My Father’s Cocktail


There are many ways that a young man can connect with his father.  Young boys often follow their fathers around and older boys often try to avoid any more interaction than necessary.  But when all things are as they should be, the time eventually comes when father and son ease into a relationship of two adults, separated mainly by a couple of decades, more or less.

My parents divorced when I was young.  Although Dad worked hard to maintain our relationship, that was often difficult when most of our time together was every third weekend.  We eventually found our way, which was different from the way in which Dad interacted with my two brothers who came along a few years later and lived day-to-day life under his roof.

One of things I associate most strongly with my father during his younger years was his taste for Manhattans.  Dad was not a big drinker, but when we went out for dinner, there were three constants.  His steak was ordered “rare (but warm)”, dinner would invariably be served within seconds after he lit one of his ever-present Tareytons, and his drink order: a Manhattan on the rocks – “with a little cherry juice.”

To me the short glass, the dark amber color of the cocktail and the cheerful red cherry in the glass signified the life of a successful adult male.  Even its name – “Manhattan” – carried a vibe of sophistication that seemed to fit Dad well.  I have always wondered if his usual refill was due to a stress-filled week or to prevent a fight between his two eldest children over who got to pluck the liquor-infused maraschino cherry from its stem.  This sweet-yet-boozy marinated cherry was as close to “forbidden fruit” as my sister and I got when we were young.

As I got older, I followed the “college way” and drank beer.  My father hated beer, and I will confess that I missed the chance to drink a beer with him as some of my friends did with their fathers.  Sharing Manhattans was out due to an unfortunate freshman-year episode involving bourbon, something that resulted in my forswearing brown liquor for quite a number of years after.

As I got older, I tiptoed my way into adult cocktails by way of scotch on the rocks.  I liked the simplicity of it and the way nothing stood between me and the unique flavor of one brand of scotch or another.  I never became the kind of snob with liquor that I did with ice cream, eschewing both the high end stuff and those big plastic bottles on the bottom shelf, preferring to find that sweet spot where my taste and my budget met.  But Dad was not a scotch guy, and by this point in his life he rarely had a cocktail any more due to advancing health issues.

As I got older still, I answered the call of the Dry Martini.  This was more of an effort than a simple pour into an ice-filled glass.  Toothpick, olive, gin, vermouth, shaker, ice and glass.  I know, it’s easier if you go out and have a bartender do it, but I am not much of a go-out-to-bars kind of guy.  At least not in recent decades.  I will admit that the labor becomes worth it all with the first cold, bracing juniper-laced sip.  I never shared a Martini with my father, because he had passed away by the time I became a fan.

As the holidays approached few months ago, a nagging curiosity grabbed me:  I was on close terms with scotch, I could deal with bourbon and Irish whiskey, and I had experienced Canadian whiskey a time or two.  But what the devil was rye?  I found myself in a liquor store doing some Christmas shopping and upon inquiring with the clerk for a good solid rye that was not going to break the bank was directed to the Old Overholt.

It was a week or more before I opened it, and as was my habit, poured it over some ice and began sipping.  I could tell the difference, but nothing magic happened and I wondered if there was some sort of cocktail that I could use it in.  After Googling “cocktails with rye” one of the very first results was – you guessed it – the Manhattan.

About a year earlier, I had attempted to make a Manhattan when my middle son turned 21, but did so with bourbon.  I was very underwhelmed, and never tried again.  But I had now discovered that I had it all wrong.  Sweet vermouth, bitters and – rye was the classic recipe.  A few nights later I decided to put the Old Overholt to work again.  And what do you know, it really made the whole thing work.

I have become a fan of the Manhattan.  I really like the flavor, just a little sweetness to balance out the whiskey.  But I think that my favorite part is that each time I take a sip, I am brought back to those childhood Friday and Saturday evening dinners out with my Dad.  I realize that this is a poor substitute for actually joining my father for a cocktail.  Those of you who still have the opportunity should take advantage of this little touch of civilized life if this is something that both of you are inclined to enjoy.  Unfortunately, some of us just have to take what we can get, and a sip of a Saturday evening Manhattan on the rocks gets me one of the few kinds of bonding time with my dad that is possible nowadays.  I have even started adding a teaspoon or two of the “cherry juice”.


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16 thoughts on “My Father’s Cocktail

  1. I make a pretty nice Manhattan myself. Rye really is the key; bourbon Manhattans are sweet and meh. I find that even the lousiest, bottom-shelf rye makes a better Manhattan than any bourbon at any price. I’ve even made a passable Manhattan out of Canadian Club, cheap old CC, which is a high-rye whiskey.


    • Looking back, I am not sure why I never tried a Manhattan until I was well into my 50s. Probably because I had always assumed that it was mostly bourbon, which is a whiskey that I have really never embraced.


  2. Dad’s drink? Bourbon and water while sitting on the couch reading either Smithsonian or OMNI magazine. I haven’t progressed to the point of trying that as the inclusion of water seems like a sacrilege.

    You now have me curious about trying a Manhattan at some point. And, yes, Manhattan does sound more sophisticated for a beverage than, say, a drink called East St. Louis or Salt Lake City.


    • Haha, trying to come up with a list of cocktails named after cities could be interesting. But it would take someone with more experience than me.
      One of Duke Ellington’s earliest records was East St. Louis Toodle-Oo. It kind of does sound like the name of a drink. It would probably taste bad and leave you broke.


  3. Hmm having a drink with Dad is something that just doesn’t happen for me, Dad has never been a drinker of any alcoholic beverage. I was rather surprised in college when visiting a friend his parents took us out for chicken wings and beer, that never, ever happened in my family.

    The idea of having a scotch with my 16 yr old son seems laughable now, but now that you mention it that’s something to look forward to.


    • “The idea of having a scotch with my 16 yr old son seems laughable now, but now that you mention it that’s something to look forward to.”

      Having had some experience at this by now, I heartily recommend it. Now that my kids are 21+, drinking is allowed. Of course, the conversation is always the main event with the beer, wine or cocktail as a nice side benefit.

      Yes, lots of folks don’t drink, and for a variety of reasons. So hopefully you have found other pursuits that mesh better with both your and your Dad’s lifestyles.


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  5. I’m coming to this late in the party, as usual.

    A little background: My father was from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia, in particular. The Croatians and all the other “Yugos” all have a fascination for a plum brandy called Slvoviča (Slivovitz). Like many other liquors, taste depended upon quality. Being immigrants, my folks held on to every dollar, so Dad never got the good stuff from the Old Country, he mostly stuck to the cheaper stuff. It was only brought out for special events and then sparsely distributed. To this day, I have yet to develop a taste for it. I will drink it under certain circumstances, but I’d rather have a nice Pilsner or Scotch instead. But we, like others in our Northeast Ohio neighborhood, were from ethnic backgrounds and all had their little “projects” in their basements. Many of our Italian and Yugoslav neighbors made wine and brandy in their basements, the Germans, Poles and Czechs all made beer, vodka or schnapps in theirs.

    It wasn’t uncommon for a family picnic in the summertime to turn into a de facto neighborhood party. All of the neighbors would run home to their basements and grab a little of their stash and make it a real party. Sometimes these things wouldn’t break up until the early morning hours when Frank’s or Vito’s or Stosh’s wife would finally drag their drunken carcasses home. As a result there was a lot of alcoholic beverages available, with many of our parents either direct immigrants or first generation, we were allowed to have some of the different drinks.

    Like I mentioned before, we had wine and beer with dinners. Or the occasional Schnapps after a long winter’s Saturday out in the woods, hunting. By the time of my father’s passing, I was in the middle of my teens, doing what teenage boys usually do, which is distancing themselves from their parents with the funny accents. My two older brothers, however, did share drinks with my father as adults, for which I envy them. I should explain, I’m a fair amount younger than the rest of my siblings, so the timing didn’t work out well for me. Like Jim says, if you still have the opportunity, you should take advantage of it; I know I would dearly love to do so.


    • Interesting about the Slivovitz. My law school roommate was from a Croatian background but I never heard him mention it. But he was probably a generation further removed than you from the old country.
      I will confess a little envy. I was never part of a big tight-knit family and neighborhood like the one you describe but always wished that I could have been.


      • Oh no, is that the licorice tasting stuff? My sister married a Croatian guy, and since I was in the wedding party I had to do shots with all the guests arriving at the reception. Nostrovia!!!


  6. My father drank only sherry (before dinner), wine (with dinner), and straight vodka (after dinner), generally in moderation. I don’t think I ever had a drink with him. Now, I generally drink beer or wine, perhaps one mixed drink a year. I was visiting my daughter recently … she’s in college about 700 miles away … and she surprised me by asking if I was interested in going out for “a cocktail”. It was very enjoyable, and I had another cocktail (vodka martini) when out with my wife last week. It’s only February and I’ve already had two cocktails this year!


    • I am sort of your opposite, having a beer only rarely, and then usually if it’s dinner at a brewpub. At home I bet I don’t down a beer but maybe 2 or 3 times a year. An evening cocktail may call my name a couple of times a week.


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