By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Instructions per Mr. Handler:
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
Pour in the rye and the Manischewitz, and add one dash of Angostura bitters for each living female relative over the age of seventy in your extended family.
Shake, then pour into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry you’ve plucked from a fruitcake someone gave you.
Sip frugally while arguing over something that does not matter in this world or the next, and allow the ice to melt in the shaker.
When it has melted completely, pour it into your cocktail glass and convince yourself that you are drinking a second cocktail for free.
* * *
It’s Hanukkah, and if you are anything like us at 12 Bottle Bar, you’re probably wondering why aren’t there more Manischewitz cocktails? Our thanks to author Daniel Handler for filling the obvious gap. Handler’s Jewish Manhattan is an amusing, mildly disturbing, yet somehow thoroughly logical transmogrification of a classic cocktail. In place of the traditional sweet vermouth is the oft-derided, sweetened Kosher wine Manischewitz, producing what we think is a very clever little Hanukkah cocktail. Of his drink, Handler muses:
I’m of the faith that celebrates a military victory while you Gentiles sit around pretending myrrh is a great baby gift, so it seems appropriate to share The Jewish Manhattan. I learned this cocktail more or less at the knee of my father, who spent his childhood in Germany only to leave in the late 1930s for obvious reasons. It blends the Jewish traditions of both the assimilated European and the new American immigrant. I like a Sazerac or Michter’s Rye, but such a choice would not honor my father, who insisted on the cheapest available whiskey and told me, over and over, that rye and bourbon are the exact same thing and not to be fooled.
As you might guess from his commentary, Mr. Handler is both amusing and clever, words that describe his drink to a great degree. We would expect nothing less from a man whose career highlights include being a best-selling author, screenwriter/producer, and accordionist. Way back in 1998, I became a fan of his after reading his scathingly dark portrayal of high school in The Basic Eight (1998). His most recent book Why We Broke Up (2011), which tells the story of a high schooler’s parting of ways with her boyfriend as seen through objects from their relationship, has been garnering rave review as well. Handler’s quirky world view translates to his choice of instruments as well. His accordion playing can be heard on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 three-volume album 69 Love Songs among many others. Let’s just say, the man is impressive on every level – including sharing a good cocktail anecdote or two.
Now, where a true Manhattan gets its complexity from the combination of rye and sweet, mildly herbal vermouth, Handler’s ersatz Jewish version marries the rye with what is essentially alcoholic Concord grape juice. In some ways, this bibulous swap of booze isn’t that surprising as vermouth and Manischewitz are rather like kissing cousins. After all, both use tertiary wine varietals and are about as far-removed from “real” wine as a product can get. But, where vermouth is meant to be a cocktail mixer, Manischewitz is a wine with a mission, created specifically as a kosher beverage for Jewish holidays. And, as luck would have it, the journey to create this sweetened vino is an interesting story.
Back in the year 1888, the B. Manischewitz Company was founded in Ohio and quickly made a name for itself by mass-producing matzo, an unleavened bread crucial to Jewish holiday meals. Ironically, Manischewitz wine is related in name only to the food company, which licensed the brand name to Naples, New York winery originally founded in 1927. If you look at the label on the bottle, you’ll notice that Manischewitz wine is kosher, which means that every part of the winemaking process – from planting to harvest to bottling – must be performed by Sabbath-observant Jews.
Things start to get really interesting when you look to the particularly American history of kosher wine. Manischewitz and its competitors use the labrusa grape, a native American varietal that is known for its not particularly pleasant “foxy” flavor (think musky, cloying and none too subtle.) Not to be confused with the slightly sweet sparkling Italian lambrusco wine, vitis labrusca grapes have probably been growing wild in North America since the 11th century or earlier. In the 19th century, Ephraim Bull of Massachusetts took wild labrusca seeds to create the Concord grape, the perennial favorite for grape juice, grape jelly, and, yes, kosher red wine.
At the same time, Jewish immigrants were settling up and down the East Coast. With new communities came the demand for Jewish, i.e., kosher, products. In the beginning, wealthy Jewish transplants could import kosher-certified wines from Europe for their holy days, but less well-off families struggled to acquire wine that could be called kosher, thus handled only by Jews. In a thoroughly enterprising manner, until bottled kosher wine was easily available, many Jews simply substituted other popular liquors of the time like hard cider or even bourbon and rye. (Thanks to a special exigency in Jewish law, you can substitute booze for wine in special situations; unless you are Orthodox, in which case, it’s a no-no to consume corn-based products on Passover.)
So, following the law of supply and demand, enterprising Jewish businessmen/winemakers set up wineries in areas from the Finger Lakes to Chicago and Ohio, all of them using Concord grapes. Ironically, the connection between Concord grapes, sweetness, and kosher wine – a frequent Boscht belt comedian’s joke – is coincidental. The first widespread Jewish communities in the U.S. just happened to be on the East Coast where the only grapes that could be reliably grown were Concords and its labrusca siblings. In A History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present, Volume 2 (2005), author Thomas Pinney explains simply, “American kosher wine became Concord wine. And because the Concord grape will not make a stable wine without added sugar, and because the defects of Concord wine are to some extent masked by sweetness, American kosher wine became sweet wine.”
As a thoroughly amusing sidebar, Welch’s (Concord) Grape Company was founded by teetotaling Methodist Dr. Thomas Welch, whose modus operandi was to produce a grape juice that could replace wine in church. In 1950 when kosher wines were literally all the rage, Welch’s had such a surplus of grapes that they couldn’t say no to the wine business. The good temperate doctor, deceased by this time, would have been happy to learn that his company couldn’t stand up to the competition of Manischewitz and its brethren. They ceased production almost immediately.
What I love about this drink is Handler’s comment that “it blends the Jewish traditions of both the assimilated European and the new American immigrant.” In this sense, it is the perfect drink for the American Hanukkah celebration – equal doses indigenous ingredients and old world tradition.
As you’re sipping your Jewish Manhattan, we thought that you might also enjoy some holiday entertainment beyond Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song. To that end, we’d like to recommend The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story from Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown. The story spins the tale of a poor latke who wakes up in a sizzling pan and finds himself thrust into a world filled with Christmas symbols who are mindlessly ignorant of latkes and the traditions of Hanukkah. It’s funny, irreverent, and hits a little too close to home for Jews and Gentiles alike – just our kind of book.
Esoterica: Mr. Handler Senior’s mixological skills have a certain prescience to them. In fact, back in 2009, a little restaurant named JoeDoe offered the Drunken Pharaoh cocktail as a starter to its “Progressive Passover” seder. Where Handler’s drink has a sort of dignity to it, though, the Pharaoh went a bit too far, adding a chunky rim of crushed matzo and powdered sugar.