It’s hard to improve upon the Manhattan. The recipe—whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters—is straightforward, easy to make and really darn good. As with other recipes of its ilk, it is the perfect candidate for experimentation. Swapping just one ingredient creates a multitude of possibilities, as is also the case with Sours, Negronis, Highballs and more. In the case of the Manhattan, swapping in amaro in the place of sweet vermouth provides a quick and easy update known as the Black Manhattan.
The original iteration of the cocktail, which Amaro author Brad Thomas Parsons credits to San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, calls for two parts bourbon to one part Averna, plus a dash or two of Angostura and orange bitters. The classic Italian amaro lends a depth of spice and bittersweet herbal notes to its otherwise simple whiskey base. It’s a delightful twist on the Manhattan. And while it isn’t lacking in balance or depth, it leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The Averna is easily swapped for equally spunky amaro for subtle—or not-so-subtle—variation. While you could try this formula with any of the bittersweet amaro on your bar cart, here are three exceptionally good options to start with.
Since it came onto the scene in the 1950s, this amaro has baffled and enthralled drinkers. Though artichokes are its one known ingredient, it doesn’t actually taste like the vegetable. It does however, exhibit lovely herbaceous and vegetal tones that make it an ideal substitute for the Black Manhattan’s traditional Averna. Once stirred with bourbon and bitters, expect a rather subdued take on the cocktail. Cynar clocks in at 16.5% ABV, making it a great amaro to start your experiments with at home.
Fernet-Branca’s reputation precedes it. Bartenders swear by this heady amaro: A shot shared between those in the industry is known as a “bartender’s handshake”. But that celebrity for an amaro isn’t always a good thing. Its flavor has been compared to a number of undesirable household products, from aftershave to cough medicine. But don’t let that stop you from giving it an honest chance in cocktails. Fernet-Branca lends serious moxie to a Black Manhattan. Its mentholated, intensely bitter herbal flavor contrasts the sweetness of bourbon to perfection. Any other brand of fernet can also be used, each of which will lend their own delightful personality.
More than two hundred years old, Amaro Ramazzotti is an iconic amaro. However, the historic amaro is not only known for its lengthy history, but for its rich color and distinctive flavor. Invented in 1815 in Milan, Italy, it combines a whopping 33 herbs, spices and fruits. Reminiscent of herbal, syrupy soda, Ramazzotti plays well with whiskey. Used in a Black Manhattan, it gives the impression of a grown-up version of a Jack and Coke—and who doesn’t want that?