by Peter Bonventre for Five O' Clock Magazine
Tony was a stand-up guy out of Brooklyn who had a raven-haired girlfriend he’d introduce as Melinda the Swindler. Back in the day, he was also my favorite bartender. He manned the bar at a restaurant called the Cowboy on 49th Street off Madison Avenue, where I once shared many an adult beverage with my Newsweek magazine colleagues. The late great sportswriter Pete Axthelm and I had nicknamed Tony “Think-a-Drink”—by the time we walked from the front door to the far corner of the joint’s long bar, he’d have our drinks waiting for us.
While Pete Ax rarely strayed from his Canadian Club on the rocks, I often switched cocktails to suit the season, embracing scotch and sodas in the spring, gin and tonics or vodka martinis in the summer, and then Manhattans. Now here’s the thing about shifting from a bracing clear-liquid cocktail to one with a golden amber glow like a Manhattan: It should occur when a chill is in the air and leaves are falling off the trees. See, there is no precise date to start imbibing Manhattans. You’ve got to feel it in your gut, or in your bones. I used to depend on Tony, who’d pick the evening when I’d find a perfectly mixed Manhattan waiting for me at the end of the bar. “It’s time for some Manhattan magic,” he’d say, and I was grateful.
All these years later, I’m still grateful for the timely gift of a Manhattan, an elixir of such bountiful charms it kept me warm and happy even during last year’s polar vortex—and will almost surely come to my rescue again in the weeks ahead. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting another bitter winter, and it would seem it’s on target: October had barely slipped into November when snow blanketed parts of Maine, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. Southeffingcarolina!
Hey, maybe the Manhattan can become the climate-change drink of choice. Just saying. But I digress. Reliable mixologists are certain the Manhattan was concocted in Manhattan—where else?—and had achieved a measure of renown by the 1880s. Even so, they can’t accurately identify the virtuoso who first blended rye whiskey (2 oz.), sweet vermouth (1 oz.), and bitters (2 or 3 dashes), shook or stirred the intriguing mixture with ice, strained it into a cocktail glass, and as a final touch drowned a maraschino cherry in the amber liquid. And neither does anybody know who first opted to enhance the pleasure of this soul-stirring potion—for me, anyway—by substituting bourbon for rye, but may God bless him, or her.
Next time you hear from me, I will likely have made the switch to the glorious Manhattan—and adhered to the sage advice of Harry Craddock, the legendary London bartender: When asked what was the best way to drink a cocktail, he famously replied, “Quickly, while it’s laughing at you!”
Illustration by Tim Lahan