What's the Right Way to Make a Manhattan?

Clair McLafferty
Clair McLafferty / Clair McLafferty

The Manhattan's recipe is simple: whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. It doesn’t quite follow the original definition of a cocktail since it adds wine-based sweet vermouth to the standard sugar, bitters, booze, and (maybe) water, but it does have some similarities to another whiskey cocktail: the Old Fashioned.

Cocktail lovers may argue over whether to use rye or bourbon whiskey, or what brand of vermouth makes the best Manhattan, but its basic recipe is pretty much standardized. Though the recipe is less contentious than the Old Fashioned’s, their exact origins are the same: unknown.

Inventing History

The most common myth about the Manhattan’s invention is that it was created in 1874 at the Manhattan Club for a party thrown by Lady Jennie Churchill. Though it’s a fun story, it’s not true. At the time she supposedly threw this party, Lady Churchill’s presence in England was documented, since the date overlaps with Winston’s birth and christening, according to David Wondrich’s Imbibe!.

The more likely story comes from William Mulhall, a bartender at New York City’s Hoffman House for about three decades starting in the 1880s. He wrote a story that recounts that the Manhattan was invented in the late 1860s by a bartender named Black who worked in the borough. Even this anecdote comes with a bit of doubt, however, because Mulhall would have been writing a couple decades after the cocktail’s invention.

Rad Ratios

The original Manhattan was likely a stirred mixture of equal parts whiskey and sweet vermouth. Like the Martini, the ratio of whiskey to vermouth also changed over the years, but its recipe hasn’t changed quite as much as the Martini’s. Nowadays, a 2:1 ratio is widely accepted as the standard. This recipe had emerged by 1892, and is documented in William Schmidt’s The Flowing Bowl. By the mid-20th century, it had become the standard.

In the 19th century, the Manhattan was definitely made with rye whiskey. Between the American Revolution and Prohibition, rye whiskey was the most popular variety of whiskey. After Prohibition, popular tastes shifted, and rye’s image went from suave to gutter punk.

As a result, bartenders would have substituted whatever whiskey was available into their Manhattans. Since rye had fallen out of favor, Canadian whiskies (which can all legally be labeled as rye, but that’s another story) or bourbon would have become the norm.

Hit the Lab

If you make any tweaks to the Manhattan’s formula, you’re likely to accidentally make a drink with an entirely different name. If you add three dashes of absinthe and two of orange bitters, you’ve made a Sherman. Replace half of the sweet vermouth with dry, and voilà! A Perfect Manhattan. Substitute Scotch for rye, and you’re drinking a Rob Roy.

Manhattan (19th century)
From David Wondrich’s 'Imbibe!'
2 or 3 dashes Angostura bitters
1-2 dashes gomme Arabic syrup
1 1/2 oz whiskey
1 1/2 oz vermouth

Fill glass three-quarters full of fine shaved ice, mix well with a spoon, strain in fancy cocktail glass and serve. (note: from Jerry Thomas’s How To Mix Drinks 1884 edition)

Manhattan (modern)
Adapted from David Embury’s 'The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks'
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz Italian vermouth
2 oz Whisky

Combine ingredients in a bar glass or Martini pitcher with large cubes of ice and stir well. Pour into chilled cocktail glasses. Add a stemmed or speared maraschino cherry to each glass.