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Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned | Wine Enthusiast

Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned | Wine Enthusiast

If you’re looking for an unadorned, spirit-forward classic cocktail, look no further than the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.

Both iconic drinks place whiskey (bourbon and rye whiskey, respectively) front and center, with just a few dashes of bitters and a sweetener to accompany them. Both were invented in the 19th century, during the early days of American mixology. Both have enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades.

But despite their similarities, differences abound. When should you order one over the other? Here’s a primer on the two classic cocktails and how to distinguish them.

What Is An Old Fashioned Cocktail?

An Old Fashioned cocktail is a simple cocktail that packs a punch. It’s made by muddling bitters—usually Angostura—with a sugar cube and a teaspoon of water, then adding two ounces of bourbon or rye whiskey. It’s stirred, combined with ice and stirred again. A final lemon or orange peel garnish and it’s ready.

Its precise origins are murky, but the name derives from an 1886 article in the publication Comment and Dramatic Times, which described a class of “old-fashioned cocktails.” The name stuck to this particular drink, which until that point had simply been known as the “whiskey cocktail.” By then, it clearly had been around long enough to have been considered old fashioned.

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The drink regained popularity starting in the late 2000s, after a long period of dormancy. This was in no small part due to being the drink of choice for Don Draper, the dapper star of the AMC series “Mad Men,” which debuted in 2007. The early aughts had been ruled by miserably sweet lychee mojitos and the like, but the show’s tough yet refined protagonist drank so many Old Fashioneds it helped spark the drink’s renaissance.

“‘Mad Men’ created a lifestyle where viewers felt that they could belong to the Old Fashioned tribe,” says Francesco Lafranconi, ​​senior vice president of beverage and hospitality culture for Carver Road Hospitality in Las Vegas. 

What Is a Manhattan Cocktail?

The Manhattan cocktail consists of two ounces of rye whiskey, an ounce of sweet vermouth, plus a few dashes of bitters and a brandied cherry. 

According to the Difford’s Guide, the first written mention of the Manhattan appeared in 1882 in The Olean Democrat: “It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue.” The precise time and place of its invention, like that of the Old Fashioned, is disputed. By the late-19th century, however, it was undeniably popular.

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It never entirely left the drinks scene. “Because of its notoriety and ease of preparation, the Manhattan survived the cocktail dark ages at the end of the 20th century,” writes Robert Simonson in The Encyclopedia of Cocktails. It “rose in stature” to its current place of supremacy with the advent of the craft cocktail movement, which began in the mid-aughts.

So, What’s the Difference Between the Two?

Both drinks employ whiskey spirits and Angostura bitters, but one noted difference is the sweetener. The Old Fashioned calls for muddling a sugar cube or, in some cases, confidently adding granulated sugar. In contrast, the Manhattan cocktail gets its sweetness from a fortified wine called sweet vermouth, which possesses warm, spicy notes, but can contain botanical or bitter flavors, depending on the brand. As a result, the Old Fashioned is generally slightly sweeter than the Manhattan, which in turn is moderately boozier and more bitter.

Ice is another differentiator. The Old Fashioned is usually served over a large ice cube, which slowly dilutes the drink over time—either a pro or a con, depending on who you ask. The Manhattan, on the other hand, is served up and remains undiluted, although it may warm in your hand. 

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Ice and the lack thereof necessitate different glass choices. An Old Fashioned is usually served in a rocks glass—fittingly also called an Old Fashioned glass—whereas bartenders tend to serve the Manhattan in a stemmed glass, such as a coupe or Nick and Nora.

Finally, the two drinks are traditionally served with different garnishes. The Old Fashioned gets a lemon or orange peel, which lends a bright citrus note. Bartenders tend to serve the Manhattan with a brandied cherry, which offers a juicy, spiced note of red fruit.

Which Cocktail Should I Try First?

If you’re making a classic cocktail at home, Lafranconi suggests starting with the Old Fashioned, which he considers more basic because it relies on only one type of liquor.

 “The Old Fashioned is the father of all our cocktails,” he says, adding that using a sugar cube instead of granulated sugar can control the drink’s sweetness level. “What can ruin an Old Fashioned is the amount of sweetness the bartender will add, but if you stick with one sugar cube soaked with bitters, it’s almost foolproof,” he says. 

Lafranconi also cautions home bartenders to monitor their ice. The more cracked it is, the more watered down your Old Fashioned will be. He likes to garnish his versions with both lemon and orange peel, but the choice is yours. 

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But don’t shy away from the Manhattan. Though it contains two sources of liquor compared to the Old Fashioned’s one, some aficionados consider it a lower lift because there’s no need to worry about sugar particles compromising the texture of the drink. 

The use of sweet vermouth in a Manhattan also invites experimentation. Different brands vary in sweetness and flavor, not to mention strength—they can range from about 14.5% to 22% abv. Try old-school brands like Martini & Rossi, Carpano Antica Formula, Dolin or Chinato, all of which have different botanical formulations, as well as new vermouths heating up the cocktail scene. You can even try a white vermouth, though you might need to balance the drink with an additional sweetener like simple syrup, depending on your taste.

Just make sure to keep your sweet vermouth in the fridge and label it with the date of expiration. It’s technically wine, and can go bad.

Enshrined In Hollywood

Both cocktails have had star turns on the screen. Sugar Kane, Marilyn Monroe’s famously seductive character in the crime caper Some Like It Hot immortalized the Manhattan cocktail. In one scene, Sugar Kane throws a hijinks-ridden train party, mixing on-the-go Manhattans with a hot water bottle as a shaker. “Hey, go easy on the vermouth,” one of her friends urges Sugar Kane.

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Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, the Old Fashioned features prominently in “Mad Men.” In Season 3, Episode 3, Don hops over the bar to escape the tyranny of mint juleps at a Kentucky Derby event, gratefully flipping a well bottle to craft his beloved cocktail. Lacking bourbon, Don uses Old Overholt rye whiskey, batching it for two and doling one out to the wealthy, calcified Conrad Hilton, who regales him with stories of his penniless youth.

The informal bond between the two is sealed by the Old Fashioned itself, a drink as tough, unfussy and charismatic as the two men. “Connie,” as Hilton introduces himself, parts with the remark: “Hell of a cocktail.” 

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