Bottom Line at the Top: a structural whiskey? What does that even mean? To us, it reminds of Minecraft. A game of blocks; a game of low fidelity graphics; a means of making very cool things if put together the right way and using a little imagination. Manhattan Moonshine is a Minecraft whiskey in the sense that the building blocks are there, can be recognized by the purists, and perhaps constructed in different ways that can be delightful. But for the mainstream? A much harder sell. Outside of the purist community, we found that Manhattan worked brilliantly in very particular cocktail settings that had heavy flavors of fruit or herbs (such as mint). In the clear liquor world, Manhattan may find a small but significant and enthusiastic audience. Moscow Mules, anyone? For the mainstream and uninitiated—and by that we mean if you don't self-identify as a whiskey nerd or cocktail adventurer—it's hard to recommend.
We are often deeply suspicious of un-aged whiskey. In almost all cases, we feel the stuff simply tastes better aged (for years, in large barrels, in cool places, untouched by laboratory shortcuts, and the duration stated plainly on the label). There's generally a reason distillers let their product sit around for a decade and evaporating away in warehouses waiting to make a profit! It's because people generally believes it tastes better and they can sell more of it at a better price when they do. Too often, unaged whiskey has served as either a marketing stunt or a bridge between a craft distiller making alcohol and waiting for the stuff to age properly. Neither of these scenarios tend to make for delicious experiences and repeat purchases.
Despite our deep-seated (and hard-learned) suspicions, there are two things intriguing about Manhattan Moonshine at initial appraisal. First, the bottle design is flat-out gorgeous. Yes, we can hear the elites sneer: so what? What’s inside? Just like dressing nice for a job interview helps set expectations and shows respect for the time and process, so does the bottle for the spirit. This square bottle is iconic-looking, easily recognizable, easily legible, and screams Empire State from the shelf. It’s alluring; it makes us want to like it. Further, it makes us want to save the bottle. Can it be simple marketing bullshit? Sure... maybe. But it still expresses someone took the time and had some measure of pride in the product and that's a great sign.
Second, the grain bill isn’t a typical bourbon or rye that one normally finds in an aged product from a bigger distillery. Rather, it’s a blend of oat, spelt, and rye (more mainstream bourbon comprises corn while malt whiskey is, of course, malted barley). That signals that they’re serious about making un-aged whiskey specifically rather than getting by on something until the "real stuff" ages. These are sweeter grains with different character. One hopes we won’t get to the end of the bottle with our typical complaint of “good execution; can’t wait to see how it tastes after aging.” This grain bill has a chance of standing on its own.
Despite the grain bill, founder William Kehler offered a series of cocktail suggestions for his “luxury” whiskey that feature straight-down-the-fairway classics, about half of which designed for a whiskey, another chunk for vodka, and a handful for gin(!). This is quite daring! Meddling with classics is like covering a famous rock song: everyone remembers how it originally sounded. Success here requires near revelatory tasting experience for the drinker. We took him at his word and followed his recommendations right down that fairway opting for classic spirits to pair in each setting against Manhattan Moonshine.
Manhattan Moonshine vs Knob Creek, Neat and on Ice
This hardly seems fair… but if you’re going to market a luxury whiskey and suggest we drink neat while charging $45, then this is the setting regardless of "fair."
On the nose, the Manhattan has a grain scent… one could mistake it for corn but it’s balanced by other aromas. No grass; no oak (of course). It smells potent (as it probably should at 95 proof). One wants to find fruit but it’s just not quite there… almost like a mirage of fruit. On the taste, it’s smoother than we expected. Tastes like a sweeter, stronger vodka. “For moonshine this is pretty, you know, good,” uttered one of our number. Dropping in a bit of ice (which one should, in our opinion, at 95 proof!) a little grass and a little oat comes out. The water dilutes the burn quite a bit and relegates it to a very easy-drinking, pleasant moonshine. A very short finish… more of an oily texture remaining on the tongue than a true finish. A faint and short residue of earth or stone. “More like a really, really good vodka rather than a whiskey,” announced one. “Except for the scent!” chimed in another.
Switching to the Knob Creek, the nose blasts honey and caramel in comparison. At 100 proof, it singes neat. But there’s flavor: fruit and caramel on the palate. No grain. “I’m not getting any grain… it’s all wood!” said one. “I guess that’s why they put it in wood,” muttered another. On ice, the singe fades (as it should) bringing out even more intense oak and the classic, char finish that bourbons are known for.
In summary, if you’re going to buy one bottle then you have to go with the Knob Creek. You wouldn’t buy Manhattan if you wanted a whiskey. You buy Manhattan because you want to play with something other than whiskey that tastes different, tastes exotic, and you’re looking to mess around. As exotica—for the whiskey enthusiast—this makes sense. Even messing around, Manhattan won't be your second or probably even third bottle. Whiskey people drinking whiskey neat or on the rocks will probably be happier playing with different ages, different cask finishes, and different blends. This cannot compete head-to-head with the good aged whiskeys.
Manhattan Moonshine vs Vodka in a Seabreeze
Having initially surmised that this is potentially a better vodka, we’re excited to move into the vodka cocktail world with the Seabreeze. No tricks or gimmicks in this recipe. Manhattan takes the classic and suggest ratios of 3oz cranberry juice, 1.25oz of moonshine, and a mere 0.25oz of grapefruit juice. They also take the added step of 0.75oz of Cointreau (though we used Grand Marnier). For comparison, we used Anestasia vodka (a good grain-vodka from Oregon). Vodka tends to vanish in this drink, leaving a blend of fruit flavors with a kick. We altered the recipe because you have to work with what’s on hand! We used cranberry mango from Ocean Spray, grapefruit bitters, and our cranberry mango was heavily spiced with clove, ginger, and cinnamon (truth be told, it was a mixer from a prior holiday party). But it was awesome at the party. Can the Moonshine make it better?
We predict that the vodka will vanish entirely. Did it? In a word, yes. One would never, ever know that there was alcohol in that drink. The spices and the sweet were demolished by the grapefruit bitters. It’s a lighter cocktail at 3:1 (particularly with ice). We actually think this would be a way better drink warmed.
Moving to the Manhattan, it would be a singular achievement if we could even tell the difference between this and the vodka: and we do! Big nose of mown grass flies off the rim of the glass. With the flavor, It’s like someone put beer in the cranberry. No question that this is a different drink! On the taste, the flavors blend better; the bitter relaxed. “It tastes like it has something in it!” someone claimed, “Now I know I’m having a drink at this party!”
Manhattan is better in every way to the vodka in this drink. We would order it again and probably ask the bartender about it. All agree, this is a drink for a higher, upscale bar, which should make the owners happy who want to offer a “luxury whiskey.”
Manhattan Moonshine vs Gin in a Martini
Another classic selection. But in this case, they look for 2oz of Moonshine with another 1oz of vodka and a mere 0.5oz of Lillet Blanc (not dry vermouth!) and an orange garnish. This is not, of course, the classic Gin Martini recipe but closer to the James Bond Vesper (calling for 3oz gin, 1oz vodka, and 0.5oz of Lillet Blanc) but nonetheless it is still one of the endless variations of the Martini cocktail genus. In any event, we only had Martini Rossi dry vermouth on hand so we used that. One drop of Regan Orange Bitters instead of the finishing orange garnish.
The gin (we used Tanqueray) is like a magic in a well-made martini. A true Martini we describe as an eldritch forest on the full moon in autumn. In this particular preparation, the juniper is relaxed with the added vodka, the orange gives a bit of a pop. The drink is good. No Martini drinker would turn this down. At the same time, it’s not a standout in a Martini crowd. It meets expectations exactly.
What is going to happen with the Manhattan? Well, first thing is we could smell the grain even while stirring the cocktail. No question this is something very, very different. The smell in the glass is much more subdued and blends nicely with the orange. On tasting, the decision is finalized: this is not a Vesper. Or a Martini. Drinking, it tastes akin to the Manhattan on nice with a little je ne se quoi going on. It lacks the emotional punch and power that the gin brings. Oddly boring. The Manhattan was much more impressive in the Seabreeze.
This might make a fine addition to a Vodka Martini (if such a thing can be admitted to exist) but against gin it lacks. If it’s going to go into a drink, it needs other flavors to play in order to compete with gin.
Manhattan Moonshine vs Scotch in a Blood and Sand
The Empire State moves on its quest for total liquor domination by taking on scotch in the classic Blood and Sand. They call for equal 0.75oz parts of moonshine, sweet vermouth, Heering cherry liqueur (we used Luxardo Maraschino), and orange juice (fresh-squeezed, naturally). This differs very slightly from our version of the classic that uses cherry brandy in lieu of cherry liqueur. For scotch, we used the Glenmorangie 10yr for our comparison for its high quality and lack of smoke.
First, the Glenmorangie version. My lord but this is an ugly drink… but it does look exactly like blood mixed with sand. The Maraschino sings in this… hopefully this is not a deal-breaker over the Heering (or cherry brandy). Tasting, the cherry is overpowering. It’s a good drink, but it’s a cherry drink. All the way. It has a very light scotch finish (if you know ahead of time to look for it) and a very satisfying drink. But it’s a damaged drink (sorry Blood and Sand people).
Will Manhattan fix it? The grain is in the aroma but it’s subtext and far in the background. Drinking, it’s very pleasant. Blends perfectly with the strong Maraschino. Where the (admittedly mild) Glenmorangie got overwhelmed, the Manhattan worked with the Luxardo instead of being overmastered by it.
The Manhattan is superior. Is it the case that fruit flavors are recommended for the Manhattan? Twice now in fruit, the Manhattan has triumphed significantly. So far, this is the best drink of the night. It’s in a different class.
Manhattan Moonshine vs Bourbon in an Old Fashioned
Yet another in the string of canon cocktails with the Old Fashioned: calling for simply 2oz of moonshine, 2 sugar cubes, and a twist of lemon and orange citrus with a dash of bitters (we actually used lemon and orange bitters). This is truly treading on hallowed ground as the many particular preferences for the Old Fashioned in whiskey, ingredients, preparation, and garnish are perhaps only equaled by committed preferences to a lady’s trousseau. For the record, we used Four Roses Small batch bourbon as a comparison.
With Four Roses—in this very spare version of the Old Fashioned—it smells of sugar and lemon, not much of a bourbon scent. Leave that for the palate… this is actually a very good version with the sweet and the char and the lemon all doing a square dance on the tongue all the way down to the stomach, back to the brain, and end at the liver.
Moving to the Manhattan, the drink smells of citrus entirely. This could almost be a lemon drop instead of an Old Fashioned. Tasting, this is a lemon drop. Nothing more, nothing less. Just a grain heavy version over the vodka version. Disappointing. Though, for those in our number who have had 10,000 Lemon Drops (self admitted), they liked the idea of “something different.” For others, we probably wouldn’t order again.
We’re seeing a trend that Manhattan struggles head-to-head against whiskey. It doesn’t necessarily make bad drinks in these settings but it doesn’t make awesome drinks.
Manhattan Moonshine vs Rye in a Sazerac
Now they’re treading on the hallowed ground of the Proof66 staff: it’s personal. The Sazerac has long been the staff’s favorite cocktail and we’re very serious about it. Their recipe is the true classic: 2.5oz of moonshine, 1 barspoon of sugar, 2 dashes of Peychaud's bitters, and an absinthe rinse. Weirdly, their picture shows a garnish of lemon peel (which is accurate and we find very important to the drink) but their text suggests (blasphemy!) a sprig of mint. We followed the text and used mint. We used Knob Creek Rye whiskey as a comparison.
We made it for real: the absinthe rinse (no more), real sugar… the whole way. The mint was weird, we admit. As it turns out, the mint with the sugar works exceedingly well. Very surprising. Have to say, drinking it, the mint is very refreshing. Not as good as the lemon version (our preference) but it’s very different and very lively. A lovely drink.
We’re very worried about the Manhattan after the failed attempts at other whiskey drinks. But here we go. The aroma with mint and anise is still prevalent… no grain aroma. We actually tried it with and without the mint and, we have to say, it is far better with the mint. The drink is good. As good as it is, we wouldn’t identify it as a Sazerac but this is the first time where we can say it’s a good drink that, under a different name, we would order again. And this is how a moonshine needs to be successful: in staking a different claim on the flavor map.
With this result, we can now claim that Manhattan plays well in fruit and mint flavors. In fact, we’re arriving at a point where we say the Manhattan Moonshine plays well when there are other flavors to work with. Standing on its own is overly demanding. It’s not a sidekick but it’s not the main event either; it needs a complement. In those settings: it can be good with moments of brilliance.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received one 750ml bottle of Manhattan Moonshine for review purchases free of charge. All other products mentioned were acquired on or own, save for the Anestasia vodka which was reviewed some time ago and we had in stock.]