Chicago Cocktails: How to Make Big Star's High Time Manhattan

[Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

In some ways, the High Time Manhattan has no business being a Big Star cocktail. Ben Fasman, the whiskey-wise bar manager who created it, will freely cop to as much. Big Star, you see, draws inspiration from the shot-and-a-beer honky-tonks that grew up around the Bakersfield Sound of late-1930s California. Tacos fill the menu, and $1 suds issue from the taps. The High Time Manhattan, on the other hand—with near-equal parts Amaro Averna, from Sicily, and Carpano Antica Formula red vermouth, from Turin—sounds far more spaghetti than western.

But in truth, the High Time Manhattan is a genuine Big Star cocktail where it counts. And that's because this commanding, layered, intensely flavorful drink turns on a two-ounce pour of House Selected Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, one of the many gems of Big Star's ambitious whiskey menu.

Some months ago, Fasman and his fellow bar managers from Big Star made their periodic trip down from Chicago to Kentucky to select bourbon barrels for the bar's house selected whiskey program. And yes, it is as cool as it sounds; they distillery-hop, meeting the guys in charge and sampling their finest and most promising product, and then buy whole barrels' worth of booze to be bottled and served exclusively at Big Star.

In addition to distinctive barrels from the likes of Old Weller and Four Roses, Ben and his team left the state having secured a cask of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit—the moniker the Lawrenceburg distillery gives to its single-barrel bourbon selections. After tasting straight from several barrels pulled by Wild Turkey's Eddie Russell, Fasman and the others decided on a freight train of a bourbon—richly charred, lingering and round. Taken neat, you'll practically want to chew on it.

After the bottles arrived a couple of months ago, Fasman was eager to get customers trying the stuff. Big Star seldom uses its house selected whiskeys in cocktails due to their rarity and price—the bar managers try to keep the cocktails pegged around $7—but he recognized the 101-proof Turkey had great mixing potential.

Fasman began to experiment with a riff on a classic Manhattan (whiskey, red vermouth, bitters), and gravitated toward likewise premium spirits that could both stand up and do justice to this big bourbon he now had on his hands. With the arrival of fall, he wanted to incorporate deep, herbal, spicy, warming flavors. So he settled on a rinse of Green Chartreuse, and measures of bittersweet Amaro Averna and rich Carpano Antica, spread on a canvas of House Selected Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. At $10, this drink will run you a few bucks more than most cocktails at Big Star, but man, the rewards sure are handsome.

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Big Star

1531 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map) 773-235-4039;