(this post was written after a conversation about Ernest Hemingway, the best drinks around the globe and my grandfather, an avid traveler in his day)
¾ oz sweet vermouth
2 ½ oz bourbon whiskey
1 dash bitters
1 maraschino cherry
1 twist orange peel
The soul of any fine quality spirit lingers in the drinker’s
initial reaction. With bourbon, that moment the bottle opens and the vapors
meet the world for the first time since being locked away in an aged wood
barrel, should take you somewhere. For just an instant, you’re transported to a
porch in Tennessee one hundred years ago, rocking to the hum of crickets
serenading a setting sun.
Or perhaps your mind conjures something more personal; an
image of an old man in a high-back chair, his face stone and stoic, his body
lean and strong but aged like those wood barrels. His slender fingers curled
precariously around a crystal glass that sweats condensation with the sip he
takes to end every sentence – a tangible exclamation point signifying his
story’s familial, historical or simply nostalgic importance.
And then the vision is gone and you’re staring at a lowball
glass on the bar top in front of you, fogging from the ice cubes wedged
together in its shallow center.
You smell the whiskey again, letting the aromas tickle your
nose hairs to the brink of burning, and you pour yourself a gentleman’s
portion. In a roughly three to one ratio, you slowly add vermouth to the
whiskey. The bourbon shouldn’t lose any body or color and once you slip the
bitters in, watch the droplets disappear into the deep chestnut concoction.
Notice the two or three ice cubes dislodge from the bottom of your whiskey
glass and breach the surface, bobbing like frantic buoys in a restless brine.
You were sure to use no more than three cubes, or else the drink would be
watered down. Anything less than two cubes simply and indefinitely solidifies
your manhood and stamps your ticket into the Hemingway-Wayne-Sinatra-Eastwood
Steal Balls Hall of Fame. You do have a jar of maraschino cherries unopened in
the refrigerator. Tradition calls for the garnish but you aren’t sure.
Besides, your grandfather said the cherries are unnecessary
and he’s waiting for his drink.
The Manhattan, he once told you is the drinking man’s drink;
the king of cocktails, some say.
You’ve learned from your Papa, and the Rat Pack, that the
drink is straightforward and strong, yet refined with an air of old school
bravado, reminiscent of a time when bravado was real and respected among men.
Those same men are the drink’s patrons and have been so
since the days when their now crackled whiskey faces were baby-soft and devoid
of the wrinkles and the scars etched into place by war, children and change.
Before they sat brooding on a dank sailor’s barstool in Key West or peacocked
in a smoky London pool hall.
Like the men who enjoy it, the Manhattan hides an
intellectual complexity and a quiet honor among its simple ingredients.
You’ve mixed the ingredients so you give the glass a little
shake and notice the liquid remain a steady color and muffle the clink of the
The shake releases more vapors and you think of your Papa
who is at that moment sitting upstairs in a high-back chair, waiting patiently
for the one thing he has ever asked of you. You know he won’t complain if it’s
made incorrectly, he never has before.
He’d get up to make it himself if his knee wasn’t acting up
again. Or if he felt he could leave his wife’s side. Other than you from whom
he ordered his drink, she is the one person among the dozens of frolicking
holiday partygoers that has his full attention. You know he’d probably rather
be sitting on the couch watching the football game with his grandchildren or in
the basement playfully knocking down their egos with every billiard ball he
knocked in. But he would never let his wife sit alone in a room full of people,
not without him there to point out the children she can’t see very well anymore
or to retrieve her the hors d’oeuvres she has a hard time getting up for. No he
wouldn’t leave her side, he never has before.
And so you check to make sure you’ve made his drink as
perfectly as you could. He deserves the perfect drink. You used the best
whiskey. You think you put in just the right amount of vermouth. You made sure
to include a manly number of ice cubes.
You wonder if you should taste it but then you realize it
would do no good. You’ve never been able to finish a glass of the stuff.
You tried once, with your cousins. One night you all went to
a nice restaurant, just the grandchildren. On a whim your oldest cousin decided
to try Papa’s drink. Why not? It must be good; he drinks them all the time.
Amidst pleas to the contrary from your significant others, you, your two oldest
cousins and one younger ordered up four Manhattans – an homage to the man who
over the years silently taught you the meaning of honor and family.
You all raised your glasses, toasted to the old man. With an
urbane sense of accomplishment, you drank. It was like a scene from a liquid
lunch in the boardroom of a 1950s advertising firm. Except for the reaction.
The squints. The puckers. The burning. The whiskey face
deflowering. That was unexpected.
You all put your glasses down. Not a word, just a few
twitches. A simultaneous thought strung from one cousin to the next: how does
Papa drink this?
You summoned your inner Captain Tony and coupled with every
ounce of machismo and a desire to avoid family ridicule, you dove back in.
The drink wasn’t as cruel the second time around. The
whiskey was overpowering, with a sweet molasses backdrop and an almost smoky
alcohol finish. The vermouth and bitters were foreign to you, adding a bite
that you just couldn’t place on the flavor spectrum.
By the third sip your mouth had numbed to it or perhaps the
ice had melted just enough to somewhat nullify the harsh impact. You thought
the cherry garnish would be a welcome respite but then it popped in your mouth
and released a shot of pure, soaked-in bourbon.
Your wife at the table found your face comical. You had
maybe one more sip until you noticed your cousins slide their own unfinished
glasses away. You conceded as well. The Manhattan won round one and in one
night you learn that it takes a strong man to indulge a strong drink. Only
after years of drinks, years of experience, years of happiness and pain,
success and failure, love and death, will you be ready you for an unflinching
moment of peace with lady bourbon.
Papa has been enjoying those moments for a long time. The
ancient bottles of booze behind his basement bar can back that up. He explained
them all to you once when you were younger: the bourbon, the anisette, the
Frangelico, the imported limoncello, the unlabeled bottle he took back from
Europe; the heavy glass tumblers and crystal scotch bottles up on the high
shelf you couldn’t reach.
Many of them are very old, maybe dating back to his time in
the war that he’s never been able to talk about. You’ve only heard bits and
pieces from his days as a medic in the European theater, the horrors of D-Day
and what he saw too gruesome for a modern day twenty-something to hear.
Undoubtedly some bottles are from Florida, gifts perhaps from long passed friends
or neighbors from their winter home in Hallandale. He hasn’t been down there in
recent memory, the trip too cumbersome and the doctors too far away.
A few might be leftover from the exotic trips he took with
his wife to South America and across the Atlantic. Is that where you get your
sense of adventure?
They are all souvenirs turned heirlooms, each mostly empty
but filled with memories, friends and places known to you only through his
You are back to the task at hand, still questioning whether
or not you made the drink correctly. You refrain from tasting the Manhattan
before bringing it upstairs to Papa. You decide it’s ready. You’re gambling on
your abilities and the expert’s benevolence.
You weave your way through the crowd, focusing on keeping
every drop in the glass. Papa sees you and nods. You approach the patriarch’s
high-backed chair offering him the king of cocktails.
He wraps his fingers around the glass. Before he looks at
you, he stares momentarily down into the chestnut liquid. There are years of
emotion in an instant. You imagine the silent picture moving behind his eyes:
serving his country, the birth of his children, that beach in Mexico, those
mountains in Italy, the love for his wife.
“Thank you,” he says before tasting it. You hesitate,
questioning your decision to not include the cherries.
Then he takes a sip and looks back at you. In his eyes there
is no regret, no anger, no scorn – there never has been. There is power. There
is pride. There is love.
“Good job,” he says, and takes a sip to punctuate the
He and the drink are one in the same: stoic, strong and
timeless. They are remnants of another time; a time founded in honor and
undisputed duty. A time universally revered and yet, in many ways, wholly
unattainable ever again. He takes another sip and you hope that one day, like
Papa, you can savor the taste without flinching.
As he swirls it in his hand, you realize the Manhattan is
your favorite drink; and that you’ve never even finished a glass.