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
Essentially a two-ingredient drink, the martini is the epitome of simple. But it’s incredibly easy to get this old-school, booze-forward cocktail wrong. Order a martini, and you should instantly engage in a coded conversation with your bartenderdry or bone dry, clean or dirty, and so on.
H.L. Mencken declared that “the martini is the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.” I’ve had many serviceable ones, but only some reach those poetic heights. After searching the Triangle, I found at least five, all made with gin, as nature intended, and sans olive brine and olives.
WASHINGTON DUKE INN: With short, vigorous shakes, the bartender blends Beefeater, dry vermouth, and ice. He pours it into a chilled glass prepared by squeezing lemon above it and coats the rim with three more lemon orbits. The move brings out the gin’s citrus notes and balances the juniper profile. The glass is cool, the martini refreshing.
TOP OF THE HILL: The quality of the gin is crucial to the minimal martini. You can count the gin offerings here on one hand, but you only need to know onetheirs, TOPO, organically made nearby. It’s assertive, with a bit of grain peeking through. Garnished with a large shaving of lemon, the drink is strong, but martinis are made for savoring. Sip slowly and enjoy.
ACADEMY STREET BISTRO: The bartender in this surprising Cary spot suggested Hendrick’s. The smooth gin is a fine choice, with a rounded flavor that’s less biting than the Beefeater. I ask what vermouth he uses, and he replies, “None.” With the Hendrick’s, he explains, all you need is to take “good ice, shaken up really well, let it congeal and then sip away.” In simplicity there is grace, and this drink reaches that rarified state.
THE BLIND BARBOUR: This new Raleigh spot features a lot of gins, including several obscure choices. Let owner and bartender Joey Barbour guide you. His custom creation for me uses Citadelle gin, a spot of dry vermouth, and a spritz of lemon. Clean and smooth, it’s like drinking a springtime rain shower. I’m shocked when I realize my glass is empty after only fifteen minutes.
BITTERSWEET: When Bittersweet’s Lewis Norton trains new bartenders, he tells them that if someone orders a martini, you need to have a conversation to get it right. He does both. He suggests TOPO, which he combines with Cocchi Americano vermouth and a few dashes of Crude’s “Bitterless Marriage” (hibiscus, lavender, and oak bitters). With notes of orange and cinnamon, the vermouth is sweeter than what you expect for a dry martini, but he likes how it pairs with the TOPO. There is an unexpected whiskey feel to this drink. Though it’s darker in tone, it remains dangerously smooth. Curt Fields
THE BEER COCKTAIL
If you find yourself at the bar, waffling between beer and cocktail, there’s a sliver of common ground: beer cocktails. They can be hard to find on many menus, but if you ask nicely, wait patiently, and tip generously, your bartender might be inclined to put together something special.
DASHI: The seasonal Studasaurus combines house-made “stud juice”ginger syrupwith Ponysaurus’s rye pale ale and Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon. Though light and easy to drink, its faint burn is irresistible; as you sip at it, the ginger and rye nip at you. The rye in the beer and bourbon complement each other, as do the stings of bourbon and ginger.
ALLEY TWENTY SIX: You won’t find any beer cocktails on the menu of this top Durham spot, but give the bartenders an idea and sit back. Colin Cushman pulled together ginger syrup, gin, and lemongrass shrub with a Devils Backbone cranberry gose. It was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and mild enough that it went down smooth on a warm evening.
THE CRUNKLETON: Like Alley Twenty Six, The Crunkleton doesn’t officially have any beer cocktails. But the off-menu offerings satisfy all the same. Pronounced like a phonetic reading of “champagne,” one combined Miller High Life and St. Germain for a light, easy-to-sip drink that suggested a concentrated shandy. “The Stowaway,” meanwhile, is a twist on a Dark and Stormy, with ginger beer swapped for nonalcoholic ginger ale and a touch of sea salt to temper the sweetness.
PERSON STREET BAR: Person Street Bar does have a beer cocktail on its menu, and the tiny number packs a wallop. Founders Brewing Company’s aptly named Robust Porter gets a jolt from molasses and Gosling’s dark rum. The result is sweet and thick, meant to be nursed. With three tiny marshmallows floating at the top, it’s practically liquid dessert. Allison Hussey
This article appeared in print with the headline “Drunk Hunt”