Big Sur tells the story of Jack Kerouac’s alter ego escaping the pressures of fame brought on after the publishing success of On the Road by hiding out at the desolate cabin owned by his friend, City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (called Lorenzo Monsanto in the novel). Kerouac had a notorious sweet tooth, perhaps most noticeably evident by all that delicious apple pie a la mode he writes of eating in On the Road. In Big Sur, his friends point out his taste for a sweet of a different sort—sweet drinks!
Kerouac’s drink of choice in Big Sur is the classic cocktail the Manhattan, which gets its sweetness from vermouth, orange bitters, and a maraschino cherry. The Manhattan has been called “the drinking man’s drink,” though, probably because of all the whiskey in it.
Here’s the history of the Manhattan, as told by That’s the Spirit!:
Samuel J. Tilden was elected Governor of New York in 1874, and to celebrate, socialite Jenny Jerome threw a party at the Manhattan Club in New York City. Jerome asked the bartender to create a drink for the occasion. The bartender mixed 1 1/2 ounces bourbon, 1 1/4 ounces each of sweet and dry vermouth, and a dash of bitters. It met with Jerome’s approval and she named the drink the “Manhattan,” after the club. Jenny Jerome later earned her place in history as she later became Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Sir Winston Churchill, one of England’s most famous Prime Ministers. The Manhattan became a classic cocktail that has survived a number of changes over the years and is presently enjoying a comeback alongside its cousin, the Martini.
That’s the most popular version of the story, but of course, like most cocktail history, there are other versions of the story as well.
That said, there are also variations of Manhattans. It can be made with rye whiskey or bourbon. Although Big Sur doesn’t specify, Kerouac would probably have preferred the bourbon variety, since rye whiskey is more on the bitter side. Likewise, there are different types of vermouth: sweet and dry. The bitters can either be traditional Angostura bitters or Angostura Orange. Some people add a lemon peel for garnish.
On almost any given page of Big Sur there is a reference to alcohol, as the book documents Kerouac gripped by the disease of alcoholism. While many culture critics have accused Kerouac of promoting a nefarious lifestyle, Kerouac makes the dangers of alcohol quite plain in Big Sur as he portrays himself in deplorable states of breakdown. In addition to the maraschino cherry, some bartenders will even add a bit of the cherry juice to the drink. Yum!
Big Sur also describes Kerouac drinking a lot of port wine. A Manhattan made with port instead of vermouth is called a Ruby Manhattan. Since he frequented the famous Nepenthe in Big Sur, though, I’m going to go with their recipe. It’s quite possible the restaurant has changed its cocktail recipe since Kerouac’s autobiographical novel was published in 1962, but their current Manhattan ingredients includes Makers Mark, sweet vermouth, and blood orange bitters.
Nepenthe doesn’t include the ingredient breakout, but based on other general Manhattan recipes, this is my take on Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur Manhattan:
- 3 oz. Makers Mark
- 2 oz. sweet vermouth
- dash of blood orange bitters
- a Maraschino cherry as garnish, but while you’re at it add a splash of cherry juice to sweeten
Stir the ingredients over ice, then strain into a cocktail glass (the Martini glass) to serve straight up. Garnish with the cherry.