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The Classic Manhattan Cocktail Is Iconic for a Reason

The Classic Manhattan Cocktail Is Iconic for a Reason

In the world of classic cocktails, the Manhattan is legendary. Beloved by whiskey drinkers far and wide, this potent drink offers a powerful flavor with a hint of bitterness for balance. While a classic Manhattan recipe generally calls for a base of rye whiskey—which is often preferred for its spice-forward notes—a Manhattan can also be made with bourbon, which lends a sweeter, more caramel-like flavor.

However, despite the Manhattan’s well-earned place in classic cocktail canon, its origin story remains a bit blurry. While some believe that the cocktail was created at a banquet thrown by Lady Randolph Churchill—that is, the mother of Winston Churchill—others credit its creation to a New York City-based bartender by the name of Black.

As the number of riffs of Manhattan recipes grow, one thing remains certain—this strong, flavorful cocktail continues to remain a staple on respectable bar lists everywhere. Curious to learn more? Read on for everything you need to know about the Manhattan.  

What Is a Manhattan Cocktail?

Simply put, the Manhattan is a classic cocktail of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. While there are as many variations on the Manhattan as there are stars in the sky (OK, not really, but you get the idea), the most common recipes use rye.

A bourbon Manhattan, however, is a common alternative. Recipes that swap in blended whiskey or Tennessee whiskey also exist.

Where Did the Manhattan Cocktail Recipe Come From?

A common theory states that the cocktail was first created in—you guessed it—the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Specifically, at the prestigious men’s hangout the Manhattan Club during the mid-1870s or early 1880s. Numerous sources state that the drink was created at a banquet hosted on December 29, 1874 by Lady Randolph Churchill, better known as the mother of future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But this telling may be nothing more than legend: According to the Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, the story “is simply not true,” pointing to the fact that Lady Churchill was not in New York City at the time of the event. Womp, womp.

Alternative theories suggest the cocktail was first invented in the 1860s by a man named Black, “who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway.

Regardless of who actually invented the drink, the first recorded mention of it was indisputably in 1882, when it appear in a column called “Gotham Gossip,” which was syndicated in various small-town newspapers of the day. “[It] was but a short time ago that a mixture of whisky, vermouth and bitters came into vogue,” the column read.  

How To Make a Classic Manhattan


2 oz. rye whiskey

1 oz. sweet vermouth

2-3 dashes of bitters

Brandied cherry (garnish)


Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the rye, sweet vermouth and bitters.

Stir until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry (optional).

Riff: For a Black Manhattan Recipe, swap out the sweet vermouth for an Italian amaro, specifically Averna if you have it on hand.  

Note: For a Manhattan on the Rocks recipe, simply follow the above ingredients and method, then strain the drink over a rocks glass with ice. 


Which Liquors Are Used in Manhattans?

The classic Manhattan recipe calls for rye as the base spirit, though alternative whisk(e)y bases are frequently substituted, including bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

What Is a Smoked Manhattan?

A smoked Manhattan cocktail is one that quite literally has a smoky flavor thanks to the addition of real-deal smoke. To achieve this, a smoke infuser or cocktail smoker is necessary— though worry not, these machines aren’t as scary to use as they sound.

What Does a Classic Manhattan Taste Like?

Strong and booze-forward, a Manhattan packs a hint of bitterness and some herbal qualities thanks to sweet vermouth. Versions with bourbon yield a slightly sweeter drink, while rye-spiked interpretations skew drier and spicier. 

Published on October 24, 2022

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