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The Atlanta Manhattan Smackdown

Eleven of Atlanta's best bars duke it out



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GUESS MY NAME: Holeman & Finch's Manhattan, built in a cut-crystal mixing glass - JAMES CAMP
  • James Camp
  • GUESS MY NAME: Holeman & Finch's Manhattan, built in a cut-crystal mixing glass

If you want easy drinking: The most notable aspect of Empire State South's Manhattan is Punt e Mes as the vermouth of choice. Paired with Old Forester bourbon, the formidably bitter and bright Punt e Mes somehow manages to bring out the fruity cherry notes in the drink. It's sweet, round and chewy without being too heavy, making for an intriguing Manhattan that goes down easy. $10. 999 Peachtree St. 404-541-1105.

If you seek elegance: The cocktail menu at H. Harper Station features two Manhattan renditions: the House Manhattan, a classic combination of Redemption rye and Carpano Antica, and a Manhattan circa 1890 that harkens back to early Manhattan recipes with a 1 to 1 rye to vermouth ratio. Jerry Slater uses High West Double Rye and Dolin Rouge in the 1890 for an elegant combination that created the least sweet Manhattan of any I tasted. A few dashes of Regan's orange bitters and a squeeze of orange peel both lend a heady citrus aroma. $10. 904 Memorial Drive. 678-732-0415.

If strong rye suits you: I asked barkeep Jason Rager at Holeman & Finch to make me his H&F-iest Manhattan, and he turned to a high strength (110 proof) Willett 4-year-old single-barrel rye whiskey to do the job. Cinnamon-heavy Cocchi vermouth di Torino was its counterpart, smoothing out the bracing strength of the Willett. Both Angostura and Regan's bitters were added, and everything was all stirred together in a gorgeous, cut-crystal mixing glass. The garnish? H&F house-made cherries even better than the famous Luxardo maraschinos found in most other good Manhattans around town. This drink is like a symphony, with each individual instrument calling out clear and sharp amid the greater harmony of sounds. $10.50. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-948-1175.

If you like debating history: At the Iberian Pig, you can take a time machine back to the 1800s. The restaurant's 1887 Manhattan gets a splash of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and an Herbsaint (a cousin of absinthe) rinse around the glass. It's a nice drink, but there's too much going on between the Herbsaint's bright anise edge and the background cherry notes. Another spin can be found in Iberian Pig's 1882 version, with a sweet splash of Grand Marnier added to the more common bourbon and sweet vermouth base. In this case, I'm happier sticking to the 21st century. $11. 121 Sycamore St. 404-371-8800.

If you appreciate beauty in a cup: My favorite thing about the Manhattan at Leon's Full Service is actually the simple but beautiful coupe glass in which it is served. Beyond the lovely shape, it also has enough room at the top so that the drink doesn't go to the very edge when first poured (with a drink like this, I would hate to lose even a drop, and the typical pour to the top of a martini glass that most bars do always makes me jittery). Rittenhouse Rye bottled in bond (100 proof) creates a solid and sharp foundation. A spark of flamed orange peel that's subsequently run around the rim adds a subtle citrus note. Great balance, great execution, great Manhattan. $10. 131 East Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-687-0500.

If syrup floats your boat: Wrecking Bar Brewpub offers two Manhattans — one barrel-aged ($10), the other an award-winning creation called the Port Authority Manhattan ($12). The aged version gets two months inside a small barrel, a mixture of Rittenhouse Rye and Carpano Antica that should be stellar, but ends up tasting past its prime. Barrel aging can sometimes bring flavors into harmony, but these two months seem to flatten things out, leaving a muted overall impression and an almost cardboard-like woodiness. Thank goodness for the Port Authority (has anyone ever said those words before?). While this drink definitely has Manhattan roots, it feels more like an exotic bus ride out of town, with a heady mix of tawny port and Benedictine replacing the vermouth. Ginger coriander syrup adds spicy, sweet highlights. While the drink is more syrupy and honeyed than most Manhattans, the result is still harmonious and boozy. $12. 292 Moreland Ave. 404-221-2600.

If dark wood feels right: Down in the dark, semi-underground room that is Proof and Provision, Nate Shuman pours a barrel-aged Manhattan that suits the setting. George Dickel, Carpano Antica, a mix of Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, and a whole lot of oak get poured into a utilitarian rocks glass over a large block of ice – the only rocks Manhattan in this Smackdown. There's also a quick flame of lemon peel, then zero garnish. The result is strong, full, and a bit tannic from that time spent in wood. $10. 659 Peachtree St. 404-897-5045.

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