The Manhattan is a classic cocktail made with whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. This simple, spirit-forward tipple showcases the flavors of the whiskey much like a Martini highlights gin.
In fact, the Manhattan could be thought of as a “whiskey martini”. Both classic cocktails are made with a base spirit, vermouth, and bitters. And while Martinis were traditionally made with gin, but later commonly made with vodka, the Manhattan was originally made with rye whiskey and now frequently made with bourbon.
The history of the cocktail
Spicy rye whiskey was the liquor of choice when the Manhattan was first created sometime in the mid to late 1800s. There’s a popular story about the first Manhattan cocktail being created at the Manhattan Club in New York City for a political banquet.
The story goes that Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, organized the party for a presidential candidate, and bartender Iain Marshall invented the now classic whiskey cocktail for the event. The drink became fashionable and took on the name of the club – The Manhattan.
However, it’s known that Lady Churchill was not in New York during that time, so the true history of the cocktail remains a mystery. Find further reading on the history of the Manhattan as well as a comprehensive list of recipe variations over on Difford’s Guide.
Why choose rye over bourbon
Many prefer their Manhattans with bourbon, but the original cocktail called for rye (actually it was rye-heavy Canadian whisky). Rye whiskey has a spicy, peppery quality that’s toned down just enough by the sweet vermouth and bitters.
Bourbons tend to have a sweeter, more syrupy quality that can feel too sweet or too heavy when enhanced by the sweet vermouth. I prefer the spicier flavors of rye for most of my whiskey cocktails, and my bourbon for sipping neat. If you like your drinks on the sweeter side, try the Manhattan with both whiskeys and see which you like best.
How to make a perfect stirred Manhattan
To make a perfect, ice-cold Manhattan, carefully measure your whiskey of choice and sweet vermouth. The classic ratio is two ounces of whiskey to one ounce of vermouth.
Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass (a pint glass does well in a pinch) and add a couple dashes of Angostura bitters. Alternatively, you can use orange bitters, or one dash each Angostura and orange.
Fill the mixing glass with ice and stir for a long time to thoroughly chill and properly dilute the drink.
Note: I don’t recommend shaking Manhattans. Because the drink contains no juices or dairy, shaking is unnecessary and adds a lot of air to the drink. Simply stirring for a long time (about 30 stirs) will make the drink very cold, diluted just enough, and give it a silky mouthfeel.
If you like a shaken Manhattan, you probably like a shaken Vesper Martini!
Now, place a Julep (or Hawthorne) strainer over the glass and strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass. You can chill your glass in the freezer ahead of time, or chill it on the spot by placing some ice and water in the glass while you prepare the drink. Dump the ice water just before straining the Manhattan into the glass.
How to garnish
The classic Manhattan garnish is a cocktail or brandied cherry. I like to use the decadent Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. A syrupy sweet cherry is the perfect complement to the boozy bite of whiskey and vermouth.
Save the cherry for the end to accompany your last sip. Or garnish with three cherries and have one with the beginning, middle, and end!
Instead of a cherry, some prefer to garnish with Manhattans with a lemon twist. The oils from an expressed lemon peel amplify the sweet flavors in the vermouth, making the drink feel even more balanced. My favorite way to make a Manhattan is with an expressed lemon twist (which is then discarded) and a single Luxardo cherry.
Manhattan recipe variations
There are many riffs and variations on this classic. One of my all time favorites is the Remember the Maine, a mix of rye, vermouth, cherry liqueur and a dash of absinthe. Here are six popular Manhattan variations:
- Black Manhattan: 2 oz rye whiskey, 1 oz Averna Amaro, 1 dash Angostura bitters, 1 dash orange bitters, cocktail cherry for garnish.
- Dry Manhattan: 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey, 1 oz dry vermouth, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, cocktail cherry for garnish.
- Perfect Manhattan: 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey, 1/2 oz sweet vermouth, 1/2 oz dry vermouth, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, cocktail cherry for garnish.
- Rob Roy: 2 oz blended Scotch whisky, 1 oz sweet vermouth, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, cocktail cherry for garnish.
- Revolver: 2 oz bourbon whiskey, 1/2 oz coffee liqueur, 2 dashes orange bitters, orange twist for garnish.
- Remember the Maine: 2 oz rye whiskey, 3/4 oz sweet vermouth, 2 tsp Cherry Heering, absinthe rinse, lemon twist for garnish.
You may also enjoy these other rye whiskey cocktails:
Classic Rye Manhattan (And 6 Manhattan Variations!)
- 2 oz rye whiskey
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and fill it about 3/4 with ice.
- Stir until very cold, about 30 seconds. Strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a cocktail cherry or an expressed lemon twist (or both).