This is one of those rare times when, even if I had disliked a beer in a review, I would still have needed to praise the creativity of its concept and the attention to detail in its construction.
Suffice to say, it’s no surprise that this beer comes from Funky Buddha. Although conventional styles no doubt keep the business going—all the more important after the company was bought by Ballast Point owners Constellation Brands—it’s the weird concept beers that have always made headlines for the Oakland Park, Florida brewery. And it’s with good reason—few have ever been better at weird, fanciful, flavored beer concepts than Funky Buddha.
It’s a strange thing to specialize in, there’s no doubt about that. But Funky Buddha has a way of approaching oddball flavor combinations—like their beloved Maple Bacon Coffee Porter—and creating an end result that isn’t only novel, but legitimately delicious. They take ostentatious flavors and make them approachable and better balanced than anyone would expect them to be. They create concepts that would be disgusting in the hands of most breweries, and they find ways to make them work in reality.
So it is with the brand’s latest release, Manhattan Double Rye Ale. This is the first entry in 2019’s “Mixology Series,” which will see four seasonal beers based around classic cocktails and mixed drinks—the Manhattan, the Margarita, the Zombie, and a sangria beer. But while that idea in and of itself might be attempted elsewhere, Funky Buddha takes things to the next level when it comes to careful planning and geeky attention to detail.
Let us consider how Manhattan Double Rye Ale is made.
1. First, an imperial rye ale is brewed with rye, corn and barley—the same mash bill you’d use to make a mash to be distilled into rye whiskey. That imperial rye ale is then aged in High West Distillery rye whiskey barrels. Obviously, this portion of the beer functions as the “rye whiskey” of the finished Manhattan.
2. A second beer, a Belgian tripel, is brewed. This tripel is aged in wine barrels, and then aged again on “herbs and botanicals.” The end result is a Belgian tripel meant to simulate both the vinous and spiced/herbal qualities of Italian sweet vermouth.
3. The two beers are blended together, 2 parts double rye to 1 part Belgian tripel—the classic, old-school Manhattan ratio, which is significantly “wetter” than most of the whiskey-forward Manhattans of today. That’s your finished beer, coming in at 12.7% ABV.
Suffice to say, I really appreciate the finer details. The fact that they brewed their rye ale from a rye whiskey mash bill. The fact that they blended it at the historical ratio. The fact that they suggest serving it in a cocktail coupe. It’s silly, but it works. It feels like a novel experience. It’s the kind of thing a lot of breweries would try, but few would go to this length for the sake of a concept.
So, all that’s left to answer is this: How does it taste? And how “Manhattan” is it, really?
On the nose, Manhattan Double Rye Ale is redolent in spice and fruit. This almost comes off like a strong American or spiced Belgian Christmas ale, with big spice notes of anise, gingerbread and toasted malt. There’s a red fruitiness (cherry) that is slightly vinous, but little to hint at its high ABV, besides the general assertiveness of the nose. It certainly smells inviting, for drinkers who like big, malty, spicy beers.
On the palate, you likewise get a lot of spice. Toasted bread crust maltiness is a big player, although I’m immediately surprised that the oak/whiskey barrels don’t come across in a bigger way. Ginger and cardamom spice notes play nicely with subtle herbal impressions and red fruitiness—you might say that the beer captures the profile of vermouth a bit more readily than it does with rye whiskey. The sweetness is perfectly calculated—mild but rich, while the booze is almost entirely hidden. This drinks frighteningly easily for 12.7% ABV. If I hadn’t seen those numbers on the bottle, I wouldn’t have believed it.
In the end, I must confess that although this beer has some cocktail-like similarities, I don’t find it overly reminiscent of a proper Manhattan. In terms of “replicating a cocktail” to the T, the award would still probably go to Brooklyn Brewery’s Improved Old Fashioned, a beer that undeniably tasted like its namesake. Manhattan Double Rye Ale, on the other hand, plays more subtle with the oak and whiskey presence, to the point where I think most people would identify it as a strong Christmas ale or spiced beer if they were tasting blind.
But, with that said … this beer is also quite lovely. It doesn’t make me think “Manhattan,” but it does make me think “delicious.” Judged on its own merits, Manhattan Double Rye Ale is a wonderfully balanced, unique and tasty blended beer, whether or not you serve it in a cocktail coupe.
Brewery: Funky Buddha Brewery
City: Oakland Park, FL
Availability: Limited, 12 oz bottles
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.