Make Mine a Manhattan

Make mine a Manhattan - where to enjoy one of these sweet and spicy classics.

Bartender Neil Espinosa pours a Manhattan as one of Stark's Steakhouse's winter cocktails in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)
Bartender Neil Espinosa pours a Manhattan as one of Stark’s Steakhouse’s winter cocktails in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. (photo by Conner Jay)

Once upon a time, everyone loved rye whiskey. Prohibition put a temporary killjoy’s hold on that, introducing those willing to sneak a drink anyway to switch to bourbon – illicitly strong, irresistibly sweet, easier to find.

Rye whiskey is made from at least 51 percent rye, a hardy cereal grain, and may contain wheat and barley – though many producers opt for 100 percent rye.

Spicier than bourbon and with an herbal undertone, rye also packs a pronounced taste of oak, often charred, which lends a more savory, slightly bitter edge to the cocktails it frequents. Its traditional habitat is of course in the Manhattan, described in turn-of-the-century cocktail books as a mix of rye, sweet vermouth and bitters, with a maraschino cherry dropped in for punctuation. It’s a drink that has a kind of Art Deco elegance, a Nick-and-Nora flair, a cozy holiday signature.

Here’s where to enjoy one this winter:

Alexander Valley Bar, Healdsburg

Run by the folks at Medlock Ames winery, this bar was an Alexander Valley institution for many decades before being bought and gussied up a few years ago to highlight drinks from the garden as much as from the well. Guest bartenders are often behind the counter and live music is on hand, while the occasional food truck is parked outside to satisfy the hungry. In winter, the darkness of the walnut, oak and redwood surrounding the bar make it very cozy.

Empire, Napa

New to the downtown Napa late-night scene is Empire, open until 2 a.m. on the weekends, where pre-Prohibition traditionalism meets Wine Country dynamism, and the drinks are mighty good. Small plates are made to accompany the cocktails, ranging from snacks to meatballs and such, all meant to go down easy with the nostalgic concoctions. This is a good place to see how a Manhattan was meant to be made.

Fagiani’s Bar at The Thomas, Napa
Open until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Fagiani’s in downtown Napa is another cocktail purist’s dream, where bitters are made in-house and cocktails are inspired by tradition and Wine Country seasonality. In addition to a classic Manhattan, consider the bar’s take on the Sazerac, made with rye blended with brandy, Peychaud’s bitters, St. George absinthe and chamomile syrup.

Murphy’s Irish Pub, Sonoma
Like your bar nights to be lively, with live music and maybe even trivia? Murphy’s is the place, off the main square in Sonoma, a classic stop for Irish Coffee, Bloody Marys and the like. It’s perhaps less well-known as the home of the Sonoma Manhattan, a mix of Sonoma-based producer Hooker’s House Rye, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.

Stark’s Steakhouse, Santa Rosa
Blame it on the wealth of leather and red meat, but Stark’s is such a cozy, manly place it screams Manhattans and Martinis in wintertime. Happy hour, Monday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., entices regular visits, as do the small-bite offerings of oysters, mini burgers and truffle fries, which are as indulgent as the rye, bourbon and gin.