The Manhattan is a classic cocktail with a very simple recipe: sweet vermouth, whiskey, and bitters. It’s one of five cocktails named for a New York City borough and arguably the best known of the set.
A lot of bartenders think the Manhattan is one of the most basic drinks a bartender should know. The mix of sweet vermouth and bourbon give it a sweet sort of kick, classy but far from not weak. The Manhattan is typically served in lowball glass on the rocks. A dozen variations have been born from the original Manhattan, but the original is such a classic that asking for one at any bar shouldn’t have the bartender looking up the recipe online.
For those of us who are just starting out in our bartending adventures, however, here’s a classic Manhattan recipe:
Instructions: Place ice in a cocktail shaker. Add in whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitter. Stir. Strain into a lowball glass.
The Manhattan’s origins go back to the 1800s. Legend has it that it was first served at the Manhattan nightclub where a Dr. Iain Marshall created for a banquet being hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother in honor a presidential candidate named Samuel J. Tilden. The drink supposedly became fashionable after the banquet’s success (not that Tilden won the presidency because of it) and became known as the Manhattan cocktail.
However, facts don’t bear this legend out, since drinks with similar recipes to the classic Manhattan and also called Manhattan were served in the…Manhattan…area before this party happened. One source claims that the drink was created by a bartender named Black in the 1860s at a long-gone bar on Broadway. Some sources have named the Manhattan other things, like Tennessee Cocktail, though they use the same recipes.
A number of variations of the Manhattan exist, many subbing in other liquors for bourbon, but one thing almost all of them share is vermouth. Vermouth is an ingredient often disregarded when it comes to making great Manhattans, but it can make a big difference. Bourbon (or whiskey, or tequila, or whatever you sub in) may make up the bulk of the drink’s kick, but vermouth offers nice twists of flavors that add some class to the alcohol.
Here are some great, common, and budget-friendly vermouths that will work great in a Manhattan:
This is one of many sweet vermouths that come to us from out of Italy. Most Manhattans are made with sweet vermouth rather than dry vermouth, though Dry Manhattans and Perfect Manhattans contain dry vermouth.
The Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth will sweeten up your Manhattan quite a bit, especially if you use a lot of it. If you or your guests (or, as in the writer’s case, your father) like sweet drinks, make your Manhattans with this and you’ll hit a bullseye. It’s got hints of coriander, chamomile, and sage, all of which come together to compliment a good bourbon very well.
France is the other major producer of Vermouth besides Italy, though they tend to produce more dry vermouth than sweet vermouth. This is an exception (there are actually many) and is a worthy addition to your Manhattan.
Cinnamon and cloves give this vermouth a bitter-sweet taste. It’s got a spicy nose but a fruity, full palate. This complexity keeps it from being overly sweet, yet still not devoid of character. It’s a good choice for a home bar if you’re going to be serving people with varying tastes for sweetness. The 1L bottle is a must for parties.
This is another Italian vermouth. It’s pleasantly aromatic, with hints of cinnamon, orange peel, and spice cake. This comes together for a lush and smooth vermouth that will improve upon any bourbon you use in a Manhattan. There’s enough sweetness there to taste, but it’s not overwhelming. Some may even find it not very sweet at all and bitter instead. This might even be to some people’s tastes, though your sweet-tooths won’t care much for it. One of the awesome things about this vermouth is that it is available in an extremely budget-friendly 1.5L bottle.
Here we have another French vermouth. It’s got a unique taste of toffee and a bitter floral finish. It makes for a very full-bodied Manhattan. It’s got a slight Christmas-y taste, making this a great addition to your Christmas party bar line up. There is some bitterness to this vermouth, but it complements the sweetness rather than overwhelms it (a sweet-tooth may still find it lacking, but you can’t please everyone). It’s not easy to find in very large bottles as other kinds, but if you like the flavor and fullness, it’s worth the price for 750ml.
This is not quite as common a vermouth as the others on this list, nor is it as budget friendly, but it’s one of the best for making a truly classical Manhattan. It has a rich vanilla taste and hints orange, cocoa beans, and saffron in the finish. This vermouth has quite an international following and is regarded as the King of Vermouth. The recipe is centuries old, dating back to 1786 Turin, Italy. Its taste and pedigree are both rich and refined, making it a great vermouth to keep on hand in your private bar for excellent Manhattans.
A good Manhattan vermouth compliments the bourbon you use. It is neither overwhelmed by the bourbon nor does it overwhelm the bourbon. Experimenting with different kinds of vermouth will show you what unique tastes they add to your Manhattan. The variety of tastes in vermouth mean that every brand will be different, with some being more orange-y, while others are more lush. Also, people taste things differently, so make Manhattans for your friends, family, and guests to see how they taste the different kinds of vermouth.
Have other vermouths you like in a Manhattan? Let us know!