How to Make the Best Manhattan Cocktail

Categories: Last Call

JK Grence
While looking through all the Last Call columns I've done, I was somewhat taken aback that I'd been writing about cocktails for this long and have yet to discuss a cocktail cornerstone, the Manhattan. It's a very elegant cocktail; it has only three ingredients, but its flavor is almost infinitely complex.

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With so much complexity, it's no wonder that there are almost as many ways to make Manhattans as there are bartenders. So many bartenders out there half-ass the drink to the point that what they call a Manhattan is virtually indistinguishable from straight whiskey on the rocks. Not that there's anything wrong with whiskey on the rocks, mind you, but I'll save that for when I'm out at one of my favorite sleazy dives. In the meantime, let's make a Manhattan to knock your socks off.

Sharp-eyed observers will likely note that the Manhattan follows the same formula as the martini: Base spirit, plus vermouth, and a dash of bitters. There is a good bit of difference between the two regarding proportions. When it comes to martinis, drinkers usually have a preferred gin-to-vermouth ratio, and it doesn't vary much from one gin brand to the next. Whiskeys, though, have a much wider range.

Top-flight bartenders know that there are dramatic variations between one whiskey and the next and adjust a Manhattan's proportions to suit the whiskey. For example, Maker's Mark is a much mellower whiskey than most ryes. So, I use a lot more vermouth (and an extra dash of bitters) in a Bulleit Rye Manhattan than I would in a Maker's Manhattan.

How much of everything should you use when making a Manhattan? I start with two parts whiskey to one part vermouth, plus two dashes of bitters for every shot of whiskey. Yes, it's a hell of a lot more vermouth than most bartenders use. One of these days, bartenders everywhere will finally realize that it's okay to use vermouth in cocktails! From there, I'll dial it down to a 3:1 ratio for mild whiskeys, and up to 3:2 with an extra dash of bitters for stronger whiskeys.

Once you have the basic Manhattan down pat, it's one of the drinks that is the most rewarding when it comes to playing with variations. You can use other whiskeys; use scotch and it becomes a Rob Roy. You can also make a Perfect Manhattan by using half sweet vermouth, and half dry vermouth.

Of course, you can try different bitters, especially with the ongoing bitters renaissance. I find that orange bitters are especially enjoyable. You can even get a little crazy and use bitter liqueurs in place of bitters. Campari . . . Absinthe . . . maybe even a Manhattan with a touch of Fernet Branca? Don't mind if I do.

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I was hoping you might impress with a basic understanding of what a Manhattan isin the first place.
The cocktail came about during the Prohibition & since there was lil american spirits available
(Seagram's was the only large distributor who was wisely backstocking booze for the imminent repeal)
and since most homemade spirits were horrid, Manhattans were made with CANADIAN WHISKIES almost exclusively & while I prefer single barrel bourbons myself.; any barkeep worth their set skills should know at least that.
The bitters was actually an aid to curtail the sharp taste of the spirits (as vermouth was originally used to curtail nasty tasting genevers/gins!)

JKGrence 1 Like

@gatsbysuicide While you're correct that Canadian whiskey was used to make Manhattans during prohibition because bathtub whiskey was bad-tasting at best (literally lethal at worst), the rest of it sounds like the kind of misinformation I've come to expect from those three-day bartending schools.

The Manhattan's history doesn't have much of a story to it. It's a simple cocktail that was very much in line with other cocktails created around the same time. A common creation legend says that the drink was created when Jennie Jerome (also known as Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill) threw a party for her father's friend, Samuel Tilden, when he was elected governor of New York in 1874. This theory doesn't hold water for a number of reasons. First, at the time Tilden was elected, Lady Churchill was in France and eight months pregnant with Winston. Second, the first published instance of the Manhattan is in the very first bartending book Jerry Thomas's Bar-Tender's Guide or The Bon Vivant's Companion, published in 1862. 

Just so you know, bitters started in the early 1800s as a medicinal tonic (bartenders will still offer you bitters and soda water if you complain of an upset stomach), and become a cocktail ingredient shortly after getting imported to England, where they found bitters and gin taste very good together. Vermouth dates back to 1750s Italy where it was consumed as a medicinal tonic until bartenders started making Martinis and Manhattans with it over a century later.


Thank you for the defense of vermouth in cocktails! I'm more of a manhattan drinker than a martini drinker, but both generally get a 2-1 ratio from me, and every martini I've made for someone has been well liked by them (duh, the vermouth actually adds something!). In fact, I got turned on to manhattans a few years back when I pondered, "what if I could make a martini, but with whiskey?" The friend who intervened with the manhattan suggestion felt very sorry for me at the time.

JKGrence 1 Like

@patrickbrennan Keep fighting the good fight to have more vermouth in cocktails! And remember to keep it in the fridge! ;-)


@JKGrence @patrickbrennan Always! The alcohol content is not high enough to warrant non-refrigerated storage. We also use it in cooking so as to go through a bottle in a reasonable amount of time.

jliven23 1 Like

Excellent...been waiting for you to tackle the Manhattan. So simple yet few make it right (including me unfortunately). I really like the one Micah makes at Crudo. Great tip on adjusting ratio based on whiskey used. I use Makers Mark so will up my vermouth next time I make one. And by next time, I mean in 4 hours 49 minutes.

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