Food - The Atlanta Manhattan Smackdown

Eleven of Atlanta's best bars duke it out

The Manhattan in its most common form is one of the most straightforward classic cocktails — two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a dash or two of bitters. But that outward simplicity is deceiving. Will it be bourbon or rye, and which bourbon or rye? Then, which vermouth pairs most harmoniously with that whiskey? What will that magic ratio of whiskey to vermouth be? Which little bottle of bitters provides the appropriate accents? Will it all be vigorously shaken or patiently stirred? Garnished with a toxic red "maraschino" cherry (the horrors!) or something more artisanal in nature like the real deal from Italy's Luxardo brand? The minute but meaningful variations are infinite.

The Manhattan has existed for more than 100 years, and its proper makeup has come under intense debate over that time. Some insist there is but one true way. Others are eager to uncover combinations that tug at the equilibrium of sweetness and spice, bright herbal highlights and booming, bitter bass notes. While I'm open to variations, I prefer a rye base. The angular spice of rye contrasts so nicely with the layered bittersweetness of a good vermouth, whereas brown-sugar-y bourbon can lead to a sweet-on-sweet overload.

So what bars in Atlanta hit Manhattan high points? Whose fall flat? For this Smackdown, I took up the task of discovery. The rules were simple. Each bartender was asked for his or her house Manhattan. No white whiskey, no Scotch, no Red Hooks or Rob Roys, or any other of the multitudes of Manhattan relatives that populate bar menus. I wanted to know the specific whiskey and vermouth involved, the technique employed. And I wanted to unearth cocktail enlightenment, a Manhattan moment of eye-closing bliss.

Now, it must be said, any good bartender can tailor a Manhattan to your tastes. But really getting to know what type of Manhattan is your Manhattan takes trial and error. I was amazed at the diversity of approaches found around town. Let the trials begin.

If you like your steak well-done: You would think a great steakhouse like Bone's would make a great Manhattan to match. You'd be wrong. First off, Bones goes to an extreme in its ratio of whiskey to vermouth – 2.75 ounces of Maker's Mark to just 0.25 ounces of Martini & Rossi. That's basically just enough vermouth to ruin a good pour of bourbon. And Bones sticks with Martini & Rossi — it's not bad stuff, but the Cocchi vermouth di Torino and the Carpano Antica vermouths that show up in many of the best Manhattans around town are far more nuanced. Bones also gets lazy with the construction of its drink. My bartender gave the mixing cup a lazy, open-top shake. No stirring, no real shaking either. Then, he topped it off with a standard-issue, industrial-strength cherry (one of only two Manhattans in this Smackdown to do so). Sadly, this rendition is not worthy of the Manhattan name. It's not even worthy of (name-your-least-favorite-New-Jersey-city). While it was the cheapest of all the Manhattans I tried, it was also the worst value. $8.50. 3130 Piedmont Road. 404-237-2663. www.bonesrestaurant.com.

If you like a lemony herbal edge: Bocado sets its Manhattan apart with a spritz of St. George absinthe in the glass before the stirred drink gets poured in, lending the cocktail a subtle herbal presence, especially through the finish. With a base of High West Double Rye, Carpano Antica vermouth, and a squeeze of lemon peel over the top, Bocado's Manhattan has a drier, lighter feel than most, apropos to the light and airy open bar. $10.50. 887 Howell Mill Road. 404-815-1399. www.bocadoatlanta.com.

If you like smoke-and-mirrors intrigue: The Smoked Manhattan is the house special at Chops. When I asked about it, the bartender noted that it was somewhat polarizing, and that if I didn't like it, she'd be happy to concoct a more standard version. I had to give it a shot. The bar was out of the Four Roses single-barrel bourbon typically used, and subbed in Woodford Reserve. Shaken heartily — the only shaken Manhattan I found — with some Qi black tea liqueur, Carpano Antica, and Fee Brothers barrel-aged bitters, the result was a balanced, frothy concoction, but with a strange finish that reminded me of a cold-remedy combo of hot tea and cough syrup. Sure enough, I asked for a replacement, and the other bartender working the bar commented that he didn't like their Smoked Manhattan either. Chops' standard Manhattan also defaults to Woodford Reserve, comes across as too bourbon-heavy, and loses points for the standard-issue bright red cherry. $10.75. 70 W. Paces Ferry Road. 404-262-2675. www.buckheadrestaurants.com.

If you're down with the old: Barkeep Evan Milliman at Cakes & Ale likes to use well-aged bourbons in his Manhattans. My recent visit turned up a pour of 12-year-old Old Medley — a not-too-common bottle that's a step above typical bar standards such as Woodford Reserve or Maker's Mark. The Cocchi vermouth di Torino that Evan uses works well alongside the smooth sweetness of Old Medley. A long stir over ice before straining keeps things cold and crisp. While Old Medley is only 87 proof, it comes through just a touch strong on the finish. This was my favorite bourbon-based Manhattan in the Smackdown, but because Old Medley retails for $50 a bottle, it also clocked in as the most expensive. $15. 155 Sycamore St. 404-377-7994. www.cakesandalerestaurant.com.

If you want easy drinking: The most notable aspect of Empire State South's Manhattan is Punt e Mes as the vermouth of choice. Paired with Old Forester bourbon, the formidably bitter and bright Punt e Mes somehow manages to bring out the fruity cherry notes in the drink. It's sweet, round and chewy without being too heavy, making for an intriguing Manhattan that goes down easy. $10. 999 Peachtree St. 404-541-1105. www.empirestatesouth.com.

If you seek elegance: The cocktail menu at H. Harper Station features two Manhattan renditions: the House Manhattan, a classic combination of Redemption rye and Carpano Antica, and a Manhattan circa 1890 that harkens back to early Manhattan recipes with a 1 to 1 rye to vermouth ratio. Jerry Slater uses High West Double Rye and Dolin Rouge in the 1890 for an elegant combination that created the least sweet Manhattan of any I tasted. A few dashes of Regan's orange bitters and a squeeze of orange peel both lend a heady citrus aroma. $10. 904 Memorial Drive. 678-732-0415. www.hharperstation.com.

If strong rye suits you: I asked barkeep Jason Rager at Holeman & Finch to make me his H&F-iest Manhattan, and he turned to a high strength (110 proof) Willett 4-year-old single-barrel rye whiskey to do the job. Cinnamon-heavy Cocchi vermouth di Torino was its counterpart, smoothing out the bracing strength of the Willett. Both Angostura and Regan's bitters were added, and everything was all stirred together in a gorgeous, cut-crystal mixing glass. The garnish? H&F house-made cherries even better than the famous Luxardo maraschinos found in most other good Manhattans around town. This drink is like a symphony, with each individual instrument calling out clear and sharp amid the greater harmony of sounds. $10.50. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-948-1175. www.holeman-finch.com.

If you like debating history: At the Iberian Pig, you can take a time machine back to the 1800s. The restaurant's 1887 Manhattan gets a splash of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and an Herbsaint (a cousin of absinthe) rinse around the glass. It's a nice drink, but there's too much going on between the Herbsaint's bright anise edge and the background cherry notes. Another spin can be found in Iberian Pig's 1882 version, with a sweet splash of Grand Marnier added to the more common bourbon and sweet vermouth base. In this case, I'm happier sticking to the 21st century. $11. 121 Sycamore St. 404-371-8800. www.theiberianpigatl.com.

If you appreciate beauty in a cup: My favorite thing about the Manhattan at Leon's Full Service is actually the simple but beautiful coupe glass in which it is served. Beyond the lovely shape, it also has enough room at the top so that the drink doesn't go to the very edge when first poured (with a drink like this, I would hate to lose even a drop, and the typical pour to the top of a martini glass that most bars do always makes me jittery). Rittenhouse Rye bottled in bond (100 proof) creates a solid and sharp foundation. A spark of flamed orange peel that's subsequently run around the rim adds a subtle citrus note. Great balance, great execution, great Manhattan. $10. 131 East Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-687-0500. www.leonsfullservice.com.

If syrup floats your boat: Wrecking Bar Brewpub offers two Manhattans — one barrel-aged ($10), the other an award-winning creation called the Port Authority Manhattan ($12). The aged version gets two months inside a small barrel, a mixture of Rittenhouse Rye and Carpano Antica that should be stellar, but ends up tasting past its prime. Barrel aging can sometimes bring flavors into harmony, but these two months seem to flatten things out, leaving a muted overall impression and an almost cardboard-like woodiness. Thank goodness for the Port Authority (has anyone ever said those words before?). While this drink definitely has Manhattan roots, it feels more like an exotic bus ride out of town, with a heady mix of tawny port and Benedictine replacing the vermouth. Ginger coriander syrup adds spicy, sweet highlights. While the drink is more syrupy and honeyed than most Manhattans, the result is still harmonious and boozy. $12. 292 Moreland Ave. 404-221-2600. www.wreckingbarbrewpub.com.

If dark wood feels right: Down in the dark, semi-underground room that is Proof and Provision, Nate Shuman pours a barrel-aged Manhattan that suits the setting. George Dickel, Carpano Antica, a mix of Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, and a whole lot of oak get poured into a utilitarian rocks glass over a large block of ice – the only rocks Manhattan in this Smackdown. There's also a quick flame of lemon peel, then zero garnish. The result is strong, full, and a bit tannic from that time spent in wood. $10. 659 Peachtree St. 404-897-5045. www.proofandprovision.com.


I was surprised that so many bars defaulted to bourbon instead of rye. I guess this town's affinity for bourbon is just too strong to deny. I was pleased to see the prevalence of Carpano Antica vermouth (expensive but worth it) and Luxardo maraschino cherries (also expensive but worth it).

Between our Smackdown competitors, Holeman & Finch's Manhattan rose above the rest, a paragon of lovingly stirred rye and vermouth harmony. Leon's Full Service was just a notch behind, with a similar drink made with a more affordable whiskey, and H. Harper Station's Manhattan circa 1890 proved a worthy detour away from the classic 2 to 1 ratio.

Many will say that the best Manhattan is the one in front of you. That can certainly be true at the end of a long day, but the wide diversity of approaches to this classic drink is proof enough that a great Manhattan is worth going out of your way for.

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