Alicia Fuhrman’s Local Libations: A perfectly Perfect Manhattan at Amherst Coffee

  • A Perfect Manhattan cocktail at Amherst Coffee Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • Alex Callahan, the bar manager at Amherst Coffee, makes A Perfect Manhattan. Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • A Perfect Manhattan cocktail at Amherst Coffee Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • Alex Callahan, the bar manager at Amherst Coffee, pours A Perfect Manhattan. Gazette Staff/Jerrey Roberts

Published: 12/15/2016 12:07:35 PM

Winter means whiskey. I’ve tried enough times to put my finger on exactly why — because the smokiness, char from wood barreling somehow still warms you up, or that it’s best served barely if at all chilled — to know I’ll always find another reason, then another.

From history to style, the ambery spirit just pairs with long nights and snowfall. And no drink exemplifies that nature better than a Perfect Manhattan. But by perfect, I don’t really mean quality. Perfect is in fact an ordering term (also applicable to martinis) that refers to a 50-50 addition of sweet and dry vermouth, i.e. the rough 1 ounce of sweet vermouth typical in a Manhattan gets replaced by ½ ounce of each.

Perfection? Try it and let me know. I find that the small contrast lengthens each sip, bringing out subtler grain notes in the whiskey, plus some quieter herb and root flavors (think less spice, more citrus rind) from the bitters. It’s not transformative to the drink, just shifts the angle of complexity — like the difference between using bourbon and rye, or Peychaud’s and Angostura. In a cocktail of only five components, including garnishes, the fact that its signature balance can hold against such adjustments is proof of essentiality as a classic.

Getting back to whiskey, the Manhattan’s core. Bourbon is qualified by a majority of corn in its grain mixture (barley, rye, wheat — sometimes malted, or water-soaked then hot-dried to create sugars — are the typical others), where rye whiskey is quite obviously made with a majority of rye. The flavor difference is worth tasting side by side. So I headed to Amherst Coffee, where after hours (3 p.m. and on, perhaps only after hours to some …) the café offers a small menu of craft cocktails, liquors, beer and an astonishing selection of unique whiskeys.

Alex Callahan, the bar manager, took me through a few of her must-tastes. And those essential differences between styles really sang: a straight bourbon (the modifier means it’s been kept in barrels for at least two years — bourbon otherwise has no minimum age) smelled intensely of oak and vanilla, but with savory, charred undertones up front; sweeter but just as smooth on the finish. A straight rye was much fuller, with a little bitterness from the darker grain and more of a toasty, caramelized sweetness; ends on clean spice, a bit like cinnamon.

We also talked Amherst Coffee’s house Manhattan — a rye base, two brands of sweet vermouth, and dashes from two brands of bitters — a combination realized by much trial and error, but that here achieves a signature balance. Which, too, speaks to the malleability of the classic. Ask Alex to make one perfect, and you’ll get a slightly adjusted base/bitters combination to better match the dry vermouth. The beauty is in the drama of these simple variations, and perhaps how well they suit the winter months … which luckily, are only just underway.

How to make a
Perfect Manhattan

1½ ounce rye whiskey (Bulleit or Rittenhouse suggested)

½ ounce sweet vermouth (Vya or Dolin suggested)

½ ounce dry vermouth (same as above)

3-4 dashes bitters (Angostura or similar)

1 brandied or maraschino cherry (Luxardo or similar)

1 strip of lemon peel

Combine whiskey and vermouth over ice, swirl gently, then strain into a fresh glass. Add bitters, cherry and twist of lemon (literally, twist before dropping in, to release citrus oils from the rind).

Alicia Fuhrman is a writer and bartender, born on the West Coast and raised on the East, living and working in Northampton, for now.

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