Drink of the Week: Old Overholt Manhattan on the Rocks, Off Broadway

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HAYFORD PEIRCE, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Hayford Peirce, Wikimedia Commons
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: The Manhattan is a Classic Cocktail. If you are a lady wearing a stole and delicate little gloves or a gentleman in a skinny tie and a fedora, fine, but this homage is not for you. It's for my grandpa -- and probably yours, too -- who would be amused, if not bewildered, to find out his drink has become hip. No matter how long-established, the primary appeal of many of these "classic" drinks is novelty. In a few years, most of the fizzes and flips will be forgotten again. Not so the Manhattan. This drink had a loyal following long before Donald Draper ever put his pretty lips to one. It is the opposite of novelty, the old standby.

The Manhattan is my drink. It's what I want if it's been a loooong day. The floors in my house have been baptized by more than one Manhattan (after more than one Manhattan). It's what I order if I feel like a cocktail and I'm somewhere that doesn't really do cocktails. It's the one I always go back to, the old standby.

Growing up, when my family made a pilgrimage to Ted Drewes, my dad always got the same thing: a large blueberry concrete. Every time. He never even looked at the menu. How can you get the same thing over and over when there are so many different choices? I would ask. He always gave me the same tired line about it not being broken. At the time, I heard in that answer an admission that, yes, there might be something out there he would like better, but he'd have to try many things he would like less, and why not just leave well enough alone?

What I once dismissed as comfort and familiarity has emerged as the wisdom to return to that which has held you in good stead. Now I understand the pull of depth over breadth. Who wants to be the jack of all trades, master of none? Who wants to have many acquaintances and no one to trust, to travel to many places but never be home? The first time you kiss someone new, all you notice is the newness, the way they compare to others. When you kiss someone for the hundredth, the thousandth time, you notice the subtleties: a little stubble, the lingering scent of coffee on their breath, a flicker of hesitation.

Likewise, when you have the same drink again and again, you start to appreciate the variations. This time with a different type of whiskey, next time with a different brand of sweet vermouth or slightly different proportions. Some bartenders leave out the bitters, although this is a warrantless and shameful omission, in my opinion. (The drink, properly made, only has three ingredients. Is it really that much trouble to put all three in?) If I'm feeling sophisticated, I may sip my Manhattans up, in a cocktail glass, although this is how they end up on the floor.

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Most days I prefer them with rye whiskey, as opposed to the sweeter bourbon, or even Scotch, in which case I'd be having a Rob Roy. Off Broadway only stocks one rye -- Old Overholt. Like the Busch tallboys and bottles of Miller High Life that seemed to be the night's big sellers, Old Overholt is viewed by most as more of an accommodation to financial necessity than anyone's first choice.

Reputation notwithstanding, the brand has been around for nearly 200 years, and it makes a very respectable, four-year aged, 80-proof rye. I like a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth, and the young man mixing mine went a little dry for my taste, but aside from that produced a more than passable cocktail, complete with bitters and two cherries.

Manhattans may be named for a New York borough, but to me they have the same kind of austere appeal as our Arch. Instantly recognizable, deeply familiar: Seeing it never gets old. When I drive over the river from the Illinois side at night, it rises up suddenly, glinting in the white moonlight, reflecting silver on the water, and I fall in love all over again. Others may be distracted by the newer and flashier -- that's right Lumière Place, I'm talking about you -- but no colored light display will ever steal my heart.

Alicia Lohmar is a south-city dweller and accomplished drinker, to which she credits her German ancestry and Catholic upbringing. She wrote this week's column in honor of Joe and Joesephine, whose company makes a good drink that much better.

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