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HOW MUCH MANHATTAN DOES $24 BUY?
By Chris Barnett
March 6, 2014 -- Historians have long claimed that Dutch explorers bought the island of Manhattan from native Indians for $24 worth of beads and trinkets. Mixologists at a Southern California restaurant claim $24 would buy two Manhattans.
Well, not exactly.
The dinner menu at Sea and Smoke in Del Mar, north of San Diego, touted a "special" drink called the Barolo Manhattan. The price: $12 a pop. I thought it was a tad steep, but I ordered two--the second for a good friend who was celebrating his birthday. I ordered them straight up, like a Manhattan should be served, rather than on the rocks where melting ice cubes quickly dilute the bourbon or rye whiskey.
They arrived promptly but the pour was skimpy. Mine was a full inch below the rim of the glass and my friend's was three-quarters of an inch below. It looked like someone had taken a healthy sip from each cocktail during the journey from bar to table. (Oddly enough, we both noticed the stingy pours, but completely missed the fact an Italian digestivo was substituted for sweet vermouth in the drink.)
On the second round, I asked our server--politely--to inform the bartender that he gave us a short pour on our first. I also asked that the oversight and under-pour be remedied. I suggested he try an infinity pour--to the lip of the glass--even though it takes an agile server to transport it. I also said I would pay extra for the healthier pour.
The second round of drinks was poured close to the rim. But I was charged $15.50 each for all four cocktails. I pointed out that the first round should be $12 each according to the menu price.
Our server said the $12 Manhattan on the Sea and Smoke menu is only for an on-the-rocks pour. Request it served straight up--mixed and strained into a stemmed glass--and it is $15.50. The server called the extra $3.50 an "up charge."
Up charges are nothing new in better barrooms and cocktail lounges--or, for that matter, airlines these days. But an undisclosed 25 percent premium over the quoted menu price is a blatant rip-off, particularly when you get a miserly pour. Add the standard 20 percent tip and 8 percent tax and you are laying out a $20 bill for the classic Manhattan cocktail where the main ingredient--the name and pedigree of the whiskey--is also undisclosed.
I settled the bill without additional carping, but the server's explanation--"That's our bar program here"--just didn't sit right with me. Del Mar is no pricey global metropolis, after all. Curious and annoyed, I called Sea and Smoke a week later to double- check the pricing and pouring policies.
Turns out I was overcharged. A Sea and Smoke manager said that a Barolo Manhattan is $12 whether served on the rocks or straight up. A little more probing revealed the bar restaurant pre-mixes this particular "special" Manhattan in batches, like a margarita or sangria. Not what you want to hear at $12 a pop.
So what about the $3.50 up charge? You pay it if you call a premium liquor and order a cocktail served up because, I was told, you get a bigger pour--three ounces--without having to ask for it.
In New York, where the Manhattan was supposedly invented at the Manhattan Club in 1874--to quench the thirst of Sir Winston Churchill's mother, or so the story goes--bartenders are more forthcoming with their mixology.
Howie Levine, who's been prowling the plank for 20 years at the venerable Peter McManus Café, has strong opinions on what constitutes a great Manhattan--and what it should cost.
"Manhattans should be straight up and filled to the top," Levine opines. "We're an old-time saloon and our house Manhattan is made with Kentucky Gentleman for $9. But more people today are drinking Bulleit [rye or bourbon] or Knob Creek Manhattans. They are $11 with, of course, a maraschino cherry."
Across the country in San Francisco's financial district, Wexler's, a hip take on Rick's from Casablanca, has a twist on the classic Manhattan. Their Noilly Pratt sweet vermouth is smoked. Owner Matt Wexler skillfully mixed a house Manhattan, pouring 80-proof Four Roses Bourbon from his well, and served it up, a quarter inch from the rim, for $10. For just $1 more, Wexler will also make the Manhattan with an upmarket small-batch bourbon like Buffalo Trace or Black Maple.
If you ask me, how the Manhattan is made, priced and poured is a bellwether of a bar's personality.
At the Rimrock Bar & Grille in the Hilton Phoenix Airport, $7 buys you the house Jim Beam Manhattan. (It's a buck less during the 5-7 p.m. happy hour.) Substitute stronger, smoother Knob Creek bourbon for the blander Beam and it's only $1 more, a great value. However, bar chief Mike Darshi imposes a $2.50 up charge for the heavier pour in the ice-cube-free glass. Still, time it right and you can score a superb cocktail at Rimrock for $9.
The Bulldog Downtown in Minneapolis also has a $7 house Manhattan. It's made with a two-ounce pour of Jim Beam from the well. If you "call" a Knob Creek or a Buffalo Trace or a better bourbon or rye, it's $9, but with no extra tariff for serving it straight up. "Ironically," says bartender Marc Dickhut, "most of our customers order Manhattans on the rocks. I think it's a Midwest thing."
In my less-than-scientific sample, I found the best Manhattan in a friendly bar and restaurant owned by a Frenchman in Sausalito, over the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco. The place is called F-3.
A welcoming bartender, Tess Smart, poured 1.5 ounces of Bulleit Rye whiskey into a silver shaker, added an ounce of Antica Formula 1786 Italian vermouth and a couple dashes of bitters. She dropped in imported cherries infused with Grand Marnier and filled a large cocktail glass with a perfect pour right up to the rim.
The price: a flat $10 with no surcharge.
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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.
This column is Copyright © 2014 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.