It’s a sunny summer day, and I’m sitting with wine and cheese educator Wendy Crispell on a bench in a patch of shade by Chelsea Piers. In an hour, we’re going to board the Yacht Manhattan, a gorgeous, buff-hulled 80-foot, twenties-style boat with teak decks and mahogany trim where Crispell will be leading a guided wine and cheese tasting as we sail around the city at sunset. (Not a terrible way to spend a summer evening.)
On board, we’ll taste wines from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Slovenia paired with creative cheeses dreamed up by Crispell. But now we’re sipping a strong, smooth cocktail from the little plastic cocktail glasses Crispell has pulled out of her purse. She unscrews a jar of Luxardo cherries, skewers one with a toothpick, and presents me with her signature Manhattan. Invented sometime in the late 18th century, the Manhattan rivals the martini in terms of punchy flavor, smooth delivery, and lore. It’s a cocktail heavyweight.
“The yacht is named the Manhattan, and we sail around Manhattan,” said Crispell. “It just made sense that we had to have a really great Manhattan.” A great Manhattan indeed, this one is made with small-batch rye from Dad’s Hat in Pennsylvania, Antica Formula Vermouth, and Crispell’s own signature homemade bitters. It’s warming and silky, and the cherry adds just a subtle touch of sweetness. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a warm Manhattan evening.
But the not-so-secret magic ingredient is time and motion. As wine lovers know, wood and time transform familiar flavors into something totally new. The same alchemy applies to cocktails, too. Barrel-aging rounds out flavors, blends them together, and creates a new dimension of personality and depth. The barrels themselves impart flavors of wood and char, depending on their composition and age.
Then the yacht comes into the equation. Barrel-aging at sea is not a new idea. When boats were the primary method of transport, barrels of spirits would be loaded onto flatboats and transported via waterway to their destination. Some noticed that the beverages improved during the journey, deepening in color and rounding out in flavor. The gentle rocking and the subtle temperature fluctuations turned out to be a boon to the liquor, as did the salty ocean air. Turns out a trip at sea is its own remarkable terroir.
Crispell ages her Manhattans on the Manhattan for a year, although the cocktails begin to shine after just a few months. The process “adds complexity and creates something unique,” Crispell explains. “They’re so popular, the only problem is finding enough space.”
Wendy is already at work on a fig and orange-scented Manhattan that will be ready in time for the holidays. She’s also aging a negroni aboard the Manhattan. Head onto the Yacht Manhattan I & II and sail into the sunset with the breeze on your face, the majestic skyline ahead of you, and an aged Manhattan in your hand. It doesn’t get too much better than that.
Hannah Howard is a writer and food expert who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on a hot line, flipping giant wheels of cheese, and managing restaurants. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen. Hannah is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. She writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.