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Manhattan Taste Test: Does Expensive Rye & Vermouth Improve This Classic Cocktail?

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MANHATTAN TASTE TEST
Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
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New York has had an absolutely brutal winter, with more snowstorms and bitingly cold air than just about any other in recent memory. It's almost enough to make you want to move to a warmer climate.

But no amount of bad weather could dampen my enthusiasm for one of the city's greatest culinary exports: the Manhattan cocktail. The blend of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters has held a spot in the pantheon of essential drinks since its invention in the middle of the 19th century.

And there's never been a better time to be a Manhattan drinker -- because rye whiskey, bourbon's spicier, more Manhattan-appropriate cousin, has enjoyed a tremendous renaissance in the past decade. After being almost forgotten for decades, it's roared back into prominence. Today, every major bourbon brand has a rye offshoot, and many new distillers have started to experiment with their own versions. The vermouth and bitters industries have also been expanding nicely, providing further options for customization.

But options are no good without guidance. Which is why we choose to try out 24 different versions of the Manhattan for our fifth Cocktail Taste Test. Each one used the same 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, the same few drops of Angostura bitters and the same stirred-not-shaken mixing method, but contained different brands of rye and sweet vermouth.

Here are the brands we tested and the Manhattans we liked the most and least.

  • The Ryes
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Here are the brands of rye we tested -- from left to right: Sazerac ($30), Wild Turkey 81 Proof ($23 ), Jim Beam ($19), Old Potrero Straight Rye ($66), Knob Creek ($40), Rittenhouse ($26), Old Overholt ($18 ) and High West Rendezvous ($55).
  • The Vermouths
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    And here are the brands of sweet vermouth -- from left to right: Maurin ($22), Vya ($22), Martini ($11)
  • Wild Turkey + Maurin = Best In Show
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $2.68

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 0.98

    Comments: "By far the best!" "I love this. Tastes cedary, sweet and amazing. The winner." "Light and sweet" "Has the most velvety mouthfeel." "Sweet, wild and romantic." "Everything mixed well."
  • Rittenhouse + Martini = Highly Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $2.48

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.15

    Comments: "Nom nom" "Smooth" "Smooth and complex!" "Right on the money." "Very delicious."
  • Old Overholt + Vya = Highly Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $2.29

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 0.96

    Comments: "Well-rounded." "Way too sweet." Easy to drink." "Tastes like an old-school, Rat Pack cocktail. Smoky and sweet." "Smooth, balanced." "It'll keep you warm all night."
  • Old Potrero + Martini = Highly Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $5.64

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.12

    Comments: "This is tasty. Reminds me of cedar. I would totally order this at a bar." "Easy drinking." "Everything in good balance." "A touch more astringent than I like."
  • Sazerac + Vya = Highly Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $3.23

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.06

    Comments: "A little too saccharine for me, but pleasant." "Tastes like cherry." "Syrup-y, but a well-balanced flavor." "Warm yet smooth." "No bite or bad aftertaste; clean."
  • High West + Martini = Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $4.77

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.07

    Comments: "So good it could get me in trouble." "Smoke and sugar. That's it." "Kind of floral." "This is exactly how I imagine a Manhattan should taste." "Very woody, but a clean aftertaste."
  • Sazerac + Maurin = Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $3.23

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.07

    Comments: "Seriously great" "A little strong but nice." "Sophisticated but rough." "Pretty bland." "B-e-a-utiful." "It was fine!"
  • Wild Turkey + Martini = Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $2.25

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 0.96

    Comments: "Balanced, lovely, like what I drink at home." "Deeply neutral. Prototypical Manhattan." "Typical." "This is pretty sour -- like a green apple." "Woody rye nose."
  • Knob Creek + Maurin = Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $4.02

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.17

    Comments: "Strong rye flavor." "Earthy. Like actually drinking dirt. Which surprisingly isn't too bad at all." "I like the smell, but can't categorize the tart, smoky taste." "Bold nose." "Kind of strong, but very enjoyable!"
  • Jim Beam + Vya = Not Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $2.37

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 0.96

    Comments: "A little harsh for me." "Characterless." "Tastes like an excessively strong rum and coke." "Tastes like Cherry Coke with bourbon." "A bit too fruity." Tastes like Sudafed." "Too syrupy."
  • Old Potrero + Vya = Not Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $6.07

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.13

    Comments: "I'm not crazy about it." "This is harsh. I do NOT like this one." "Bitter aftertaste." "Not a fan. Smells nice though." "Not as smooth."
  • Knob Creek + Martini = Not Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $3.59

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 1.15

    Comments: "Highly mediocre." "Very rough." "Somehow I LOVE the aftertaste of this one. Unfortunately more than the actual drink in my mouth." "Tastes like I just licked the floor of a saw mill."
  • Old Overholt + Maurin = Not Recommended
    Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post
    Price Per Drink: $2.29

    Ounces Of Alcohol: 0.97

    Comments: "Not an easy drinker." "Fruit-flavored?" "This is going directly to the lizard part of my brain. I know it's not good but I like it anyway." "Meh." "Tastes cheap." "Simple. Not much there." "Seems like cheap alcohol."
  • Scatterplot of Price vs. Quality
    Joe Satran/The Huffington Post
    If you squint, this looks almost identical to the Price-Quality Scatterplot from our gin and tonic taste test. The scores for the cheaper drinks are more spread out than for the more expensive drinks -- but they also don't tend to be any lower on average. Time and time again, we find that cheaper liquor does not a better cocktail make! Save your money for sipping spirits.

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