Manhattan Cocktail

The Manhattan is one of the few cocktails to remain unchanged since its inception in the late 1800s. Many classic pre-prohibition cocktails died out in the last century. The Manhattan merely wavered, and it never disappeared. It looks simple to make, but like many classic cocktails, it’s also easy to screw up.

The History

No one knows exactly when the Manhattan cocktail was invented. One story claims Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill’s mother) hosted a party at the Manhattan club. The drink was such a hit that people started requesting it, referring only to the name where the drink was served. We know this story is not true since Churchill was in France at the time (and coincidentally pregnant with Winston—but who's to say she didn’t throw a few back when she was pregnant?).

The second most popular story of origin can be found in Valentine's Manual of New York (1923). The book tells of a bartender who worked at New York's Hoffman House in the 1880s. "The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black who kept a place 10 doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen] sixties—probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” This account very well could be true, but without anything to back it up, we simply don’t know the cocktail’s true origin.

The Recipe

The first time the Manhattan makes its way to print is on September 5, 1882 in the Olean (NY) Democrat: “It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue.”

The paper doesn’t list the ingredients, so for that first occurrence we must go to How to Mix Drinks–Bar Keeper’s Handbook (1884), where the drink is slightly altered.


(Use large bar glass)

Two or three dashes of Peruvian bitters

One of two dashes of gum syrup

One-half wine glass (1.5 oz) of whiskey

One-half wine glass (1.5 oz) of vermouth

Fill glass three-quarters full of fine shaved ice, mix well with a spoon, strain in fancy cocktail glass and serve.

A note about this recipe: Peruvian bitters were a popular bitter at the time. Gum syrup is very similar to our modern simple syrup.

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I use a variation of this recipe that is very common today:

  • 2 ounces whiskey
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes aromatic bitters

Chill a cocktail glass. In a mixing glass, combine ingredients and stir with ice. Strain into the chilled cocktail glass. I prefer to garnish with a cherry (most popular) but garnishing with a twist of lemon that's been squeezed over the top of the drink is also acceptable.

The Execution

Here are a few tips to help perfect the cocktail:

  • Rye is much more popular than bourbon and seems to work better.
  • There are a lot of vermouths on the market with a wide range in price. I prefer Carpano Antica, which costs quite a bit more but the taste is exceptional. Vermouth is an aromatized wine, so keep it refrigerated and it should last about six months.
  • Angostura bitters work really well in this drink. Some people like to add a dash of orange bitters, but I prefer not to.
  • Shaking produces a weird, algae type foam. Stick to stirring this drink.
  • For a quality cherry garnish, try buying dried bing cherries and soaking them in brandy.

The Manhattan has had different changes throughout history, including additions of orange curacao and maraschino. Feel free to play with the recipe but in the end, whiskey, sweet vermouth, and aromatic bitters have an excellent balance and combine to make one of the very best cocktails.