word question — the very bane of the service person’s existence. Often the people who use the minimum of description expect the maximum of interpretation. And they often think that they are being clever on top of it. Really not the makings of a great double bill.

“Yes we make those,” I said after a long enough pause indicating no more information was forthcoming.


“Well what?” I answered in the most polite way possible under the circumstances.

Manhattans have so many variables that it would take an hour just to cover some of the basics. Bourbon? Rye? Wheat? Blended whiskey? Sweet vermouth? What kind? Bitters? What kind? Shaken? Stirred? On the Rocks? Cherry? Twist? What kind?

Combine that with variations in ratios and you have the truly bewildering possible assembly of a Manhattan. None of which is helped by a one-word question, which I submit is the truest mark of a rank bar amateur.

Recently I received a letter from a reader hoping to avoid just such a classification.

“In your article this morning [The holidays bring out the amateurs], a point is raised that I’ve wanted to ask about for some time. I’m not a frequent bar imbiber. I drink wine mostly at home but do occasionally enjoy a mixed drink. I often enjoy a Manhattan but now, each time I think of ordering one, I change my mind because, frankly, I don’t know enough about the different bourbons/whiskers/bitters, etc., that can be used to make one and I feel intimidated by that lack of knowledge. In today’s article you cite a woman who orders ‘a Maker’s Mark 46 Manhattan up, with Antica vermouth and a Luxardo cherry … or an orange twist.’ I have no idea what all that is, although I know what Maker’s Mark is. Given all of that, I’d just give up and pick a glass of wine from the wine list even though I would have loved to have had something like that. How do I order something when I don’t know enough to do so? I know I’m missing out, but I don’t want to look like a rube.”

When a bar is not busy it’s easy enough to guide someone through the process, but when it gets really busy it’s much more difficult. Ordering Manhattans is pretty simple if you already know what you want. It is much more difficult when you don’t. Simply put, ordering any drink is like an equation; Liquor + cocktail type + preparation = satisfaction. Example: Maker’s Mark (brand) + Manhattan (cocktail type) + up with Antica vermouth and a Luxardo cherry (preparation).

This at least gives you and the bartender a starting point. Part of the fun of going to a bar is for a bartender to put his or her own spin on something. There are lists of cocktails at every bar. Check them out, you might find something interesting.

If that doesn’t suit your fancy, my suggestion is to start out with subtle variations. If there is a whiskey you already like, try their other variations. Almost no whiskey producer today makes one type of whiskey. If you like Jack Daniels, try its Gentleman Jack in your next Manhattan. You probably won’t be disappointed.

When it comes to sweet vermouth, Carpano Antica is the way to go. Most bars carry it and it is delicious. Antica will make even the most mundane of Manhattans better. There are a few newer vermouths, but asking for a rundown of vermouths for your Manhattan is probably going to move you into rubesville.

Bitters are an easy subtle addition. Angostura is the typical go-to for Manhattans with bitters. But almost every bar has at least three bitters these days. Try a new one in your “usual” and you might be in for a treat. If not, the taste is subtle enough that you will probably still enjoy your drink.

Another subtle variation is the garnish. Adding a twist of orange adds a burst of flavor without altering the drink irrevocably. Ditto lemon, grapefruit, or lime. Well maybe not lime but you get the point. Premium cherries are also a great upgrade. If your bar isn’t carrying them by now, you might want to upgrade your bar.

On the rocks (over ice) or chilled (up) and you are good to go.

Liquor + cocktail type + preparation = satisfaction. It’s really just that easy. Or, you can use a one-word sentence and head straight to rubesville.