For most of my life, I considered Manischewitz to be a sacred drink, though it's about as holy as gefilte fish—a delicious version of which is made under the same brand (the food and liquor businesses split up in 1987). The key to its continued popularity and use among a certain chosen population is that it's kosher, though other kosher brands more appealing to oenophiles have lately gained popularity.
Another draw is tradition: it's often the first type of alcohol offered to young Jews by their parents, to be imbibed for the requisite four cups of wine at the Passover seder while the adults drink yucky, grown-up red wine. When I was 12, returning from a seder at a relative's house, my dad had a good laugh after I announced to the car that I finally knew what being drunk meant, thanks to Manischewitz. I swore I would never drink another type of alcohol, which was quickly forgotten with the onset of secular underage drinking. But it came back to me recently when I threw a party with a bunch of cheap liquor and no mixers but Mani.
The party was conceived in a post-Passover period of Manischewitz withdrawal when it suddenly occurred to me that the bottles are sold year-round, and that they're really very cheap. The ingredient might not appeal to all palates, but neither does bottom-of-the-line vodka, like the kind you find at college parties. Might the overpowering flavors cancel each other out? With a drop of research, it was determined that, oh yes, they absolutely did. Plus, Manischewitz is itself alcoholic, so the cocktail packs a bigger punch than your average Solo Cup-filler.
But the crucial question remained: what would the gentiles think? They arrived slowly and eyed the spread my friend and I had cobbled together on my kitchen table. "OK, I'll try one," said one of the more adventurous ones. I rattled off some options, poured him a cup, and watched the magic happen. "It's . . . not bad!" he announced, and the others gathered 'round the table, entreating me for their own. No dreidels were broken out, but everyone seemed to have a great time, and the drinks went down fast and smooth. The six or seven bottles were drained between 25 or 30 people in under two hours, leaving a dedicated few who weren't already drunk enough to shoot vodka and chase it—in fine Jewish fashion—with pickle juice.
The Manischewitz cocktail party: it's cheap, efficient, and delicious. To help you kick off your own passed-out Passover, here are a few crude recipes:
1 part cheap vodka
1-2 parts Manischewitz
Pour the ingredients into a plastic cup. Say a toast—may I suggest "l'chaim"?—and tilt it back. It goes down real smooth.
1 part cheap gin
1-2 parts Manischewitz, the weird cherry flavor if you've got it
Follow the above directions. With a twist of lime, it becomes a Mazel Tov cocktail.
1 part cheap tequila
1-2 parts part Manischewitz
A twist of lime or a splash of grenadine, depending on how you like your tequila sunrises