The Manhattan Project
The Manhattan is a cocktail traditionally made with whiskey (typically rye, but other types are suitable), sweet vermouth and bitters, and garnished with a maraschino cherry. It is one of five cocktails named for the boroughs of New York City and it is considered a true classic, like one of the five mother sauces in fine French cooking — master it and delectable modifications abound.
Manhattan drinkers often also enjoy a classic Old Fashioned, which is a sister drink that substitutes bourbon. The Brooklyn, another borough-inspired drink, substitutes all of the Manhattan ingredients for similar ones, and in the end tastes somewhat similar.
Cocktails and beer hold more in common with each other than you may think. Both beverages require balance of sweet and bitter components. And it’s no accident that bourbon-barrel-aged beers have flavors than harmonize beautifully rather than compete. So it is not surprising that the Manhattan has inspired a handful of beers, perhaps because of whiskey’s close relationship to beer. The other components, too, like bitters and the traditional cherry garnish, are not far from what certain beer ingredients can bring to the table, either.
Last week I was invited to taste two Manhattan beers, plus the cocktail itself, by my friend Eric of Jack of All Brews Blog. Eric is a very decorated homebrewer and possesses a keen palate. Joining in the event was also Gina Holman of J. Carver Distillery plus a small group of friends. The idea was to critically evaluate the two vastly different beers and compare their flavors to the mixed drink. [For Eric’s more scientific take – see here!]
First to try was Cascade Brewing’s Manhattan NW (2011). It is described as follows: A blend of spiced Blonde Quads, aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels on 150 pounds of sour pie cherries for five months before additionally aging on Noyaux for three months. Whew. This is a kettle-soured beer, which set us up for a curious comparison as a Manhattan is not sour by any means. Resemblance aside, it was quite a treat. The aroma is very funky and earthy, indicative of some tasty microorganisms that have created more funk beyond what kettle-souring does to beer.
There was some disagreement between tasters about how intensely sour it was. Although my face didn’t pucker up, it lies somewhere prior to Warhead. The cherry component wasn’t prominent but increased on warming and the added Noyeaux, an almond liqueur, was overtaken by acid, too. In contrast to the acid, a pleasant raw honey flavor rounds out the finish. The whole group remarked how well-carbonated it was while still coating the mouth and lingering well.
The second beer was a local perennial favorite: Town Hall’s Manhattan Reserve, a Belgian Strong with Cherries aged in Bourbon Barrels. Available in growlettes during Barrel Week festivities, this beer more closely resembles the cocktail, though it doesn’t have booze in its flavor. The aroma, however, possesses strong Bourbon notes plus notes of cherry Sno-Cone syrup or sour candy, avoiding cough drop territory. There is a wonderful balance of flavor, like an intense, bitter chocolate-covered cherry. The char of the barrels comes out after a few sips and there is a growing depth of flavor that isn’t quite alcoholic heat. Some maple comes through as the temperature rises.
All in all, both beers were flawless and the cocktail inspiration put a new soundtrack to the typical tasting an analysis. I found myself honing my language and attempting to compare with utmost precision.
To cap off the night we enjoyed expertly mixed Manhattans, thanks to Gina and J. Carver Rye Whiskey. Some experimentation was also had into Old Fashioned territory in order to compare the Bourbon element (and taste the new bourbon hot off the bottling line!)
Thanks to Eric for his hospitality and inspiring tasting.