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The Manhattan Cocktail

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Like the Martini - with which it shares a sophisticated simplicity - the Manhattan is one of the classic cocktails. For such an understated drink however1, there are many different ways of mixing it. Should it be rye whiskey or bourbon? Angostura bitters or orange bitters? Sweet or dry vermouth? Shaken or stirred? Manhattan drinkers will argue all combinations and permutations of those factors.

Unlike the Martini however, it's much easier to make a good Manhattan, and, some will argue, much easier to drink. The Manhattan has never suffered from the machismo that goes with drinking ever drier Martinis. Manhattan drinkers are after a cocktail they can enjoy without having to worry too much about a hangover.


There seem to be almost as many stories concerning the origins of the Manhattan as their are ways of mixing one, but this particular tale is the most widely accepted:

In 1874, socialite Jenny Jerome2 threw a party at The Manhattan Club in New York City to honour Samuel J Tilden who had just been elected Governor of New York. She wanted to create a drink for this special occasion and spoke to the bartender, who mixed rye whiskey, sweet and dry vermouth, and a dash of bitters. Jenny, being utterly satisfied with the result named the new cocktail 'The Manhattan', after the club.

The Ingredients

There are four ingredients in a classic Manhattan:

  • Whiskey
  • Vermouth
  • Bitters
  • Garnish

The Whiskey

This should be either rye whiskey or bourbon. Supposedly the first Manhattan was made with rye, which is what extreme purists will insist on in their drink. Rye whiskey takes the name from its primary ingredient, being distilled from a combination of at least 51% rye grain, along with corn (maize), and barley malt. Before the 1920s, most whiskey in the US was rye, but during Prohibition it became more and more difficult to obtain. Canadian whiskey however, most brands of which are rye whiskey, was relatively easy to get by way of illegal imports, and after Prohibition the US rye whiskey industry never recovered. Making whiskey is a time-consuming process, and as the Canadian distilleries had never been forced to halt production, there was a ready supply of Canadian whiskey just waiting for a nation of thirsty American drinkers. Rye therefore became synonymous with Canadian whiskey.

Bourbon is a different product in that it must be made with at least 51% corn, plus a combination of other grains3. It must be distilled to an alcohol-by-volume content of no more than 80% (160 proof), and aged in new American oak barrels, the insides of which have been charred. Originally it was only made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and was called 'Whiskey from Bourbon'. Nowadays it can legally be made anywhere in the US, and is simply called bourbon.

Bourbon is a somewhat smoother, sweeter whiskey than rye4, and seems to sit more comfortably with modern tastes. However, you may find regional and even seasonal differences dictating whether you get rye or bourbon in your Manhattan. Rye is more common in bars on the American east coast, but once you travel west and reach Kentucky and the Appalachian Mountains you're more likely to find bourbon in your Manhattan unless you specify rye whiskey. There is also a tradition with some people of using rye in their Manhattan for most of the year, but changing to bourbon when the Kentucky Derby is run (the first week in May), then reverting to rye at the end of summer.

The Vermouth

Vermouth is made by infusing wine with herbs, spices, and other aromatic botanicals5, and is thus a fortified wine.

For many years6 it was common to refer to French vermouth (dry) and Italian vermouth (sweet), but as new types of vermouth came onto the market, such as Bianco and Extra Dry, and because sweet vermouth is now made in France and dry vermouth made in Italy, the former geographical names are now rarely used. According to legend both were used in equal measure to make the very first one, and a Manhattan of this kind is called a Manhattan Perfect.

As a rule of thumb, the amount of vermouth in a Manhattan should be about one third that of the whiskey (by volume).


Bitters are an alcoholic distillation of herbs, spices, roots, and leaves. They add a bitter, zesty flavour to drinks (and the colour to a Pink Gin) and should be added sparingly - a drop or a dash at a time - as the product is highly concentrated.

The most well known of all the bitters is Angostura. Originally created in Venezuela by a German (Dr Johann Siegert), production now takes place in Trinidad. Angostura bitters is reputedly the most widely sold bar ingredient in the world and should be familiar to anyone who has ever worked as a bartender or set up a home bar of any pretension.

Orange bitters may be less well known - it's much less common today than it once was, and as the name suggests, its flavour leans heavily towards citrus. Orange bitters is quite hard to find these days unless you have a specialist shop nearby, so here's a recipe to enable you to make your own.

The Garnish

These days you will most likely find a maraschino cherry in your Manhattan, but it's likely that very first Manhattan was served without a garnish. Depending on the type of Manhattan you ask for, you may find the aforementioned cherry, a cocktail onion, or a twist of lemon in your cocktail.

It's not unknown for some people to add a little of the liquid from the jar of maraschino cherries to their Manhattan. Probably frowned upon by purists, this is entirely a matter of taste.

The Recipes

The Manhattan Perfect

  • 3 parts rye whiskey
  • ½ part each of sweet and dry vermouth
  • A drop or two of bitters
  • A maraschino cherry

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour in the whiskey, bitters, and vermouth and shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, add the cherry.

For a dry or a sweet Manhattan, simply make it with all Italian or all French vermouth respectively.

More Variations

For a Manhattan on-the-rocks, strain the mixture into a double Old-Fashioned glass filled with ice. Add the cherry and a cocktail straw.

Manhattan South

  • 2 parts gin
  • 1 part dry vermouth
  • 1 part Southern Comfort
  • A dash of Angostura bitters
Shake with cracked ice and pour into a cocktail glass.

The Brandy Manhattan

  • 2 parts brandy
  • ½ part sweet vermouth
  • 2 drops of Angostura bitters
  • A dash of maraschino juice

Shake with cracked ice, pour into a tumbler and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

The Rob Roy

Use the classic Manhattan recipe, but replace the rye/bourbon with Scotch whisky. As with the Manhattan, the Rob Roy can be made Perfect, sweet, or dry.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there is much scope for experimentation, but how far do you have to travel from the original recipe before it becomes an entirely new drink? That of course, is always up for debate. There are recipes which substitute rum for the whiskey and call it a Jamaican Manhattan. Another replaces the whiskey with Kirsch and calls it a Swiss Manhattan. It's entirely up to you whether you stick to the classic recipes or try out new ones.

1Compared to some newer cocktails which require many ingredients and garnishes, and which aren't considered complete without gee-gaws such as cocktail umbrellas and/or sparklers.2Who later became Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Sir Winston.3Usually rye grain and barley malt.4Unless you're buying top quality rye.5Anything from the plant world - flowers, seed pods, bark, etc.6And at the time that the first Manhattan was mixed.

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