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Eats and Drinks


Rye is the foundation of the manhattan

When kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst tricked herself out as “Tania” and toted a carbine for the Symbionese Liberation Army, shrinks blamed the Stockholm syndrome. Psychiatry hasn’t yet named a comparable disorder for Baltimoreans who sport Yankees baseball caps, but it’s pretty clear that they have more than one thing wrong with their heads.

My contempt burns as hot as anyone’s for New York’s pinstripes and airs of privilege, and yet, I confide that my favorite brown drink is the manhattan, the Big Apple juice of swells, socialites, and Midtown supper clubs. Here’s my rationalization: Two graces save the cocktail from the pretensions of its birthplace and redeem it for riff-raff like us.

First, the aristocratic myth of its creation—supposedly at the behest of Lady Randolph Churchill for an 1874 banquet at the tony Manhattan Club—has been conclusively debunked. (Her Ladyship had repaired to England at the time, preparing to give birth to son Winston.) Credible evidence traces the cocktail’s origin to a barman named Black, working in scruffier precincts south of Houston Street in the 1860s.

More importantly, rye formed the base of the manhattan, as it did for many classic cocktails. If Mr. Black was pouring the good stuff, chances are it was from around here. Rye was especially prevalent in the mid-Atlantic, and Maryland’s enjoyed a national reputation for top quality. Prominent distilleries thrived all over Baltimore, including a cluster near City Hall. Few survived the double whammy of Prohibition and World War II, and rye’s national popularity eventually plummeted. Pikesville Rye, the final local holdout, was last distilled in Lansdowne in 1972. Now, it’s produced in Kentucky. (See “City That Drinks,” Nov. 14).

Generations of Manhattanites made do with bourbon or Canadian whiskey. Thankfully, the resurgence in artisanal spirits has put rye back in the mix. Rye’s leaner profile and spicy, peppery edge distinguish it from barley-, corn-, and wheat-based whiskeys. In the $20 range, try Bulleit or Rittenhouse 100—a 750-milliliter bottle yields about a dozen manhattans. Combine two ounces with one of sweet vermouth and a couple dashes of Angostura bitters.

Purists insist it be stirred with ice, then strained into a cocktail glass. Somehow, maraschino cherries became the traditional garnish, though they didn’t appear on stateside bar shelves until the 1890s. (I prefer a lemon twist.) Tasty manhattan variations abound, including a perfect version, with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. But a manhattan without rye? As folks in “The City” would say, fuhggedaboudit.

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