Taking Manhattans: Exploring local bars through the making of a classic cocktail

So what makes a truly perfect Manhattan? A tasting around town confirms that quality ingredients are what makes this classic shine. Photo: Ron Paris So what makes a truly perfect Manhattan? A tasting around town confirms that quality ingredients are what makes this classic shine. Photo: Ron Paris

The Manhattan. It’s a straight-up, smooth-talking, strong drink—a classic made up of either bourbon or rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters and a cherry garnish.

The simplicity of the Manhattan is exactly why it’s so easy to mess up. There’s no hiding low-quality whiskey with sugar syrups, liquors, citrus zest, herbs or fruit. You have to use the good stuff.

While the whiskey and cherry are the skeleton of the drink, the vermouth is the rosy face. Most of the flavor in a Manhattan comes from the vermouth. For that reason, Manhattans allow high-quality vermouths to shine.

A sampling of Charlottesville’s cocktail scene gives us a feel for who’s doing it right —and why it makes a difference.

The Whiskey Jar

Bulleit rye, Cardamaro, Angostura bitters, Regans orange bitters, brandy-, Disaronno-, citrus-soaked Marasca cherry.

I’m squeezed in between a bunch of UVA students on a Saturday night at the bar. I’m trying not to knock over my drink. Bartenders pull beer after beer off the taps in front of me with a calm, furrowed-brow intensity. My Manhattan has an aroma of candied orange and brandy. The first sip is alcohol-forward, making my eyes water. Syrupy sweetness and bitterness intermingle. By the end of the glass, I’m struggling to finish. It’s banging my tongue around like a kick drum. The cherry is intensely alcoholic, tasting of almond and orange liquor. I quickly knock back the last third of the cocktail before paying my tab and escaping through the throng of doe-eyed college kids.

Downtown Grille

Colonel’s Pride bourbon whiskey, Martini & Rossi sweet red vermouth, Angostura bitters, red maraschino cherry.

I settle into the quiet bar, each seat taken up by a man in a sport coat or a woman in pearls. I request the house whiskey, their standard well liquor (unknowingly asking for bottom shelf). The result is a high-intensity drink, with no aromatics or complexity to speak of. It’s served in a glistening-stemmed cocktail glass, lovely to look at. But other than its bitterness and mellow tannins, the drink falls flat. So I brace myself and kick it back. I can feel my throat burning as I pay the tab and exit.

The Alley Light

Bulleit rye whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet red vermouth, Abbott’s bitters, dark Marasca cherry.

It’s crowded and dimly lit. Crisply dressed people edge around the small bar holding drinks of every color and size. There’s old-school, bouncy music playing, and everyone is deeply into their conversations. The bartender serves my drink in a crystal coupe, and I quickly snag an open bar seat. Before taking a sip, there are aromas of toffee, dried plum and cherry. The drink itself is a balance between bitter and sweet, tannin and fruit. It’s very strong, but the flavor of the drink is round, making it easy to sip and enjoy from start to finish. The almost-black maraschino cherry is fleshy and softly sweet, pairing well with the medium weight rye. The busy bartender tells me The Alley Light’s vermouth is, “Italian, really top-quality stuff.” I thank her and head out.


Old Overholt rye whiskey, peach tea-infused Contratto Bianco sweet white vermouth, Fee Brother’s peach bitters, candy-red brandied maraschino cherry skewered with lemon peel.

The front-of-house is crazy-busy for a Tuesday, but the long back bar is near empty. There’s fun, obscure ’80s music playing, and my bartender’s head is half shaved, half top-knot. The room is cozy and the scent of olives and bread fills the air. My drink arrives in a coupe. It’s opaque, the color of a cream sky. My cherry sits above the drink, skewered along with lemon peel. The drink itself is strong and heady with aromas of lemon, dried apple, raw peach and jasmine. It’s also lightly sweet and pleasant to sip. There’s barely any bitterness. The peach-infused white vermouth makes it surprisingly refreshing and crisp. The brandied cherry is mild and fruity, pairing with the lightness of the drink overall. I pay, thanking the bartender and exit as gracefully as possible while being acceptably tipsy on that one drink.

The Local

Bulleit rye, Cocchi di Torino sweet red vermouth, Angostura bitters, red maraschino cherry.

It’s a quiet, early evening. The setting sun floods the room with warm light as I take a seat at the empty bar. Customers eat their meals on low tables behind me, relaxed, holding conversations. The drink arrives and it looks exactly like the pictures I’ve Googled. It’s a glowing, burnt orange color, served in a stemmed cocktail glass with a fire-engine red maraschino cherry. The drink is well-balanced and smooth, with a light candied cherry aroma. It’s solid and drinkable, with bitterness hitting the palate first followed by a sugary essence. The candied cherry is a good choice—it meshes well with the drink’s easy-sipping sweetness.

The places that top this sampling are The Alley Light and Tavola. They think about their cocktails, and it shows. Choices are intentional, cocktails are well-tested. Nothing is arbitrary. Bars like this never overlook the opportunity to make even a simple, classic drink the best on the menu.

The Local gets a special mention for its classic rendition of the basic Manhattan, drinkable and simple, as it should be.

Keep an eye out for bars that list their ingredients on their menu, because this says they care what you think. And it never hurts to ask for your liquor brand preference, regardless of where you are.

–Renee Byrd

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