A Guide to Making Your Ultimate Manhattan

The reasons for the Manhattan's greatness are many. It's delicious, beautiful, over 150 years old and like the best classic cocktails is a drink anyone can make. Sure, there many classic cocktails that fit that criteria but something about the Manhattan elevates it above the pack.
01/18/2015 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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With the holidays behind us and the roughest part of winter still ahead, this is the time of year when I keep my head down and just try to survive until baseball season. So when cocktail hour rolls around that means sticking to tried and true staples. Which for me, means manhattans, pound for pound my favorite cocktail of all time -- edging out a tight race with the old fashioned and daiquiri. (Incidentally, it's also my favorite city and movie.)

The reasons for the manhattan's greatness are many. It's delicious, beautiful, over 150 years old and like the best classic cocktails is a drink anyone can make. Sure, there many classic cocktails that fit that criteria but something about the manhattan elevates it above the pack. When chilled and diluted just right, the seemingly plain combination of whiskey, vermouth and a few dashes of bitters becomes magic in a glass. It's perfection only matched by it's simplicity. Or it could just be that it has the the most badass name of all time.

There's no one way to go about making a manhattan, no best brands or even best recipe, those are at the disposal of the mixer, adaptability is another one of the manhattan's virtues. But while it's ingredients are few and it's preparation is straight forward, mixing a great one is not a given. It's simplicity is deceptive. Some thought should go into the ingredients you use and how you mix them.

Whiskey

A manhattan is about 60-70 percent whiskey, so it's pretty crucial. The first question you have to ask for yourself is whether to go for rye whiskey or bourbon whiskey. I prefer rye, but I'm not a militant about it. Nowadays you hear a lot about the superiority of rye in manhattans because it's drier than bourbon -- which is predominantly made from the sweeter corn -- and rye was the whiskey of choice back when the drink was invented in the 19th century -- both true. Admittedly, I was once one of these rye manhattan zealots turning my nose up at bourbon manhattans claiming they were overly sweet without any bite. But recently I had one with Eagle Rare 10 bourbon and Martini Gran Lusso vermouth and, well, that was the end of that. So now, while I do generally go for rye, I say go with what you like, just choose something that's good. Here are some of my favorites rye and bourbon whiskies.

Rye -- Rye manhattans are a bit sharper than bourbon and have rye's trademark savory cereal grain note.

Rittenhouse Rye -- Unbeatable for price and quality.
Bulliet Rye -- Probably the easiest to find and delicious.
Russell's Reserve 6 Rye
Mitcher's Rye
Willet Rye -- If I could only find some!
High West Rendezvous Rye
Whistle Pig 10 Rye -- A bit pricier, but worth it.

Bourbon -- Bourbon manhattan's are rounder but not quite as sweet as many suggest. Rather, they evoke sweeter flavors like vanilla and toffee. Bourbon also allow a little more bitterness to poke through, which is always nice. Since I just came back around to the idea of bourbon manhattans, I haven't made the rounds through all the brands just yet. But I am a big of these:

Eagle Rare 10
Henry McKenna Single Barrel
Buffalo Trace
Bulleit Bourbon
Four Roses Single Barrel

Vermouth

Vermouth is a fortified wine -- meaning it has a little alcohol added -- that has been infused with a variety of herbs, roots and botanicals. Vermouth's arrival in America in the 1860s coincided with the manhattan's invention. The specific details are not known for sure, as is usually the case with booze history. My personal speculation of what happened is that some opportunistic bartender got their hands on vermouth and since everyone was drinking old fashioneds back then (called a whiskey cocktail at the time) which is whiskey, sugar and bitters she decided to swap in vermouth in place of sugar. There's your manhattan.

Until a few years ago the sweet vermouth in a manhattan was an afterthought because there were only a handful brands available and most liquor stores only carried one. But today the vermouth category has exploded. A wide variety of different expressions have hit the market making the manhattan a lot more interesting in the process. Here are some good ones to be aware of, though it should be said that old standbys like Martini & Rossi, Noilly Prat and Cinzano should not be ignored and all make damn fine manhattans.

Carpano Antica -- Beloved by the cocktail community for good reason. Slightly bitter with a lovely vanilla note.
Dolin Rouge -- My personal favorite in a manhattan. On the softer side but subtly rich and complex with the right whiskey.
Martini Gran Lusso -- Martini & Rossi's very successful foray into top shelf vermouth.
Punt e Mes -- Bold, with a bitter finish. This makes a manhattan for negroni lovers, which I include myself among.
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino -- Fantastic on it's own and in a manhattan. This is the only sweet vermouth that is from a single estate, meaning it's all made in one place.
Barolo Chinato -- Technically just a fortified wine and not a vermouth, but who cares it's delicious. This is also made by the folks at Cocchi using Barolo, the legendary Italian wine, as it's base. Lots of baking spice and bitter chocolate flavors.

***Remember to refrigerate your vermouth! It is wine based and will spoil. Don't worry, that open bottle you've had on your shelf for the last 10 years isn't going to hurt you. It just won't be as fresh.

Bitters

With all the bitters around these days it's tempting to vary it up. But this is one place where I say stick to the basics. Two dashes of angostura bitters and you're good to go.

Whiskey and Vermouth Combos

With all these options, choosing the right whiskey and vermouth pairing can be overwhelming, but this is a good problem to have. There's no wrong answer. I won't claim to have tried all the possible combinations of the brands I've mentioned above, though one can dream, but I'm certain there's no way any of them will result in a bad drink. If you're really looking to go down the rabbit hole you can experiment with combining vermouths too, like splitting the vermouth portion between the bitter Punt e Mes and the softer Dolin to get the best of both worlds. In my manhattan adventures here are some couplings I have particularly loved:

Rittenhouse and Carpano Anitca
Whistle Pig 10 and Dolin Rouge
Bulleit Rye and half Dolin Rouge half Punt e Mes
The aforementioned Eagle Rare 10 Bourbon and Martini Gan Lusso

My Manhattan Recipe

Many recipes call for two to one whiskey to vermouth, I prefer a mine a little more whiskey forward so I do 2 ᅡᄑ to ᅡᄒ which in all honesty usually becomes three to one when I'm making it at home, requiring another dash of Angostura. Note, for those of you who take issue with the manhattan's sweetness, cut the sweet vermouth portion in half with some dry vermouth, that makes it a "perfect" manhattan. Here's my preferred manhattan recipe:

3 oz whiskey
1 oz sweet vermouth
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Cherry for garnish

Method:

While the proportions and brands are open to interpretation, the preparation less subjective. I don't usually speak in cocktail absolutes, but I am a firm believer that a manhattan should always be stirred. This will keep the texture silky and preserve the subtleties in the whiskey. Shaking will over-dilute the drink and give it a murky consistency. Ever hear people talk about shaking bruising the gin? Same happens to whiskey. Some may thinking that shaking gets the drink colder, here's how to get that optimum chill by stirring.

  • Put your mixing glass and cocktail glasses in the freezer 15 minutes (or longer) before you start mixing the drink.

  • In the frozen mixing glass combine the whiskey, vermouth and bitters.
  • Fill with ice and stir for 20-25 seconds, less if using small cubes, a little longer if using larger ones.
  • Strain into the frozen cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry ( the Luxardo brand cherries are the best) and be sure to savor that first sip!
  • And now for a little drink porn:

    2015-01-17-Manhattanpour.jpg

    Variations:

    The manhattan has inspired legions of variations from bartenders past and present who use the original recipe as a template and then add things like different vermouths, liqueurs and amari (Italian bitter liqueurs). Here are a handful of my favorites. As you'll notice, a tradition has emerged of naming them after NYC neighborhoods and boroughs.

    Greenpoint

    The combination of the bitter Punt e Mes and herbaceous Chartreuse make this one simultaneously dark, slightly bitter and bright.

    2 ᅡᄑ oz rye whiskey
    ᅡᄑ oz Punt e Mes
    ᅡᄑ oz yellow Chartreuse
    dash Angostura bitters
    dash orange bitters

    Stir and serve straight up
    Garnish with an orange peel

    Bensonhurst

    Dry vermouth works surprisingly well in place of sweet when balanced with another sweet ingredient. This is one of my favorite examples.

    2 ᅡᄑ oz rye whiskey
    1 oz dry vermouth
    2 barspoons (1 teaspoon) Luxardo maraschino
    1 barspoon (ᅡᄑ teaspoon) Cynar

    Stir and serve straight up
    No Garnish

    The Slope

    This was created by my partner Julie Reiner and first served at the Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan. The apricot liqueur gives the drink a nice fruit lift without adding much sweetness and the Punt e Mes helps to ground it.

    2 ᅡᄑ oz rye whiskey
    ᅡᄒ oz Punt y Mes
    ᅡᄐ oz Apricot liqueur
    2 dash Angostura Bitters

    Stir and serve straight up
    Garnish with a cherry

    Rhapsody in Rye

    Now for a little shameless self promotion. This is one of mine, and I'll I'll say is I like it a lot.

    2 oz rye whiskey
    ᅡᄒ oz dry vermouth
    ᅡᄑ oz Ramazotti
    ᅡᄑ oz Benedictine
    1 dash Angostura Bitters
    1 dash Orange Bitters

    Stir and serve straight up
    Garnish with an orange twist

    So there's a whole bunch of info to chew (or sip) on. I encourage you to use it to go forth and explore to find your favorite manhattan. It may take awhile, I haven't found mine yet, but as they say, it's about the journey.

    Here's a brief, mild winter. Cheers!