When I started bartending at Fred Eric’s Vida in 2002, nobody in LA knew what rye whiskey was. In fact, the only point of reference we had for rye whiskey was Don McClean’s ‘American Pie’.
These lyrics always confused me as a kid. “Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. Them good ole’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, singin’ ‘this will be the day that I die’…” I had no idea what Don McClean was talking about, and I thought it odd that he would reference his favorite sandwich bread.
My first bartending job was at Vida in Los Feliz, and since my knowledge of bartending was limited I learned how to make cocktails to the specs of my regular customers. They were very specific about making the drinks to their standards. This is a memorable way to learn if you are able to follow simple instructions. This process forced me as a bartender to understand the concept of consistency.
Regular customers are some of the most unique characters you’ll ever meet. My first regular customer at Vida was Frank Bayer, an LA transplant from the New York Broadway scene who became a stage manager at the Mark Taper Forum for many years. “You can call me Bear,” he would say.
Bear loved his Perfect Manhattans. If there is one reason I make an exceptional Manhattan, it is all because of him. Back then, part of the ritual of making a great aromatic drink was to shake the hell out of it. Back then, “bruising” bourbon or “shaking until frothy” was a sign of a well made cocktail. These days, this is only acceptable if you are doing it per a specific guest’s request. (It’s more fun to break the rules of your trade if you can implement them perfectly first.)
Frank Bayer was the one who trained me on making the Perfect Manhattan (the term “perfect” refers to the inclusion of dry vermouth with the traditional sweet red) to his liking. We would start with some type of higher end bourbon. There weren’t as many on the market then, so it was usually a choice between Baker’s, Booker’s, or Knob Creek.
As more boutique bourbons were just beginning to show up, Frank would always ask what we had back behind the bar that was on the more expensive side. He would coach me through making them until they were exactly as he drank them. We became good friends while sitting at the stone horseshoe bar that was Vida. So whenever I sensed that ‘Bear’ had entered the place, I would have his Perfect Manhattan cold and ready to drink. The recipe is a classic that holds its own with the sweet vermouth only version, softening it around the edges and allowing the rye to shine even more.
Frank Bayer’s Perfect Manhattan
- 2 oz. Rye Whiskey, such as Rittenhouse
- 1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth, such as Punt E Mes
- 1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth, such as Dolin
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 2 dashes Orange Bitters
Preparation: Place all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until well chilled. Strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Years later in 2011, I trained with the Kobe Bryant of cocktail makers in LA Vincenzo Marianella. He is responsible for the training of many of LA’s most influential bartenders. Vincenzo is from Tolmezzo, Italy. He is 6’6” tall and brooding, seemingly serious but with a very funny dry sense of humor. He has a caring quality for his staff that is something of a cross between one’s great grandmother and the Godfather. His ‘Imperfect Manhattan’ is ironically named and embodies the tone of Marianella’s cocktail menus. The title showcases his humorous side.
The classic version is a stirred 2:1 ratio rye whiskey to sweet vermouth with Boker’s bitters; this recipe can be found in a myriad of historic cocktail books. The Manhattan we learned to make in the late ‘90s was always bourbon because rye just was not readily available on the market, therefore derailing it from the proper rye-based recipe.
Marianella is ironic with his recipe and title choice of the “Imperfect Manhattan” by utilizing bourbon in an aromatic up drink and then serving it on the rocks. He eliminates the sweet and dry vermouths altogether and replaces them with a Bianco and Rosato vermouth. Replace the bitters too, why not? Nobody’s perfect.
Courtesy of Vincenzo Marianella
- 2 oz. Bourbon, such as Angel’s Envy
- 1/2 oz. Rosato Vermouth, such as Mancini
- 1/2 oz. Bianco Vermouth, such as Carpano
- 4 dashes Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters
Preparation: Place all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until well chilled. Strain into a rocks filled Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange peel zest.