Autumn means oranges and reds, leaves falling alongside temperatures, bonfires and flannel. The change of seasons necessitates not just a change in wardrobe and outdoor activities, but also in food and drink.
Rich flavors dominate as colder temperatures called to our ancestors to consume more calories in order to better survive the oncoming winter. Tables at Thanksgiving are a perfect cross-section of the season: braised and roasted dishes, heavy cream on top of decadent desserts, late-harvested vegetables and slow-cooked specialties. Fall signals the start of celebration season, and celebrations mean cocktails.
Whiskey is a quintessential fall drink. Wooded, biting, warm and inviting, whiskey works equally well in quite a few contexts. The whiskey cocktail is tricky business, however. It’s difficult to balance the overpowering characteristics of whiskey with other ingredients. There are purists who resist the mixing of any whiskey (the spelling for bourbon, rye and Irish whiskey) or whisky (the preferred nomenclature for Scotch, Canadian and Japanese whisky) but those with a more open mind — and palate — are free to enjoy a cocktail classic: the Manhattan.
Two parts whiskey, one part vermouth, a dash or two of Angostura bitters and a cherry. The mixture is deceptively simple, requiring perfection in proportion to produce a product worthy of the name “Manhattan.”
Traditionally made with rye whiskey, the first Manhattan was supposedly created in the aptly-named Manhattan Club, in New York. According to legend (and the Manhattan Club’s official history), the original recipe was crafted for a party thrown in 1874. Accounts vary, but one thing is certain: the drink first appeared in the 1880s, and was one of the first cocktails that included vermouth as a feature. The Manhattan predates the Martini, the Rob Roy, and even the Negroni.
The “Hanging Rock Manhattan,” mixed behind the bar at Trilogy, the companion restaurant to Chapel Hill’s newest theater, features Bulleit rye bourbon, Lejon sweet vermouth and, of course, Angostura bitters. Bulleit is a relative newcomer to the whiskey market, with the first retail version made available in 1987 and reaching American consumers in 1999.
Bulleit is more of a “budget bourbon,” but don’t let that discourage you. The traditional vanilla and caramel overlay hints of orange and oak, and the aftertaste lingers of pepper and smoke. It’s a relatively one-note flavor profile when placed alongside heavy hitters, but Bulleit is marketed as a mixing bourbon doing double duty as sipping whiskey.
The Hanging Rock Manhattan at Trilogy is mixed well, starting with a glass washed and chilled with ice water while bourbon and vermouth are mixed in a cocktail shaker. Drops of bitters and two cherries for garnish and additional flavor help to highlight some of the sweeter, fruitier notes in the drink, cutting through the wood and smoke, forcing those overpowering whiskey flavors into the background.