Whether it's Bida Manda's inspired rendition of the piña colada in Raleigh or Lantern's minimal variation on the Pimm's Cup in Chapel Hill, a great bar can make you feel like you're having your favorite cocktail for the first time. Sometimes, the changes are subtle, with one vermouth swapped out for another. Other times, the script seems rewritten altogether, the ingredients deconstructed and reimagined in ways as intoxicating as the drink itself.
We sent two writers in search of favorite takes on old classics, the martini and the Manhattan, while another sought out the most intriguing mix of beer and liquor area bartenders could conjure. No one seemed to mind these spirit quests.
Though my favorite cocktail is named after a city, its character is more botanical than urban. Each of the Manhattan's four classic ingredients is redolent of flora. It is five parts fermented grain and two parts vegetal sweet vermouth, with a dash of herby Angostura bitters, all stirred in ice and served up with a cherry garnish. It blends musky depth and medicinal clarity in a single martini glass.
The drink has many relatives, including the Rob Roy (with Scotch), the Dry Manhattan (with dry vermouth and a citrus twist), and the Perfect Manhattan (equal parts sweet and dry vermouth). But I wasn't searching for the Perfect Manhattan, or even the perfect Manhattan. Instead, I sought a variety of places and prices for sipping the glamorous suede aura of Old New York.
ALLEY TWENTY SIX: I consistently ordered house Manhattans, or what you'd get without specifying a whiskey. Durham's Alley Twenty Six featured one of my favorite ryes, Redemption, as its default. Its eleven-dollar Manhattan uses Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, with vanilla notes secreted in its centuries-old recipe, plus two bitters (Angostura and Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6) and an orange twist. It has an inner roseate glow. The first sip brings a quickening in the jaw, a sourness felt but not tasted. The saccharine and medicinal notes arrive at once. The mouthfeel is satiny, the aftertaste clean and aromatic. There may be others as good in the Triangle, but I bet there's none better.
COUNTING HOUSE: 21c Museum Hotel's bar tweaks the classic recipe with solid but less sublime results. The Manhattan can be made with many whiskeys, but the gold standard is rye. Counting House doesn't have a house rye, so it uses Old Forester, a bourbon made by Brown-Forman, which counts 21c cofounder Laura Lee Brown among its stakeholders. It also uses a grapey French vermouth, Dolin Rouge, instead of a more floral Italian variety. The tonic notes are bracing but fleeting, leaving a little spice on the sides of the tongue. You taste the dark, tart Amarena cherry throughout the drink. Using liquor heavier on sweet corn than sharp grain leads to a less layered flavor profile.
GARLAND: Though the drinks are not dissimilar, I usually avoid Old Fashioneds because of all the ice. But Garland's version, the Shift Drink, which includes a single large cube, is a favorite. The Manhattan there is no slouch, either, with dependable Old Overholt rye and Primitivo Quiles vermouth drizzled over the sour cherry. If not up to Alley's level, it has a smoother, more layered flavor than that of Counting House.
C. GRACE: At this dim Raleigh cocktail lounge, a jazz combo, including violin and harp, was ginning up a suave, pungent brew. That's a good description of C. Grace's pugnacious Manhattan, made with rough-and-ready Jim Beam rye, which brawls with Cocchi di Torino vermouth and a fleshy, house-made cherry. Syrupy but astringent, it's a bold, boozy, complex concoction.
ORANGE COUNTY SOCIAL CLUB: With a price tag of less than six dollars, this one isn't for connoisseurs, nor is it supposed to be. The Evan Williams burns, and the maraschino cherry bleeds sugar. But sometimes I want to quaff a Manhattan without spending New York money, and at half the price, this drink is rather nice. —Brian Howe