The Manhattan Cocktail is a classic.
It’s classic in the way the Mona Lisa is classic. Everyone agrees it’s a great work of art, but the kids aren’t hanging Mona Lisa prints in their apartments.
I’ve seen exactly one person order a Manhattan in a bar – a coworker at his own retirement party.
Still, the Manhattan demonstrates an important template for many cocktails including the Martini – the use of vermouth as a sweetener.
Vermouth, I’ve found, is one of two critically important factors to making a good Manhattan. The other is proper chilling.
When either of these aspects is off, the resulting Manhattan is downright unpleasant. In my opinion, this contributes to the Manhattan’s decline in popularity. Cocktail enthusiasts try it, get a bad one, and never try it again.
I’ll show you how to make it right.
Manhattan Cocktail Recipe
- Add whiskey, vermouth, and bitters to a mixing glass
- Add ice and stir until chilled
- Strain into a chilled cocktail glass
- Garnish with a cocktail cherry
Detailed instructions and notes
Add ingredients to the mixing glass. Add the bitters first, then the vermouth, then the whiskey. Always add your most expensive ingredients last.
Okay, how about this one? A guy walks into a bar and orders a Manhattan. The bartender fills a cocktail shaker with ice, adds vermouth and whiskey, and then swirls the shaker with a limp wrist for a couple of seconds. The guy drinks his warm Manhattan, pays, and leaves. He never returns.Jeffrey Morgenthaler. The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. 2014.
For a quality Manhattan, we need to get it really cold. Proper stirring technique is critical. Please don’t shake it – you don’t want a frothy Manhattan.
Add ice cubes and cracked ice. Use about 1/3 the amount of cracked ice as ice cubes. Fill the mixing glass three-quarters full of ice. It may seem like a lot of ice, but this is how stirred cocktails get properly cold.
Stir for 30-45 seconds which feels like an eternity when you’re actually stirring. An easy way to time it is to silently sing the Happy Birthday song three times.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or a coupe and garnish with a Luxardo cherry.
Best whiskey for a Manhattan cocktail
The classic whiskey for a Manhattan is rye, but during prohibition they used Canadian whiskey because it was easier to find. You can also use bourbon.
This is a spirits-forward cocktail, so the best whiskey is the one you like. The important thing is to find a combination of whiskey and vermouth that pairs well.
If you need recommendations, here are a few of my favorites:
- Sazerac Rye
- Rittenhouse Rye
- Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
Best vermouth for a Manhattan cocktail
Vermouth makes or breaks this cocktail. Vermouths have vastly different flavors from one to another. A french vermouth, like Dolin, will be much sweeter. Italian vermouths tend to be drier and spicier.
My all time favorite sweet vermouth is Carpano Antica Formula. It’s expensive, but it’s complex herbal and vanilla notes are delicious.
Punt e Mes is another great Italian vermouth that’s a little spicier than the Antica, but similar in flavor. (It’s made by Carpano, too).
Cinzano Rosso is another of my favorites that pairs well with bourbons.
As you would expect with any classic cocktail, there are variations.
The Reverse Manhattan inverts the ratio of whiskey to vermouth. In other words, use 2 oz (60 ml) of vermouth and 1 oz (30 ml) of whiskey. This is one for vermouth lovers.
The Dry Manhattan replaces the sweet vermouth with dry vermouth and is garnished with a lemon or orange twist.
The Perfect Manhattan is a compromise between the normal (or sweet) Manhattan and the Dry Manhattan. This recipe replaces half of the sweet vermouth with dry vermouth, so you get both! Use 1/2 oz (15 ml) of sweet vermouth and 1/2 oz (15 ml) of dry vermouth.
The Rob Roy is simply a Manhattan made with Scotch whisky instead of rye or bourbon.
These variations stick with the basic formula of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. There are countless others that swap the whiskey for another base spirit, or add other modifying agents to impart new flavors.
I don’t love the Manhattan.
Made well, it’s a nice alternative when I want whiskey but I’m not in the mood for an Old Fashioned. I like it, but I don’t love it.
I’ve always felt like the Manhattan was missing something. Even with the best whiskey and vermouth, I think it tastes … incomplete.
For me, the thing that really completes the combination of Whiskey and vermouth is Amaro – a category of Italian bitter liqueurs. In fact, there is a drink that is very similar to the Manhattan – it replaces the Angostura with a particular Amaro called Campari, in equal parts with the vermouth. It’s called the Boulevardier, and it’s my favorite cocktail ever.
Campari is very strong and very bitter. Most people would say it’s an “acquired taste” and many people have no desire to acquire it.
So if you don’t like Campari, you’ll enjoy a Manhattan with a good vermouth that’s properly chilled. Made right, it’s deserving of its longtime popularity.
For me, a lover of the bitter Campari, I’ll skip the Manhattan and make a Boulevardier instead.