What does one get when mixing sweet vermouth, bitters, and bourbon? A Manhattan cocktail, of course! Garnished with a Maraschino cherry and served cold in an elegant martini glass, this drink is one of the most popular choices among cocktail lovers. As the first drink to make use of vermouth as a blend, it is also called “the grandfather of American cocktails.” The true connoisseurs immediately recognize its striking aroma, claiming that it embodies the spirit of America.
In 1882, the Democrat newspaper remarked that “it is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue,” observing that it had been known as a Turf Club cocktail, a Jockey Club cocktail, and a Manhattan cocktail. However, like so many cocktails, its origins and history are lost to the vagaries of time, leading to intriguing theories, one including the mother of Prime Minister Winston Churchill as its possible inventor.
This popular story is supported by the proprietors of the Manhattan Club, who argue that the drink was created in their establishment in the early 1880s for Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome, who would become Lady Randolph Churchill and the mother of the great Winston Churchill. According to the tale, Jennie, a noted beauty, magazine editor, and amateur pianist, was the hostess of a banquet at the Manhattan Club celebrating the election of Samuel J. Tilden as governor of New York. Jennie asked for rye and vermouth, and Dr. Ian Marshall stirred it up on the spot to impress her, thereby inventing the recipe of the drink later called “Manhattan.” The success of the banquet made the drink fashionable, and later people requested it by referring to the name of the club where it had originated: “the Manhattan cocktail.”
Like any classic, this popular account of the “Manhattan” is considered a myth by many. According to historical documents, the hostess, by then Lady Randolph Churchill, was in England at the time and pregnant with Winston himself, who was born that November 30th in Blenheim Palace. Regardless, David Wondrich, a historian and writer who provides an account of the possible origins of the “Manhattan” in his book Imbibe!, wrote that there is a good chance that the cocktail originated at the Manhattan Club, an organization of upper class Democrats, whose address was on Fifth Avenue and 15th Street in 1874. He wrote, “The Jerome part of the story probably comes from the fact that the Manhattan Club occupied a house once owned by Leonard Jerome, Jennie’s father.”
The timing is troubling. Jenny met Randolph Churchill at a sailing regatta in 1873, and became engaged to him three days later. They married in 1874. Her lovers after marriage are believed to have included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Herbert von Bismarck.
There are a few other stories about the origins of this cocktail, including one that a bartender named Black invented the drink at the famed Hoffman House in New York City. One of its earliest records can be found in William Schmidt’s The Flowing Bowl, which was published in 1891. The recipe listed there contains gomme syrup, bitters, absinthe, whiskey, and vermouth. The same drink, though listed as a “Tennessee Cocktail,” is described in Shake ‘em Up!- A Practical Handbook of Polite Drinking by Virginia Elliott and Phil Stong, published in 1930, as “Two parts of whiskey, one part of Italian Vermouth and a dash of bitters poured over ice and stirred vigorously.”
Whichever story one chooses to believe, the Manhattan Club still claims to hold the ownership of the original recipe and the cocktail enjoys worldwide popularity. It is regarded as one of the best cocktails to ever have been served. Its traditional version should be made with American rye whiskey, although it is commonly created with bourbon or Canadian whiskey.
It is believed that the people from the small North Frisian Island of Fohr are the most passionate enjoyers of the Manhattan cocktail. Many years ago, a substantial number of people from Fohr immigrated to Manhattan and then returned to their homeland with the recipe of the cocktail, having taken a definite liking to the drink. Today, this drink is found on the menus of most bars and restaurants on the island.
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