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Perfect Manhattan Recipe | Wine Enthusiast

Perfect Manhattan Recipe | Wine Enthusiast

In life, perfection is elusive. But in the world of cocktails? Perfection is not just a possibility, it’s a must-try. The term “perfect” means a drink made with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth—and is particularly, dare we say, perfect when applied to a Manhattan.

The perfect Manhattan can be traced back to pre-Prohibition times, when drinks were crafted according to three distinct profiles: sweet, medium and dry. A sweet version of a Manhattan used sweet vermouth, the dry Manhattan favored (you guessed it) dry vermouth and the medium used a 50-50 blend of both. What was known as a medium Manhattan evolved into perfect Manhattan, which was also inspired by a gin-based precursor featuring equal parts sweet and dry vermouth called the Perfect Cocktail.

While you won’t find a perfect Manhattan on many menus, the cocktail is experiencing a quiet, off-menu resurgence, championed by mixologists across the country with a love for vintage classics. The bright acidity of dry vermouth balances the rich, heavier notes of sweet vermouth, explains Colin Williams, beverage manager at Saffron NOLA, a family-owned Indian restaurant in New Orleans. It’s a suitable pairing for just about any dish. “It’s a style I really push people to try, especially when they’re eating,” he says. “Just because it adds so much complexity.”

Bourbon or Rye?

The balance between sweetness and dryness is the hallmark of the perfect Manhattan, but the specific ingredients may vary from recipe to recipe. The classic Manhattan can be made with either rye whiskey or bourbon, but bourbon tends to play a leading role in modern iterations, including the perfect version of the drink. This should come as no surprise given current spirits trends.

“We’ve seen this surge of interest in bourbon drinks,” says Amber Matson, bartender at Eddie Martini’s, an old-school chophouse just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Everyone wants bourbon nowadays.”

The opposite was true during Prohibition, when rye whiskey was preferred. Back then, rye was easier to cultivate than either corn or barley, which meant rye whiskey was more popular than bourbon and therefore the go-to spirit for cocktails like the Manhattan. It’s still preferred by some, including Williams, who advocates for using rye whiskey in perfect Manhattans.

“Rye has that spicy, peppery quality that pairs well with vermouths,” he explains.

Andrew Cordero, beverage director of Michelin-starred Jeune et Jolie and Bib Gourmand recipient Campfire in Carlsbad, California, prefers to go a step further with overproof rye. It’s bold in flavor and can range from 100 to 120 proof, which requires thoughtfully pairing it with the right vermouth. “I would choose a sweet vermouth that’s really big and bold to hold up to that proof, like a Carpano Antica, with a softer, French-style dry vermouth like Noilly Prat,” he says.

Choosing the Right Vermouth and Garnish

The world of vermouth is vast, with wide-ranging choices of both sweet and dry styles. Anthony Schmidt, beverage director for the Lafayette in San Diego, California, suggests toying around with different options. Sometimes he even forgoes typical vermouths, swapping in dry or sweet Sherries instead. “These will have huge, potentially desirable impacts on the outcome,” he says.

Mixologists like to get creative with their garnishes, too. Matson opts for the traditional bourbon-soaked cherry for her bourbon-based perfect Manhattan, while Cordero prefers to use an expressed lemon and olive for her rye-based perfect Manhattan. Schmidt, too, likes a twist of lemon or orange expressed over the drink, but he’s been toying with the idea of adding savory garnishes like pickles or charcuterie.

How to Make a Perfect Manhattan

  • 2 ounces Makers Mark bourbon
  • 1/2 ounce Antigua Carpano sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Martini & Rossi dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 bourbon-infused cherry


Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice, shake and strain into a chilled Nick and Nora or cocktail glass. Garnish with bourbon-soaked dark cherry.

Coconut-Chai Perfect Manhattan

Recipe by Collin Williams

Looking for something a little different? Saffron NOLA beverage manager Collin Williams offers a unique, off-menu twist on a perfect Manhattan. He likes to use Cocchi Torino sweet vermouth, which he infuses with the restaurant’s house chai. For dry vermouth, he prefers a Saar Riesling. Though, he says, “Dolin Dry is also a great option—and much easier to find.”

  • 2 ounces coconut fat-washed rye
  • 1/2 ounce chai infused sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounces dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 drops saffron-cardamom tincture*


Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain into a pre-chilled Nick and Nora glass. Twist the rind of an orange peel to express some of the citrus oil over the drink. Discard peel and serve.

*How to Make the Saffron Tincture

  • .4 ounces saffron
  • .25 ounces green cardamom pods
  • Peels of one small to medium orange
  • 4.5 ounces Everclear
  • 2.5 ounces vodka
  • 2 ounces water


Infuse all the ingredients together in a sealed glass jar for three days. Strain through fine chinois and store in a cool, dark place.

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