Bartenders Riff on Manhattans with Black Butter, Cognac and Other Ingredients

The Manhattan is far greater than the sum of its parts—two parts rye, one part vermouth and two dashes of bitters add up to a cocktail that’s smooth drinking, beautiful to look at, and, if all has gone well, perfectly balanced and delicious. And as with all classic cocktails, the simple formula makes it easy to riff on and create subtle tweaks or new variations, just by changing the base spirit or modifiers. Both Slowly Shirley in New York and the Heavy Feather in Chicago devote sections of their menu to Manhattan riffs, while San Francisco’s The Progress serves a black butter Manhattan. The drinks vary in how far they stray from the classic rye-vermouth-bitters combination, but they all offer fresh tastes for either seasoned Manhattan drinkers or newcomers to the concoction.

“For a new whiskey drinker, the Manhattan can definitely be an aggressive cocktail,” says Bryan Hamann, the former bar manager at The Progress. “So I wanted to think of a way to make it accessible to everyone.”

Hamann says he likes to do fat washing or infusions to add to the flavor profile and make it more accessible. For a Manhattan riff, he turned to black butter.

“It has butterscotch sweetness on the nose but on the palate its still a nice dry cocktail,” he says. “It gives it a softer mouthfeel. It’s fun but it’s classic and still a proportional Manhattan, two to one, with bitters.”

Black butter isn’t the same as brown butter, and to make it, Hamann says. “It caramelizes completely and looks like coffee grounds.”

“It works great for Manhattans, since it makes the flavor more caramelized,” he says. “To make black butter you just burn all the solids out and put into bourbon and then let it sit all day in the freezer. The bourbon won’t freeze, but the butter will rise to the top and freeze and then you just scrape it off. We filter it through coffee filters to pick up fat leftovers.”

For the whiskey, Hamann suggests Evan Williams Black, as it’s “not too sweet but has some strength behind it. It’s not too caramelly or vanilla on its own, so when we do impart the butter into it, it’s the perfect balance between to create a softness that’s not too creamy.”

He rounds out the drink with Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters, and then garnishes it with orange zest.

“I try to add something that would make it pop just a little bit,” he says. “A cherry would be on the richer side, but the orange makes the drink a little brighter and I try to be as balanced as possible.”

At the Heavy Feather, a '70s style bar in Chicago, Mondays are devoted to Manhattans, with four regularly changing options available each week.

“We were looking to do an event on Mondays and our clientele loves Manhattans, so we decided to do a night of it and use lesser-known Manhattan variations, like vieux carres and Brooklyns and perfect Manhattans,” says bartender Rory Toolan. “We also wanted to have an affordably priced option early in the week to cater to people who work on the weekends.”

While the other drinks range from $10-$12, the blue collar Manhattan, made with Evan Williams Bourbon, Punt e Mes and bitters, is $6 and a staple on the menu. Other offerings include a vieux carre, perfect Manhattan and the house Manhattan, made with High West Double Rye, Dolin Rouge and house bitters.

“We use a blend of bitters made in house with orange bitters, Angostura and cherry bark vanilla bitters,” Toolan says. “It's a little more interesting than using straight Angostura and gives it more depth. We use the house bitters for a lot of different things, to give our cocktails an extra note of interesting flavors.”

Slowly Shirley is tucked underneath the Happiest Hour in the West Village, and recently offered a selection of 10 Manhattans (alongside 10 old fashioneds and 10 martinis), though these drinks will soon transition to a separate classics menu. The cocktails range from a classic Whistlepig Manhattan made with Carpano Antica and Angostura, to the Dorian Gray, a riff made by bartender Jim Kearns. In between are eight drinks from other bartenders and drinks writers that are listed chronologically in order in which they were created “to show the genesis of that cocktail.”

The progression from classic to modern includes riffs, like David Wondrich’s Weeski, with Irish whiskey, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc and orange bitters, and the Dorian Gray, Kearns’ drink, which uses cognac as a base spirit, and adds yellow chartreuse, calvados, Carpano Antica and Jerry Thomas Bitters.

“I came up with that when I was working with cognac for the first time,” Kearns says. “The Manhattan is a really fun template to play with since they are so simple. As long as you stay somewhat close to the template, it’s a Manhattan descendent. It leaves a lot of room for the imagination.”

With riffs that significantly alter a drink’s classic proportions or ingredients, at what point is the cocktail a new one?

“Riffs are always subjective,” Toolan says. “What one person calls a riff, one person might call a completely different cocktails. But if it keeps a familiar flavor profile, we call it a riff. Anything that mixes whiskey with vermouth can be put in that vague Manhattan category.”

Kearns agrees with Toolan’s base definition.

“I would say you need to have vermouth and whiskey,” he says. “You could argue that something like the Tipperary on the Manhattan list is more of a negroni or boulevardier or old pal variation than a Manhattan, but all the lines get blurred with cocktail classifications pretty quickly.”

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