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 are 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, these drinkers discovered an avenue of attentional therapy. All’s well that ends well. Happy drinking.

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