Cocktail Queries: What Makes for a Great Manhattan?Photos via Unsplash, Drew Beamer, Emily Andreeva Drink Features cocktails
Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in our Cocktail Queries series in the last few years at Paste, answering commonly asked questions about making home cocktails, as well as diving deep into individual spirits to explore topics like the best bourbon under $30, or defining the house styles of iconic Kentucky whiskey distilleries. Now, we’re drilling down on the “cocktail” in the title with this subseries on individual, classic cocktails, in order to answer the question of what makes for a great example of one of these drinks. What’s the key to a great old fashioned, for instance? A great Manhattan? A great daiquiri? A great negroni? We’ll explore them all, and then some.
Now that we have a first entry on the old fashioned cocktail under our belt, the Manhattan is an obvious next stop. Although the old fashioned was perhaps the first drink to ever be described with the term “cocktail,” the Manhattan is more likely the sort of image that first comes to mind when you hear the word “cocktail” uttered. Along with the martini, it is arguably the most iconic cocktail preparation—visually simple, elegant, effortlessly cool. It’s the kind of drink you can order without fear in almost any bar, and have at least some idea of what you’ll be receiving … although a bad Manhattan is a particularly insipid drink, sadly.
Like many other classic cocktails, the Manhattan has an apocryphal backstory that has most likely been invented piecemeal over the decades, and it’s really not worth getting into the legends here. Suffice to say, the drink has existed in some form since roughly the 1860s or 1870s, and has never really waned in its popularity. You will see some debate as to ratios and how sweet or dry a Manhattan should ultimately be, but at its core, the drink has always remained a foundational classic of American cocktails.
So, what makes for a well-executed Manhattan? Let’s get into it.
A stock-standard, center of the bullseye recipe for a standard Manhattan is as follows, via the International Bartenders Association.
— 2.5 oz American whiskey (most likely rye whiskey)
— 1 oz sweet Italian vermouth
— 1-2 healthy dashes of aromatic bitters (Angostura, or other)
Combine whiskey, vermouth and bitters in a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir. Strain cocktail into a cocktail glass or coupe glass. Optionally garnish with maraschino cherry. Serve.
There it is—a very simple recipe. However, we should note a few things such as the ratio, which has split the difference between 2:1 whiskey to vermouth and 3:1 whiskey to vermouth. Classically, the 2:1 ratio was more common, but modern tastes in the late 21st century tended to push most drinks in a drier and more spirit-forward direction, making 3:1 ratios considerably more common. In the last few years, however, there has been something of a return to acknowledging the importance of good vermouth in a well-made Manhattan, and a 2:1 or 2.5:1 ratio seems to increasingly be coming back into favor.
Let’s examine each of the ingredients here in more depth.
The Manhattan is a simple but lovely drink.
Manhattan Cocktail Ingredients
As you read about the Manhattan cocktail, you’ll see countless variations with names like a “Cuban Manhattan” (with rum) or “brandy Manhattan,” but these are best thought of as different drinks that have borrowed the Manhattan iconography or ratio—this is a whiskey cocktail, and there’s not really any room for argument on that one. Whiskey is the base upon which the Manhattan is built.
Likewise, you’ll see debate on the use of bourbon or rye whiskey in a Manhattan, but unlike in the old fashioned, where I argued that the use of either bourbon or rye is pretty much equally justified, the Manhattan really does call for some quality rye whiskey. Whereas the old fashioned has some leeway to build itself around the greater sweetness/richness of bourbon, the classic Manhattan profile should really be built around the drier, spicier profile of rye. Making a Manhattan with bourbon runs the risk of a cocktail that ultimately turns out too sweet or syrupy, especially if you’re working with a particularly sweet vermouth. A well-made Manhattan has some element of sweetness, but it’s also a pretty easy cocktail to drink, and not a particularly decadent or desserty one. As a result, rye whiskey is your friend here.
As in the old fashioned, though, it’s best to start from a place of strength when making a spirit-forward cocktail like the Manhattan—you want a quality rye whiskey of around 100 proof or more, lest you run the risk of the drink tasting flat or flavorless after mixing and dilution. For the budget-conscious, this means a classic bottom shelf hero like Heaven Hill’s 100 proof Rittenhouse Rye, the winner of our cheap rye whiskey blind tasting. Those with a bit bigger budget will get plenty of kick, meanwhile, out of building a Manhattan around a cask-strength rye such as Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye. This flavor profile may be too intense for some, but with proper dilution you should find it very flavorful without being overtly boozy.
Strong, or even cask-strength rye is the way to go.
Vermouth is the unsung hero of the Manhattan cocktail, in much the same way as it’s an underappreciated element of the classic Martini. It’s the element that transforms the drink from being “whiskey with some bitters” into the delicious elixir we know and love, adding vinous and herbaceous flavors that infuse a Manhattan with more complexity. This is why it’s such a shame that many home Manhattans are made with some of the cheapest vermouth available from the local supermarket—it’s doing a disservice to your good rye whiskey to make your Manhattan with crappy vermouth. It’s like making a burger from Kobe beef, and then putting it on a frozen, enriched supermarket bun.
Quality vermouth, then, is perhaps the best overall way of upgrading the Manhattan cocktail you’re making at home, bringing it in line with the kind of Manhattan you expect to receive when ordering one at a quality restaurant or cocktail bar. You can even do a test—make one Manhattan with the bottom-shelf supermarket vermouth that costs $5, and another with a quality vermouth such as Carpano Antica Formula. The richness brought out by the Antica, with its bright red berry and sweet/floral vanilla notes, will result in a far more interesting cocktail. It’s one of those home bar upgrades that may seem unnecessary on paper, but after you taste the difference, you’ll have trouble buying cheapo vermouth ever again.
Likewise, the ratio of whiskey to vermouth is of significant importance. For years, this drink had seemed to be trending drier and drier, with ratios of 3:1 or even 4:1 replacing the more historically common 2:1. More recently, it seems like the role of vermouth is being rediscovered and highlighted once again, and the 2:1 is back in vogue. Try making the Manhattan at several different ratios to determine which you like best.
It should go without saying, but we’re talking about Italian sweet/red vermouth here, rather than dry vermouth, which will result in a very different drink indeed. More on that below, in the variants section.
If you listen to one thing I’ve written here, let it be “buy some good vermouth.”
The Manhattan is one of those endlessly adaptable cocktails that can be tailored to any taste or situation, and bitters are one of the easiest ways to do that. The classic Manhattan recipe calls for aromatic bitters, which classically means Angostura, but there are dozens or hundreds of indie bitters companies out there making their own twists on that same spicy formula. Any aromatic bitters brand that you enjoy will probably be quite comfortable in a Manhattan.
You can also use bitters to take the Manhattan in novel or idiosyncratic directions, however. Want a bright, herbaceous and dry Manhattan? Try celery bitters rather than Angostura. Prefer a warmer, more darkly fruity spice profile? You might find mole bitters of interest. Indeed, the Manhattan is perhaps one of the easiest cocktails in the world to use to gauge the flavors of various brands of bitters.
Just don’t tell yourself that you can get away with leaving out the bitters entirely, as this will result in a drink that is both overly sweet and one-dimensional, lacking in balancing bitterness/spice notes. Given that there are only three ingredients here, leaving one of them out will throw everything off. Give your Manhattan the vital dashes of bitters it demands.
Other Manhattan Tips and Variations
Here are some other key things to keep in mind when making a Manhattan, as well as some of the most popular modifications/clones of the drink you’re likely to run into.
— It’s important to note that the Manhattan is meant to be a relatively low volume “up” drink, which is why a well-made version will be served in a classic cocktail glass or coupe in most bars, rather than an old fashioned glass full of ice. A Manhattan receives all the chilling/dilution it needs during its initial mixing—to serve it in an old fashioned glass with ice will only dilute it further, which means you’ll quickly lose its silky texture and wonderful balance between rye whiskey spice and vermouth’s sweetness/fruitiness. The only time you should expect to see a Manhattan served over ice is in the context of a dive bar setting, where the bartender can’t be expected to care about proper glassware, or in a restaurant without a proper bar program. For your home bartending purposes, this means you need to get some cocktail glasses, although we personally prefer the stability of the coupe shape.
— As with the old fashioned, the Manhattan is classically stirred with ice rather than shaken, which creates a thicker, silkier texture rather than the frothier texture of a shaken drink. We’ve written more on shaking vs. stirring cocktails here.
— When it comes to garnishes, you can elect to go in a citrus direction, via a twist of lemon or orange peel, but the maraschino cherry is another popular option that is hard to disagree with. High quality maraschino cherries such as Luxardo can add a very nice jammy/dark fruit note to the drink, without adding a ton of residual sweetness—unless of course you add some of the cherry juice/syrup, if you’re feeling really decadent.
— Manhattan variations and clones abound, due to both the recognizability of the cocktail name and fact that its simple formula invites swapping of both the base liquor and the secondary components. The Manhattan itself is already one of five cocktails named for the five boroughs of New York City, although only the Brooklyn cocktail has a fraction of the Manhattan’s popularity. Other prominent variations include the black Manhattan, a more intensely flavored variant that swaps Averna amaro in for the sweet vermouth, or the classic Rob Roy, which swaps in scotch whisky for the rye. You’ve also got the so-called Perfect Manhattan, which uses equal parts sweet and dry vermouth (a rather pointless substitution if you ask us), and more adventurous spins such as the Toronto, which is made with Canadian whiskey, Fernet Branca, sugar and bitters. You’ll never stop finding new cocktails that describe themselves as “like a Manhattan, but with …”
And there you have it. The classic Manhattan is a drink of elegance and balance—not particularly boozy or sweet, but full of character and highlighting the best attributes of each of its three ingredients. Now go get some quality rye, some good vermouth, and a jar of excellent maraschino cherries, and mix one up at home—but don’t put it over ice.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.