Living in the Shadow of Manhattan

by James Boo on March 7, 2009 · 4 comments

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Dr. Manhattan Leaves Earth - Illustration by Dave Gibbons
When Jon Osterman becomes the being known as Dr. Manhattan, his consciousness begins to leave the realm of humanity. Watchmen, set 26 years after this transformation, documents the peak of his alienation from his own race and the eventual peace he makes with the civilization that spawned him. My goal in reviving Dr. Manhattan in cocktail form wasn’t this ambitious.

Making a Manhattan is not as mystical as people may believe. As a beginning mixologist I may be mistaken when it comes to the subtleties of this classic American drink, but as an advanced drinker I think it’s fairly simple. The problem with ordering a Manhattan isn’t that it’s difficult to make, but that it’s an odd fit for the public’s general bias against vermouth and for anything extremely sweet. As long as you’re following the basic rules you will turn out a superb Manhattan in a matter of minutes. If you deviate, however, you may find yourself facing the kiss of death from a mustachioed mafia boss. Therein lay my challenge: Because the Manhattan is an extremely simple drink, I would run the risk of ruining its essence by changing its ingredients.

It didn’t help that I was faced with the task of turning my Manhattan blue. Every blue cocktail I’ve ever tasted has been a sugar bomb or the bad kind of novelty drink. True to form, the most accessible blue cocktail ingredient (blue curaçao) is a syrupy sweet liqueur found in drinks with names like “Bikini Martini” and “Adios, Motherfucker.”

In the end, did I have any other choice? Mixology maestro Mayur Subbarao, who was gracious enough to offer me some pointers in my mission, suggested a blue ginger liqueur but reminded me that whiskey and blue were not meant for the same sandbox. In my search for alternative ingredients I discovered a dated wonder called borage, but abandoned its inclusion when I discovered that the most common way of obtaining borage leaves is to grow them at home. Having no desire to use food coloring in a drink, I decided to run cautiously with the curaçao and hope for the best.

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan - Warner Bros.
Put simply, it is impossible to turn whiskey blue. Since bourbon and rye range from deep brown to golden in color, a deep green is the only color I could produce when trying to mix a blue Manhattan. Aside from that, my early attempts at Dr. Manhattan were failures in terms of taste, which is ultimately the most important aspect of any drink.

On another tip from Mayur, I purchased a bottle of unaged corn whiskey and began experimenting. The vodka-like characteristics of this straight-from-the-still moonshine, however, made it impossible to work into anything approaching a Manhattan. While the Old Gristmill would make for a nice apertif, it’s not going to take anyone to Mars, especially not when mixed with vermouth.

At this point, I decided to stop torturing my whiskeys and replace them with gin. Does this ruin the entire concept of Dr. Manhattan being, well, a Manhattan? Perhaps not. If bourbon is the base of a drink that reflects humanity’s brightest star, then let gin be the spirit that sucks the soul out of that star, replacing it with a colder, cleaner center of gravity. After all, Dr. Manhattan is literally life recombined and repossessed, lacking the warmth that made Jon Osterman essentially human.

Infusing gin with cloves Dr. Manhattan: The Cocktail - Ingredients
I began refining my drink to fall somewhere between a martini and a pegu while maintaining the basic proportions of a Manhattan. As a base, I settled on Plymouth gin, a go-to base for bartenders because of its smoothness and relatively neutral flavor. Infusing the gin with whole cloves for a few hours (follow the same guidelines as when infusing with tea) helped to further tame its aromatic, piney character and add a subtle, clean sweetness without overpowering the nose or consistency of the liquor. Cloves are also a perfect thematic addition, as they are actually a mild anesthetic; their presence in Dr. Manhattan thus represents the superhero’s last link to humanity, numb as it is.

Dr. Manhattan and Silk Specter on Mars - Illustration by Dave Gibbons
Place several ice cubes in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker. Don’t skimp on the ice (I use about five cubes per drink), as Dr. Manhattan is to be served straight. Chill a glass on the side by filling it with ice or placing it in the freezer.

Add 2 oz. of clove-infused gin, then 1 oz. of dry vermouth. Follow with 1/2 oz. of St. Germain (the good Doctor still knows how to love, after all). Throw in a couple dashes of Peychaud’s bitters- I use Peychaud’s instead of Angostura because of their red hue and less punchy flavor. Finally, add just a bit of blue curaçao, enough to give the drink a crystal blue tinge without making the end result too sweet. Stir all of the ingredients thoroughly (I usually stir for half a minute or so) to ensure that they are well mixed and well chilled. This drink does not get better as it gets warmer.

Strain the mixture into the chilled glass and serve immediately. Unlike the robust Osterman, Dr. Manhattan should be a smooth, understated cocktail. Everything is in the subtleties: Gin’s juniper nose is wrapped in the softer presence of cloves. Vermouth and St. Germain smooth out the body of the drink, adding their natural brands of sweetness to the mix without being overbearing. The Peychaud’s round things out with just a slight edge of bitter. The cocktail as a whole has more raw power than the Osterman, but its smoothness should actually make it more drinkable- unless, apparently, you can’t get past the gin. I don’t know if I have the right to claim that this is no beginner’s libation, but, then again, neither is the Manhattan.

Nor is Dr. Manhattan, for that matter. In one of his more existential moods, the Watchman might suggest that both drinks “contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference.” If whiskey and gin are both quantifiable abstracts, should I be this worried about missing my mark on a novelty cocktail?

…The morality of my activities escapes me.

Dr. Manhattan - The Cocktail - Photo by Bobby Lin

Dr. Manhattan.
2 oz. clove-infused gin
1 oz. dry vermouth
1/2 oz. St Germain
Splash of blue curacao
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stirred well with ice. Served straight.


soo March 8, 2009 at 1:36 am

you gotta get a beaker/test tube to serve these in!

James March 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm

I originally wanted to serve them in erlenmeyer flasks :)

Josh March 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Using Creme de Violette would also give you a blue cocktail, with a very different flavor. Wouldnt be far from an aviation.

James March 9, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Interesting; I’ll have to try one of those when my wallet recovers from this project.

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