History of the Manhattan: The Definition of Class

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Manhattan Cocktail Spokane WA History

It’s 1900-something and you’re sitting in a bar. Dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms; starchy suits; mustaches everywhere. The perfect pairing for this scene? The definition of “classic:” The Manhattan.

Maybe I’m biased . I put back at least 5 or 6 of these a week, so I probably am. But there is no denying the lasting impression of the Manhattan on cocktail culture. You go to any bar and order a Manhattan, you won’t be getting a confused look in return. It’s survived everything we could throw at it:  the Great Depression, world wars, prohibition, facebook — often with the popular ingredients of the time replacing the classics, but always persisting.  That they might taste wildly different from establishment to establishment is just a testimony to its timelessness. 


What genius godsend of a mixologist gave us this masterpiece? Unfortunately (or fortunately for those who like a little mystery), that isn’t easy to answer. The popular story goes that Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill himself, was hosting a party at New York City’s Manhattan Club in the 1870’s. Ostensibly, in the hopes of earning some admiration, one of the guests, Dr. Iain Marshall, whipped up this perfect blend of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. It was such a hit that the drink went viral, forever after known by the name of the club it was born in. 

Not true. By all accounts, Lady Randolph would have been in Europe and pregnant (with baby Winnie) at the time this supposedly took place. (But we don’t judge. Maybe she made it work.)

The other competing story was first written in the 1880’s by William F. Mulhall, a New York bartender. According to Mulhall, “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the sixties—probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” As with any origin story, many people have their doubts about this one as well. If Black had created his cocktail magnum opus in the 1860’s, why the hell didn’t we hear about it until 1880? 


Cocktail Cherry Manhattan Spokane WA

The exact date, the exact location, the exact creator: Who knows (or really cares)? We have it now, and probably have since the 1880’s, which is all that really matters.

The original recipe calls for rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters. Always stirred, never shaken (eat shit, James). Maraschino cherries hit the market around 1900 and added a delicious little garnish to the drink, most likely replacing or complementing a lemon peel twist. The type of glass varies from place to place, and isn’t too much of a sticking point for anyone, although the martini glass seems to be the most popular.

The Manhattan will survive, even in the face of the dumpster fire that is now. Let’s make one up and toast to the future:

2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
1-3 Maraschino Cherries (preferably Luxardo)

If you want to switch it up a little bit, feel free to substitute Scotch for the rye (a Rob Roy), dry vermouth for the sweet (Dry Manhattan), or even throw a couple splashes of the cherry juice in there for good measure.

Stop in to the Volstead Act downtown Spokane, WA every Monday night for discount Manhattans featuring a rotating whiskey!

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