As I believe I’ve mentioned before, my research for my MS thesis is on the flavor-profile of rye whiskey.  Turns out that no-one’s ever looked at it, and, in fact, there are no scientific (or, heck, even non-scientific) studies that verify the whole, tired “bourbon is like cornbread, rye is like rye bread” (really creative, that one) comparison.  So when the girlfriend, last night, was reading the section in David Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks on the Manhattan, in which he claims that a Manhattan made with bourbon will inevitably be too syrupy to drink, I decided enough was enough.  It was time to use SCIENCE!

Materials and Methods

Well, pseudo-SCIENCE.  A double-blind taste test with an extremely low sample size and number of participants.  Here’s how we designed the experiment.  We used Angostura bitters, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Rittenhouse 80 Proof Rye, Martini and Rossi Sweet Vermouth, and homemade brandied cherries.  I took two cocktail glasses and labeled them A and B.  Then I took two mixing glasses and labeled them 1 and 2.  In mixing glass 1, I put the ingredients for a rye Manhattan.  In mixing glass 2 (can you guess?), I assembled a bourbon Manhattan.  I then wrote down which glass had which mix in it, sealed the piece of paper, and left the room.

The girlfriend then entered the room, added a brandied cherry to each cocktail glass, and stirred each drink for the same amount of time over ice.  She then filled each cocktail glass, noting the combination (i.e., A1 or A2) on a piece of paper, which she sealed.  We then tasted each glass and tried to guess which cocktail was made with which liquor.



There was a definite difference between A and B.  I thought neither was sweeter or more bitter, but that A was more rounded and oaky tasting, and B was sharper and more piercing.  The girlfriend agreed that there was a difference, but insisted that that made A sweeter, and B more bitter.  Thus, after some sipping, we decided, what the heck, A (the sweeter/more oaky one) was bourbon and B (the bitterer/sharper one) was rye.  We checked the papers.  We were exactly wrong.


How did this happen?  Well, first, let me point out again that this is a ridiculously low sample size.  But.  We both drink a lot, and can recognize a good Manhattan.  And both of these were pretty good Manhattans.   Not, you know, the best ever (I prefer a Perfect Manhattan with a dash of cinnamon syrup, myself, or a Brooklyn), but good.  The differences were only really noticeable when they were side by side.  If someone had given me the bourbon Manhattan by itself, I wouldn’t have noticed any particular sharpness.

I do generally enjoy rye Manhattans, but for the opposite reason – I find rye (and I’ve tried most of the varieties you’re likely to find at a bar, with the Baby Saz (6-year) being my personal favorite for mixing) makes superior Manhattans because it is smooth and nutty.  Sweetness, if it factors in, is actually in rye’s favor.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth remembering that the ABV for the different liquors was slightly different – Buffalo Trace clocks in at a slightly higher 45%, while Rittenhouse 80 is (as you might assume) 40%.  Still, if it’s the alcohol that makes the difference, then everyone in the entire cocktail world has been, well, not too smart.  Everyone raves about the Rittenhouse 100 (50% ABV).  I find it too aggressive and, yes, bitter.  But maybe everyone else is a lush, and so they’ve been enjoying their more alcoholic Manhattans.  Which is kind of… lame, when you think about it.

Well.  My research should be done by early next year, and then I will once again step to the plate and use SCIENCE to put this question to rest, once and for all.  Until then, true believers.

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