Blimey, this drink seemed familiar. The setting was a maritime pub in the pretty village of Wyk on the island of Föhr, a gateway to the North Frisian Islands on the German coast of the North Sea. Jann-Oluf Arfsten, aka “Mr Manhattan”, a vegetable and potato farmer, now in his 50s, was slowly sipping a glass of maple brown alcohol known as “Föhr national drink”. “Every day is better with one of them,” he said, shaking hands. “Between.”
Manhattan is a long-standing tradition here and everyone has grown up with
Think of the drink as a North Frisian version of a classic New York cocktail and it may sound familiar. Whiskey in part to sweet vermouth in part and dry vermouth in part, it is a finely tuned version of a traditional Manhattan, served without bitter Angostura or ice, in a glass of rocks well used.
This homemade cocktail has been sold premixed behind Glaube Liebe Hoffnung’s bar for decades, and not a week goes by without the pub of old timers running out of about five liters of its cult supply – which is a quantity noticeable in a nation of obsessive beer drinkers and on an island of 8,000 residents.
Arfsten nodded to bartender Andreas Hansen, who produced an unlabelled chilled bottle and two other goblets. One for me, the other for the bartender. It was an unexpected welcome, and soon the aperitifs were topped with maraschino cherries enriched across the belly with cocktail sticks. A moment later, our glasses were empty.
“Do you want another one?” Hansen asked, hovering nearby with the bottle in hand, which he had filled with a glass canister filled with premixed liquid. “Manhattan has a long tradition here and everyone has grown up with it. Weddings, funerals, parties, baptisms – we drink one on almost every occasion. And some people can easily drink a dozen at one time. Why? Because of nostalgia, I guess. “
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Mr. Manhattan had his farm to take care of – asking me to come and see him the next morning – so I wondered about Föhr and his nostalgia for a cocktail born at the other end of the world in New York. The world is full of people who have never heard of a Manhattan, much less want to drink one, but there are others who not only know the cocktail well designed, but treat it with such religious fervor that it is sacred as holy water. Such fanatics can only be found on Föhr.
But where does this obsession come from?
If you want to understand Föhr and his love for Manhattan, you have to understand the geography and history of the island. Long before the cult drink took hold of the island’s subconscious, Föhr was little more than an island of farmers and fishermen, a laid-back community 10 km from the mainland, where the way of life was shaped by land, the North Sea and the elements. Money was scarce, work even more scarce and the workforce went hunting for whales.
The whaling industry, which stretched from New Bedford and Nantucket in Massachusetts to Tasmania, Australia, collapsed at the end of the 19th century and the whalers of Föhr had to close their doors. Wave after wave of emigration ensued. First in Hamburg, 200 km to the south, then, in America, 6,000 km, where fortune awaited. Some felt the gravitational pull of the California gold rush, but the majority stayed on the east coast of the United States. Soon, the Big Apple is full of refugees from the North Sea.
Soon, new family businesses flourish across the Atlantic. German deli meats have opened in Brooklyn; bakeries have appeared in the Bronx; and, above all, the bartenders learned the art of aperitif in Manhattan. Around this time, around the 1880s, an on-demand party drink using rye whiskey, a sweet vermouth modifier and bitters was invented at the Manhattan Club of New York (on the contrary, another legend claims that it was a myth and that the drink was, in fact, invented at Hoffman’s house in the 1870s). Coincidence that this cocktail recipe finally came back across the Atlantic? Not likely.
Far from the pubs and bars of Wyk – on country roads after the 13th-century Frisian cathedral, where you can see the tombstones of the whalers – it’s easy to get an idea of what keeps the Friesians linked to Föhr . There are huge beaches, shallow seas and thatched houses and picturesque farms unchanged from medieval times. But that’s accompanied by the occasional meow from the North Sea and the kind of biblical rain that drove Noah to rush to the shipyard.
Even so, Föhr is also the kind of place that lends itself to fancy flights, like me who shows up on a farm on a whim, just before dark, and hoping to find more answers. Knowing that Arfsten was busy, I rang the doorbell for Jan Robert Hinrichsen, whose well-kept cattle farm on the west coast is also home to Hinrichsens Inselwhisky, the island’s first and only whiskey distillery. I had heard of his new business and it seemed likely that he knew more.
Hinrichsen told me that in 1865 his great-great-grandfather, Hinrich Cornelius, joined the Frisian exodus to New York, returning 15 years later to bring money back to the family farm. In keeping with tradition, his son then took a boat to America in 1905 to become a bartender, with his heir – the father of Jan Hinrichsen – born in the Bronx, before the family returned to Föhr in 1959.
“My father kept his American accent until the day of his death,” said Hinrichsen, leading us from fields of barley lit by twilight in a cattle shed the size of a shed to his newly distillery. launched. “He was still homesick for New York but was Frisian at heart. I remember he said it was easier for a Frisian to feel welcomed in New York than in Bavaria. “
With such a close connection between the two places, it is not difficult to imagine that the Frisians return to Germany and bring with them their love of New York bar culture. “We are revelers at heart, so it made sense,” said Hinrichsen, tapping a barrel and offering me a two-year-old whiskey for a tasting. “This island has endured difficult years of whaling and farming, and alcohol consumption has become an integral part of our social fabric. From birth to death, this is part of who we are. “
The next day, I arrived at Arfsten’s farm to be greeted not by Jann-Oluf but by his wife Beate, who I later learned was the architect of much of the modern renaissance of Manhattan. “The premixed cocktail mix was my husband’s idea,” she said, leaning forward as if telling me a secret, “but I ended up doing all the hard work.”
Given the history of Föhr’s intemperance, it should not have been surprising that the husband-wife team had a well-stocked and beautifully designed wooden counter in their home. More than that, however, were stacked cases of branded “Föhrer Manhattan Cocktail”, which they had premixed and packaged at home for 20 years. On the pop-top bottle label was the New York of the millennium, before the fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center, with a horizon as powerful and moving as the content. Surprisingly, Beate tells me, the couple sells more than 6,000 bottles a year to islanders and tourists.
The biggest surprise was that the Manhattan home mix was born on a whim. For ease and convenience, said Beate, Jann-Oluf and two friends were frustrated with mixing their own Manhattans at home and wanted a bottle that they could just take straight from the fridge. Almost overnight, the most improbable memory of northern Germany was born, and to this day almost all the houses in Föhr have a bottle of the concoction in a cold room. “It’s like learning the Coca-Cola secret recipe,” said Beate of the blending process. “Balance, taste, the right mix – that’s why we sell all of our stocks every year.”
Make no mistake: Föhr’s obsession with Manhattan is more than the right blend of whiskey and vermouth. Perhaps, I thought, its popularity was also linked to the cold and harsh weather of winter and the hot hangover of summer which is also characteristic of New York. The endless movement of people coming and going. It was tempting to search for metaphors, but then I lost track of my thoughts.
“Do you want a drink before you go?” Beate asked, filling an unanswered cup. I looked at the Manhattan on the table, the presence of glass amplified by the heavy silence in the room around us. It would have been very rude not to accept it. Especially not here.
Islands of Imagination is a BBC travel series that travels to some of the most unique, extreme and beautiful places in the world that have been inimitably shaped by their geographic isolation.
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