Essential Whiskey Cocktail: Manhattan

Give a paternity test to many cocktails, and you’ll find the father is the Manhattan. “It was the launching pad for incredible innovation and gave birth to so many other classics,” says Philip Greene, author of The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail with Recipes. But while a DNA test will tell you the Manhattan originated in—you guessed it—New York City, it’s uncertain if the birthplace was the Manhattan Club or the Manhattan Cafe.

According to one legend, the Manhattan Club—a distinguished gentleman’s club at Fifth Avenue and 15th Street—hosted a party in late 1874 to celebrate the election of democrat Samuel Tilden to the governor’s office. At the party, they served a cocktail, which took on the name “Manhattan” after the club. Older stories credit Jennie Jerome, a.k.a. Lady Randolph Churchill, with instructing the bartender to make a special drink to serve that night, but that theory has since been dismissed by most, given that she was in England and pregnant—with a son she named Winston—at the time of the gala.

The other possible birthplace is the Manhattan Cafe, located on Broadway near Broome Street, Greene says. “In the 1920s a bartender reminiscing about the good old days in New York City wrote about a man named Black who invented the Manhattan cocktail at his bar,” he explains. And there is proof that there was indeed a man by that name with a bar on Broadway in the 1870s or 1880s.

Whichever story is true, the introduction of vermouth to the U.S. led to the creation of the Manhattan, Greene says. “Prior to the Manhattan, cocktails usually had one alcoholic ingredient,” he says. “Then, as vermouth became more mainstream in the 1860s, some decided to add it to [what was] basically an Old Fashioned, and it was delicious.” And from the same origins came the Martini, Rob Roy, El Presidente, and more cocktails that incorporated both spirits and vermouth.

The original recipe, according to Henry Johnson’s New and Improved Illustrated Bartenders’ Manual (1882), called for whisky, vermouth, orange bitters, gum syrup (a viscous simple syrup), and “1 dash curacao or absinthe (if required),” an ingredient that the bartender was instructed to add if the customer expressed a preference for a sweet drink.

Once you master the Manhattan, you’ll have a wealth of options for home bartending skills. “It’s a very versatile platform that’s amenable to swapping components,” Greene says.

A Manhattan uses just whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, with a cherry or citrus peel to garnish. (Photo by Ian J. Lauer)

Choose Your Whiskey

Rye is traditional in a Manhattan, and Joseph Bennett, bar manager at New York City’s Fine & Rare, prefers Michter’s rye. “It has the best balance of spice in the flavor profile and it plays well with a bold, full-bodied Italian vermouth,” he explains. If you prefer another rye, be sure to choose one that has a lot of flavor to counterbalance the vermouth, he adds.

You can also use bourbon or Canadian whisky, but be sure to balance the flavor profile with your vermouth. “The Manhattan should elevate the base spirit, bringing out flavors in the whiskey that you can’t taste just served neat or on the rocks,” Bennett explains. He recommends pairing a light Canadian whisky with a light vermouth such as Dolin Rouge, while for a robust bourbon such as Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, a dark Italian vermouth like Punt e Mes or Carpano Antica works well.

Although other whisky isn’t typically used to make a Manhattan, you can experiment, keeping in mind that you may need to adjust the brand of vermouth to complement whatever whisky you choose.

Manhattan Cocktail Recipe

  • 2 oz. rye
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Garnish: cocktail cherry or orange peel

Combine rye, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir well until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with cherry or orange peel, expressed over the glass.

Top Tips

Refrigerate the vermouth
Sweet or dry, vermouth will turn bad if left to sit on your bar cart. Once you open a bottle, store it in the fridge and use it within a month or two.

Chill your glass
Manhattans are best served very cold, so put your coupe in the freezer for about 30 minutes before you make your cocktail.

Use fresh ice
Use large ice cubes that are fresh and haven’t been sitting in the freezer for months. Otherwise you’ll add hints of freezer burn to your drink.

Stir well
To ensure your Manhattan is properly chilled, stir well—30 to 50 times.

Garnish with true maraschino cherries
Adding a sugary, cheap cocktail cherry ruins a carefully crafted Manhattan. Use the real thing, such as Luxardo or Bourbon Barrel, or make your own.

Make It Your Own

  • For a dry Manhattan, use dry vermouth.
  • Make a Perfect Manhattan by using ½ oz. each dry and sweet vermouth.
  • Reverse the ratio: Use 1 part whisky and 2 parts vermouth, which is the recipe that some early cocktail books, like Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide (1887), cite for the Manhattan.
  • Use any bitters or a combination of bitters, such as Angostura and orange.
  • Experiment with an amaro or aperitif in place of vermouth.

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