I'd burned out on vodka sodas. Straight tequila was making me nuts. And I couldn't seem to find a decent margarita. I needed to find a drink with a punch, but one that didn't lead to the dark under-eye circles the next morning. I didn't think I'd love a cocktail again. That is, not until my friend handed me my first Manhattan.
Oh, the Manhattan. So simple and bold, with its combination of whiskey, vermouth, bitters, and a cherry. And so very American, with its East Coast name and Southern origins (the first versions in the 1870s were made with Kentucky bourbon, and most still are). I now have a patriotic devotion to this concoction, as well as an impressive ability to balance a martini glass in a crowded bar.
This Irish pub's version of the Manhattan is strong and pure, tasting almost like straight Maker's Mark. The only reason I knew there was vermouth included is because I caught a flash of green glass as the bartender mixed it. It was even served, unapologetically, without the drink's trademark cherry (which, honestly, is fine by me). I guessed this particular formula was cultural the Irish don't monkey with their whiskey but I was proved wrong when we tested our anthropological theory at the Phoenix, whose version is cloyingly sweet. If you really like your whiskey, stick with Liberties.
998 Guerrero, SF. (415) 282-6789, www.theliberties.com
When you can't get a sunny day seat at Revolution Cafe (hey, they only serve beer and wine anyway), head to Laszlo around the corner. Not only does it always have outdoor tables available, but it served one of the best cocktails on my tour: a smooth Maker's Manhattan. It was stirred, not shaken which the bartender said keeps the drink from getting watered down and came with a brandied cherry. An extra bonus for daytime visits? You get to skip the North of Market nighttime crowd.
2526 Mission, SF. (415) 401-0810, www.laszlobar.com
Need to show your out-of-town friends the Mission? Get them the neighborhood's namesake drink at Blowfish, made with Ka No Ko Japanese whiskey. Served with a brandied cherry to balance the cocktail's smoky taste, this Manhattan is certainly a crowd pleaser. Once you've liquored up your visitors in style, then you can take them to your favorite Mission Street dive.
2170 Bryant, SF. (415) 285-3848, www.blowfishsushi.com
The new swankfest on Valencia and 14th streets might break your bank and leave you hungry after dinner, but it's a great place to treat yourself to sexy cocktails without fear of running into any of your financially-challenged friends. Conduit's souped-up Manhattan, called the Heart of Islay, is made with Black Bottle 10-year-old Scotch, vermouth, Cointreau, and a splash of blood orange juice. The sweet ingredients help the cocktail go down smooth without overpowering the smoked wooden barrel flavor of the Scotch. Conduit's classic Manhattan is great too, as it's made with Old Overholt rye. Have one of each and you might even get the guts to taste the lamb tongue or pay a visit to the coed translucent glass restroom.
280 Valencia, SF. (415) 552-5200
The Third Rail is Range's hybrid version of the classic pre-1940s Manhattan, made with Bulleit bourbon, Lillet Blanc (sweet wine), orange bitters, and lemon. This fusion blend is perfect for beginners, but it ain't no classic. But a version made with Woodford Reserve, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, and a brandied cherry is as good as it gets. If you can find a seat at the bar, order two but stop there. A wise friend once said, "Manhattans are like breasts: two are perfect, but three are too many and just plain weird."
842 Valencia, SF.