…give us the manhattan, cold and dusky in a frosted glass, the luxurious swirl of rye and vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters for tone, the one and only cocktail that really demands a cherry. Mark Kingwell, Classic Cocktails, a Modern Shake

There you have the template for one of the oldest of the classic cocktails. Various stories place the invention of the Manhattan in the 1870s or early 1880s, predating even the venerable martini. As with many of the great cocktails, there seems to be some mystery about its whereabouts before its first appearance in print; the Manhattan is first recorded in the 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas’s Bon Vivant’s Companion.

The Manhattan that Kingwell describes, the one in general circulation these days, is based on the Savoy Cocktail Book’s “Manhattan Cocktail (No. 2)”*, a blend of two parts Canadian Club whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters—shaken, alas!

Modern mixology makes it a blend of two to four parts whiskey, one part vermouth, and a healthy spicing of bitters.

Manhattan Cocktail, photo © 2010 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Manhattan

Manhattans can rightfully be made with either rye or bourbon. Rye provides a drier, spicier, less caramelly drink compared to bourbon. Historians tell us that rye is likely the “authentic” Manhattan whiskey, but the rye whiskey industry was moribund for decades, as the spirit disappeared from back bars and store shelves. Some analysts blame vodka, some the politics and economics of consolidating bourbon makers or liquor distributors. Whatever the reason, when I started making Manhattans, I think I had never drunk rye in my life, and bourbon was my only option. Tasty and readily available, Maker’s Mark was my Manhattan whiskey of choice for years, and continues to be my second choice for bourbon Manhattans, since most bars in my area still don’t stock even a single rye. (First bourbon choice? The dry, spicy, high-rye Bulleit.)

(Another funny thing about the bars in the Minneapolis area—unless you specifically order your Manhattan “up,” you’re likely to get one served on the rocks.)

So what about other whiskies? For starters, if you’re a Scotch lover there’s the Rob Roy, which is made on the Manhattan plan, but with your Scotch of choice.

As for blended whiskies, never, ever, let some bartender try to tell you that Manhattans should be made with something like Canadian Club. I don’t care what the Savoy Cocktail Book says, that’s just wrong. The idea that CC can replace a good rye whiskey is just a canard left over from Prohibition. Canadian is a completely different whiskey style, and the Manhattan is no place for Canadian whiskies.

Even farther along the scale, there is currently a fashion for what’s known as “white dog,” whiskey bottled without the flavoring and coloring effects of oak barrel aging. This spirit naturally suggests the “white Manhattan” parlor trick that combines the clear whiskey, dry (white) vermouth, and orange bitters. Matt Hamlin wrote up an example of this recently (“Ghost Manhattan), and reports that he was favorably impressed. He also says he could have confused it with a martini. I haven’t tried it yet (no more room on the whiskey shelf), so I’m trying to keep an open mind. Apparently it’s a real and palatable cocktail, but when something is called a Manhattan, I want it to taste like a Manhattan, redolent of oaky whiskey, red vermouth (no “dry” Manhattans for me, thank you), and Angostura. The Ghost Manhattan sounds like an interesting and tasty drink, and I’ll look forward to trying one, but I’m just sayin’…

So, back to good American rye or bourbon, providing us with one of the oldest and greatest of the classic cocktails:

The Manhattan Cocktail

  • 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey (Rittenhouse 100 rye, Bulleit or Maker’s Mark bourbon)
  • ¾–1 oz sweet vermouth (M&R, Dolin)
  • 4 dashes Angostura bitters

The Manhattan is never shaken—stir with ice until very cold, then strain into a well-chilled cocktail glass. Optionally, garnish with brandied cherry.

Spirits: The Cold Glass benchmark rye is Rittenhouse 100. As noted above, I usually go with Bulleit or Maker’s for bourbon Manhattans. Part of the attraction of the Bulleit is the rye-ness of it, but it is also relatively higher proof than many, making for “a more incisive and balanced drink,” as David Wondrich puts it in Imbibe!

Vermouth: I have been very happy with M&R sweet vermouth; the sweeter Dolin is a pleasant alternative if you apply it with a light hand, as is Dubonnet. (And there’s Bénédictine, but then you would have a Derby.)

Bitters: I generally stick with Angostura, or occasionally Fee Brothers Whiskey-Barrel Aged. A drop of orange bitters can be very pleasant in a bourbon-based drink; orange peel makes a very nice garnish for that formulation—and gives you the “Uptown Manhattan” of Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz’s Art of the Bar.

Garnish: The maraschino cherry is the traditional garnish, but I’ve never met anyone who had access to real ones—just the ubiquitous neon red ones. Instead, you can  follow the minimalist route and go garnish-free, or garnish with lemon or orange peel. I prefer one brandied cherry; these are incredibly easy to make, and there are lots of recipes on the web.

Stir: Many sources, including some that should know better, suggest shaking Manhattans to chill. That’s very naughty, I don’t know what they’re thinking on that. Shaking generates an unattractive, cloudy drink with a long-lasting layer of soapy-looking bubbles across the top.

* Yes, the Savoy has a “Manhattan Cocktail (No. 1),” of course, essentially a glass of vermouth with some whiskey in it. I’d love to know the story of how the drink evolved from (No. 1) to (No. 2).

Extra reading:

Gary Regan’s survey of Manhattans from the bartender’s point of view

Robert Hess provides a video, with some background on bitters.