By Dave Pezza
Hey all, welcome back to Home Stretch! We’re mixing it up a bit this week (pause for laughter). It’s summer; it’s hot and muggy, at least here at Writer’s Bone’s Providence, R.I., branch; and we’re all groggy and tired from our first full week since Independence Day.
I attempted to choose an album and a cocktail that best represented that mushy feeling and continually fell short. So I resorted to an old friend: bourbon. Hence the Manhattan, a classic bourbon cocktail. And what works best with bourbon on a warm, muggy, Wednesday night other than country music? Nothing.
Now I am a self-professed opponent of country music, especially that contemporary dross. However, I'm human, and even I have a bullpen of folk and country tunes that hit me where I live after a long day. So because of my country music album ignorance, I have crafted a Home Stretch playlist of mostly folk and country tunes with a surprise here and there. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it complements your Manhattan—and for the lucky ones in New York City, your Manhattanhenge— adequately.
What you’ll need:
- 2.5 or 3 ounces Maker’s Mark 46 Kentucky bourbon whiskey (Maker's Mark give us money, please)
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 1 dash angostura bitters
- Maraschino cherry
- Cocktail shaker
- Cocktail glass
The Manhattan was purportedly invented at the Manhattan Club just before the turn of the century. The cocktail gained a following, and people began to request the cocktail served at the Manhattan. And just like that, a cocktail was born! I’m a notorious bourbon fiend, and for me the Manhattan offers a bourbon-based drink that doesn’t overly drown out the whiskey. Rather, the Manhattan gives bourbon a wider accessibility, making it a nice pairing with dinner or a more casual cocktail (say on a Wednesday night). Bourbon is not the only whiskey used to make a Manhattan though. Rye is the more traditional, pre-Prohibition option, and Canadian whiskey the go-to during that time period. Choose your own adventure there.
2.5 or 3 oz. bourbon/”You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
I love pairing these two things together more than I should. First up, grab that cocktail glass and throw it in the freezer. You’re hot, sweaty, and tired. You deserve an ice-cold cocktail in an ice-cold glass. While you are in the freezer, grab enough ice to fill the cocktail shaker a quarter of the way. I like less ice in the shaker. It allows more contact against the shaker, causing the ice to bang and chip more often and thereby chilling the contents more.
Now for the bourbon! Any brand will do, but please don’t use high-end stuff. It’s not me being a snob; it’s just not cost effective. High-end bourbon is meant to be drunk straight or with a very small amount of ice, which is why you break the bank for just a 750 ml. I’m using Maker’s 46 Kentucky bourbon whiskey. Maker’s 46 tiptoes that line of mixable bourbon and drinking-straight bourbon. I love the taste and afterglow of bourbon, so I chose Maker’s 46 because it’ll retain more of the bourbon flavor once mixed. If that isn’t your jam, and you’d prefer to limit that bourbon aftertaste, I’d suggest a less robust bourbon. I’d also suggest you add 2.5 oz. instead of 3 oz. You’ll taste more of the sweet vermouth and bitters that way, perhaps rounding out the flavor profile a bit more. Your Wednesday night, your call. Add your appropriate amount of bourbon to the contents of the shaker.
Bourbon is synonymous with Kentucky, and Harlan County might be the most famous part of Kentucky. This killer track was originally written and performed by Darrell Scott, a country artist extraordinaire, who has played with the likes of Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. This lesser known track of his was made famous by Brad Paisley, who covered the song for the finale of the first season of hit television show “Justified.” Every season finale thereafter, a new artist covered the song. A sobering look into the lives of coal miners Appalachia, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” manages to emote the tragedies and beauties of a hard life in a mere six minutes. I’m opening the playlist with this track to set the tone both musically (banjo, fiddle/violin, acoustic guitar) and thematically. Many of these songs are stories about hard working folks like you and me that have no option than to wade through downs and skip along with the ups.
1 oz. sweet vermouth/“Save It For Later”
Any old sweet vermouth should suffice, but I use the Martini brand for all of my vermouth needs. It’s certainly a reliable taste. Add a single ounce of vermouth to the shaker. Don’t put too much vermouth in any cocktail because it ruins both the subtle flavor of the vermouth itself and the main liquor you with which you are mixing it.
About half way through the playlist you come across a little gem that I have not been able to keep out of my head. Sure it’s not country…or folk. But it is acoustic, and it details some serious heartache. Close enough, right? This track, originally written and performed by The English Beat, is magically covered by the incomparable Pete Townshend. Townshend nails the constant guitar undertone that is accented by trumpet and some raw vocals. Much less poppy than the original, Townshend’s version allows the song’s lyrics about keeping love from slipping through your fingers to firmly grip you by the heart and yank it this way and that.
1 dash angostura bitters/“Laundry Room”
A single dash of angostura bitters will do plenty here. I am not a huge fan of bitters, but they play the same role in the Manhattan as they do in an Old Fashioned. It allows distinct flavors to appear on the palate by punctuating the sweet vermouth before the bourbon finish. Add that dash to your cocktail shaker.
“Laundry Room” by The Avett Brothers performs a similar role in this playlist. It’s a casually sweet, hopeful, and still somewhat brooding tune that I’ve adored from the first time I heard it. It’s also a very strong road trip song. The back end of the playlist will leave you with a sorrowful taste. “Laundry Room” will hopefully preempt that taste with a reminder of all that is good and right with the world. After all, would we know the true joy of good times without the bad? Have fun with this one!
1 Maraschino Cherry/”River”
Close up that shaker, shake it good and proper, making sure it is so cold you can’t stand holding it any long. Grab the cocktail glass from the freezer, add a lone Maraschino cherry for garnish, and pour.
“River” is absolutely the cherry on the bottom of this playlist. If you felt the pain, brooding, relief, and joy of the previous songs, “River” will wash it all away and lull you into a state of quite being. Close your eyes, sip your cocktail, and drift for a little. Forget what is ahead and behind and just enjoy the present.