The Sellwood

I hope everyone enjoyed a Thanksgiving filled with good food and good company. It was just the three of us this year, but we enjoyed a wonderful feast nonetheless.

We are entering the cold dark days of winter here and I want to share a cocktail that both warms and enlivens.


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Truth be told, I haven't always enjoyed cocktails. I didn't think too much about them until one summer break from college when I was a waitress at my hometown pizza place. I was saving money to study in Italy that fall. The restaurant was busy, and we didn’t have a bartender so I would awkwardly throw together drinks for customers. I sincerely apologize to anyone who came to Russo's for an evening of relaxation and found me behind the bar. We had a modest collection of bottles and a Mr. Boston bar guide. Thankfully most patrons ordered 7 & 7’s or jack & coke. But on occasion, I would have to make Manhattans, and I would fumble through Mr. Boston for guidance. 

This was the late eighties and cocktails featured ribald names, questionable mixtures of booze, and ever present cranberry juice. The only thing I indulged in was the occasional bottle of cheap Egri Bikavér, The Bulls Blood of Eger, Hungarian wine that we thought was so sophisticated, but really just triggered migraines. Manhattans with their waxy neon cherries and the stink of whiskey certainly did not appeal. I could not comprehend why they were considered fancy fare; perhaps compared to a Slippery Nipple. 

When I finally arrived in Italy that fall I was introduced to the wonders of Cynar at an old man bar and I realized that a whole other world existed.

As I approached thirty I began to enjoy the occasional margarita at the Latin or La Rondalla. Around that same time whiskey began to intrigue me, but mostly as a baking ingredient. I bought tiny bottles of Maker’s Mark with the alluring drips of red sealing wax to add to fresh whipped cream or mix with butter and brown sugar to glaze cakes. I sampled other styles of whiskey and learned more about what I liked. I decided to give Manhattans another chance and have been hooked since. When made well and with good basic ingredients, Manhattans are a delicious balance of earthy wood, mossy wine, and invigorating bitterness.

Now that the days are shorter here in Portland, I find that I am making more Manhattans. They provide comfort in the coming darkness; they warm and soothe what ails you.

Manhattans are traditionally made with a 2-1 ratio of rye or bourbon (ideally 90 – 110 proof) and Italian sweet Vermouth, plus a few good dashes of Angostura or orange bitters. My favorites substitute Italian amari for the vermouth.

The possibilities for Manhattans are endless. There are so many delicious whiskeys on the market. The craft cocktail movement has also brought back many classic Vermouths and amari to the US. Most exciting to me are the American small batch Vermouth makers. One could experiment endlessly to discover favorite combinations. Or walk into any decent bar or restaurant and you will find skilled bartenders pushing the envelope with Manhattans.

A while back Mr. Graham and I found a recipe for a coffee Manhattan and we decided we really like the deep richness of coffee in our Manhattans. The coffee provides bitterness and plays well with whiskey. We discovered that this coffee version is particularly good with Pikesville rye from Maryland. Pikesville rye makes a terrible sour, but, man oh man, does it make a coffee Manhattan sing! Pikesville was even mentioned on The Wire. We were pretty excited about that. 

This drink is a little bit grandpa, and as cozy as his worn flannel shirt. The scents of whiskey, coffee, and wine mingle with the sounds of Nat King Cole and Johnny Cash. 

Let's warm up and recharge.

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The Sellwood

Makes 2 cocktails

3 ounces rye whiskey (Rittenhouse, Old Overholt, and Tuthilltown's Hudson Manhattan rye are especially good)

1.5 ounce sweet Vermouth or amaro (I like Dolin Rouge, Carpano Antica, and Martini and Rossi for this drink)

1 - 1.5 ounces coffee liqueur (Use the best you can find. My two favorites are made right in Portland, one is from House Spirits and the other is from New Deal, I like them because they are not very sweet. In a future post I will share my recipe for cold brew coffee liqueur. You could also use lightly sweetened cold brew coffee here too.)

A dash of Angostura, orange, or cardamom bitters

Garnish: lemon peel twist or brandied cherries

Add all the liquid ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add plenty of ice and shake well. Strain into small cocktail glasses, or serve on the rocks in lowball glasses. Twist the lemon peel over the drink, rub the rim with it, and drop it gently into the drink. If using a cherry, drop it in the drink or spear it with a cocktail garnish pick; drop it into the drink.

A caveat - In the cocktail world today there is a strong focus on preparing drinks the most authentic way and with the most authentic ingredients. On the other hand I think it is also fun to push the boundaries and definitions. Manhattans because they are all alcohol and have no juice should be stirred in a glass, and not shaken. Blasphemer that I am, I sometimes prefer a coffee Manhattan shaken. I love the way the cocktail looks with the layer of foam on top. And with this variation, I think that layer simulates the silky foam that is the hallmark of a well pulled espresso. But please, find the way that you like it, please don’t do it one way just because someone in suspenders and a waxy mustache told you that is authentic. If, however, I was going to have a traditional Manhattan, I would stir it.


Some topical links:

How to make a classic Manhattan, Mr. Wondrich breaks it down so well here.

Whiskey vs whisky

And please forgive me, but this is the song in my head while making (and sipping) Manhattans...

Big thanks to Elizabeth Dye suggesting the perfect name for this cocktail. It is exactly what I was looking for.