The Manhattan: Prior Convictions and Ulterior Motives

“The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.” -H.L. Mencken

“The rush to expertness compromises all interrelationships” -Marshal Mcluhan

I hear people quite often making proclamations of what constitutes the “best” Manhattan. We all know my feeling about the word best. These people seem to only accept one version as true and ideal. If we thought about, and maybe outlined, all the possible motives that exist for our attraction to a Manhattan maybe we could accept many types.

One of the most noble motives that guides Manhattan construction is flattening a sensory path to perceiving the aroma. Experiencing the extraordinary in aroma is very important to cementing and retrieving memories. In the multisensory perception of flavor, olfaction is the hardest sense to perceive and the other senses typically end up being attentional distractions that often pull us away from olfaction (there is salt the aroma enhancer and then at some point there becomes salt the aroma distractor. Chef’s usually bark things to their line cooks like “too salty!”, but what if they elaborated and said something more articulate like “you went from enhancing the aroma to distracting from it”. Would the young line cook learn faster how to properly salt?). When we stir a Manhattan as opposed to shaking it and dissolving gas we limit texture distraction. When we compound a Manhattan in a certain ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth we simplify gustation so as not to distract from aroma. Believe it or not we require a certain amount of sweetness to fix gustation at its most innocuous point in relation to perceiving aroma. Too much sweetness and we reach a blinding zone called cloying. Too little sweetness and aroma is suppressed. This lesson was first mastered by port wine producers who created the 18×6 template. For port, 18% alcohol puts the wine at the minimum of preservation so as not to be a distraction. Drinkers of dry wines complain that even alcohol contents as high as 15% can be distractions from aroma when there is not residual sugar. A brix of 6 is just over 60 g/L and is enough to hide the extra percentage points of alcohol while simultaneously flattering aroma. Sweet vermouth typically has a sugar content near 165 g/L so when diluted 2:1 they approach the wisely chosen sugar content of port. Alcohol in a Manhattan is certainly not innocuous but rather is part of the drink’s charm.

We are not solely in love with aroma. Many of us demonstrate a love of other attentional features like alcohol and acidity. Many imbibers scoff at the 2:1 aroma emphasizing formula. And what do we make of those people that happily drink shaken martinis with “tired” vermouth? Are their motives any less noble? What are their motives anyhow? Drinkers that enjoy ratios such as 3:1, 4:1, or the infamous perfect Manhattan are not afraid to compromise aroma by making the other features more salient. These imbibers find repose in exotic styles of dryness. The brash attentional nature of these Manhattans are thought to dispel anxiety and with that said we might have just found their motive. If the Manhattan simply becomes a vehicle for attentional therapy there quite a few ways to skin the cat.

If our motive is to thwart complacency it might make sense to have a formula forced upon on us through random old school free pouring where we will just learn to love it. Many people enjoy this randomness, but we are quick to chalk it up to a lack of understanding their options. Free pouring and random recipes are cocktail movement blasphemy but they may not have been without positive effects.

Adding Angostura bitters echos and alliterates facets of the whiskey turning the sum into a super stimuli. The extraordinary expression of aroma that is Angostura bitters can push ordinary whiskey and ordinary vermouth into the extraordinary. One of the most salient features of Angostura bitters is their massive amount of tannin which stimulates the haptic sense which operates via the Trigeminal nerve. Adding certain levels of haptic data to a flavor experience is known to change contrast detection, amplifying aroma. Olfaction often has to be turned on and our ability to do that becomes less easy as we age. Besides their aroma, the tannins of angostura bitters may help us smell more of our Manhattan.

The Manhattan differs from its counterpart the old fashioned. The old fashioned is a clean cut super stimulus like the Venus of Willendorf or basically whiskey with a set of outrageous breast implants. Whiskey, especially bourbon, features a distribution of aromas that both increases the perception of sweetness and decreases it. Tension exists between the aromas and we are attracted to the relationship. When we add an orange peel we exaggerate the olfactory-sweet aroma in the whiskey and when we add Angostura bitters we exaggerate the olfactory-dry aromas. Whiskey also has tannins that stimulate the haptic sense and Angostura bitters adds to those. The sugar that is added makes the aroma all the more apparent. The tension that exists within the whiskey is widened making it feel similar but become more attentional (The same series of relationships exists when we add dry vermouth to gin and make a martini. The juniper aroma converges with gustatory-acidity and the most salient feature of dry vermouth is its acidity hence the martini being the super stimulus version of gin). A Manhattan could probably also be seen a super stimulus but probably one that is less clean cut.

Many people that claim to strongly dislike sweet drinks can enjoy a Manhattan because the aroma is typically redeemingly extraordinary which leads to a great rule of thumb. Among people with well entrenched acquired tastes, when we flatten a path to olfaction by holding all the the other senses at their most innocuous (a sweet drink) the aroma presented must be extraordinary or the experience will be seen has unharmonic.

When we can better articulate our motives we can better achieve our goals. We can also squash elitism, annoying false claims of authority, and pretensions. When we understand what cocktails actually do to us such as with anxiety and complacency thin claims of spirit superiority start to fall apart. Drinking also becomes cheaper because we start to allocate our money better. When we understand the ins-and-outs and order of operations of the multi sensory perception of flavor, unsubstantiated elitist bartenders are separated from matter-of-fact sensory scientists. When we actually recognize acquired tastes and their value we will treasure them when we find them in others. When we learn their patterns we will have no myopia to their various shapes. When we unravel the mechanism by which we learn to like challenging experiences, we will all be more sustainable.

Unfortunately it is never simple. So much of how art comes to be and what it does to us is accidental. Because they are an acquired taste, so many people started drinking Manhattans with something to prove. This powerful but not so noble motivator helped them acquire the taste rapidly. In the end the end these drinkers discovered an avenue of attentional therapy. All’s well that ends well. Happy drinking.

Advanced Oversimplification Basics; The Ordinary and Extraordinary

We seem to have a predilection for oversimplifications. They really come out when language fails us and that is readily apparent if you eaves drop on conversations on wine. I was told once that those who curse a lot do so because they have trouble being articulate and that concept really stuck with me. Similarly, specialists, due to finite time and resources, often have to run the other segments of their lives on gross oversimplifications and ideologies. I work in an area populated by highly specialized doctors and they seem to ask me more frequently than I’ve ever encountered elsewhere “whats the best thing on the menu?”, or “is that wine good?”. Really?

The word love, believe it or not, might be a detrimental oversimplification. We roll a multifaceted thing into only one word. I love you but I cannot live with you. I love having sex with you. I love your smile and it biases my decision making abilities. I will always be concerned with what you are doing in life. If you need something you can always ask me because we have bonded and empathized enough that I will always sympathize enough to help. I treasure the fact that we are more honest and open with each other than we allow with others. I love you.

Clearly one wine is the best and the others are worthless. There is no possibility that all of the wines could be beautiful in their own way. The best thing on the menu is the chicken and I do not know why we even offer anything else seeing as they all are more or less the same price and size. More expensive things are always better and of higher quality unless the person pricing them happens to be teasing and/or exploiting you (sarcasm).

At the same time we need these over simplifications because life is short and the art is long. Sometimes we can only get one or two words in. “I love yoooou!”, he said as the train pulled way. I’m stressed, I have choice paralysis, I’m out of my element, I’m thirsty, money is no object, please impress me with a glass of wine. Believe me I’m not ignorant, I’ve just devoted my life to brain surgery. Wait, what? you don’t have time to here my menu spiel?

Well, since oversimplifications are necessary have we fully explored our options? Can any sets of oversimplifications better serve us in the culinary arts?  I propose that the two oversimplifications or pronouncements that can more usefully serve the culinary arts are ordinary and extraordinary which pertain to frequency of occurance. When we understand that we need to solve the problems of anxiety, complacency as well as the cementing and retrieval of memories, good and bad and best fail us. Especially when we have to divide it all by hard earned dollars.

Anxiety requires highly attentional stimuli. Extraordinary denotes the more attentional, but sometimes the ordinary at the edge of our harmonic bounds can also do the trick. How much money to do you have to solve the problem?  The extraordinary typically always costs more.

Complacency seeks a break from the plebeian and ordinary. Even things that are “good” can be ordinary and not fight complacency. Best is a shot in the dark and too general. We use the word best too often without specifying an objective which happens to cripple the term.

Cementing and retrieving memories requires unique and singular experiences both symbolic and sensory. Counter intuitively, we are slowly learning that memories are best retained by accompanying them with extra data of a certain relationship. Relational pairing and techniques like the mind palace are used by those that turn remembering things into a sport. Good and bad cannot help these objectives but rather only the ordinary and extraordinary.

Good and bad divides things across harmony but always across the line of harmonic and inharmonic which is limited. Once you can successfully work solidly in harmonic territory, where do you go?  The ordinary and extraordinary divides things by the frequency of occurrence which allows them to make divisions within the harmonic.  I’m sure I could enjoy all of your red wines but which do you think is the most extraordinary?

Back in the 1990’s maybe we needed oversimplifications that were divided across the harmonic and inharmonic because many restaurants served flawed food and drink. We aren’t talking the realm of acquired tastes, we are talking ignorance and lack of control. The modern food movement, with an emphasis on increasing control via food science, is making flawed food less relevant. People are also rapidly acquiring acquired tastes. As the food movement advances, we will need oversimplifications that can help use say in fewer words: I’m sure I would enjoy it all but which selection will I remember forever?

Bad habits die hard and often it will feel like we need our “flavor lawyer” to edit our speech, but I challenge you to invest deeper into thinking about your inevitable oversimplifications and pick the right word for the right job.

I drink ordinary wines when that is all I can afford (quality for purpose!) and I seek out extraordinary wines when I have a certain itch and I’m having trouble remembering my fast moving life. There is no such thing as bad bourbon. Any distiller will tell you that. Bourbon also can’t be good if it gets me in so many fights. Bourbon can only be ordinary or extraordinary.

An Attentional Features Primer

A symbol is a stand-in for a sensory experience. The symbol Cointreau represents a set of sensory values such as sweetness, alcohol, aroma, etc. We uses these symbols without much care often taking for granted how they work and what we can do with them.  We are often unaware of how literate people are in them and which are the most salient and attention grabbing.

Back in the spring I was experimenting with perfuming eggs with tobacco similar to how truffles are often perfumed. I was using really intense tobaccos like Perique and Syrian Latakia. It worked sort of, but it was subtle.

boston flip: scotch, madiera, simple syrup, tobacco perfumed farm egg

In this list of symbols the unusual, if not extraordinary, tobacco perfumed farm egg is the most attentional.  To us intermediate level drinkers the others symbols are common and ordinary.

But now we have to drink this stuff and have a raw, aesthetic, sensory experience.  It turns out that the most attentional symbol in this case does not make the most attentional sensory contribution.  Many people ended up disappointed.  The tobacco only tonally modified the egg slightly like adding a little apricot juice to orange juice.  On the sensory level, the ordinary gets nudged slightly over into the extraordinary but it is faint while on the symbolic level there is an out sized shove into the extraordinary.

espresso-martini: vodka, simple syrup, espresso

In this case the most attentional symbolic feature and sensory feature are one and the same.  This is what many people expect and simultaneously what many other people find amateur creative linkage.  Many people love seeing that “-martini” symbol and see the symbol implying that their drink will be served in their favorite drinking vessel; a symbol of sophistication.

bees knees: gin, lemon juice, ames farm’ basswood honey

I’ve done this drink for years now with various varietal honeys.  Ames farm’ Basswood is my favorite. I thought the idea of a specific varietal honey was pretty extraordinary.  The sensory experience of the honey is also extraordinary.  Strangely it never really caught on.  I’ve served a million happy imbibers but no one ever even commented on how out of the ordinary it was to see a varietal specified.  When there were comments it was “honey? is it going to be sweet?”  These people could not conjure a sensory experience from the symbols and did not realize that the drink also likely contained a sizable quantity of lemon juice.

bobby burns: compass box artist’s blend scotch, vergano’s americano, corsican chestnut flower honey

This drink has three esoteric symbols.  There is no clear consensus on what is the most attentional.  They are ordered by volume which seems to be an unwritten rule.  In Brookline where I’m serving this now, the Vergano Americano seems to be the most attentional.  We simply explain it as a “boutique aromatized wine from northwest Italy” or if we want to tease we add “made from the nearly extinct varietal Grignolino from Monferrato”.  Grignolino and Monferrato are cryptic symbols but they are euphonically fun. To me personally, the honey is the most attentional symbol and it gives the others a run for their money as the most attentional sensory feature even though it is applied by the spoonful.  The honey is bitter and could easily be likened to wood varnish.  Strangely, the day after I wrote this, I served one to an old man who looked like a viking and even before he tasted it he was captivated by the idea of every symbol on the page.  His sensory review was no less glowing.  Finally someone noticed. He made my day.

The name of a drink is also a powerful symbol and has been known to get people to try challenging or unpredictable sensory experiences.  The sensory and symbolic worlds are glued together by the theory of cognitive dissonance and each world has the ability to rearrange the harmonic bounds of the other.

So what am I getting at here?  If we learn to deconstruct the two worlds I’m describing, we can start to play around in new ways. Patterns may emerge that we can take advantage of.  Rules may appear, and when we realize there are no rules we can start to break the ones we thought we saw.

Being a work of art, a cocktail can be an expression of rhetoric or a solution to a problem.  A drink can change you.  My drinks, with their obsession with acquired tastes, aspire to make you more sustainable and less complacent.