Manhattan – Classic Recipe & History

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Manhattan Cocktail

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Course: DrinksCuisine: American






Total time



Learn how to make the Post prohibition Manhattan Cocktail.


  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters

  • 1 oz Sweet Vermouth

  • 2 oz Bourbon


  • Technique: Simple Stir
  • Combine all ingredients in the mixing glass.
  • Add ice to the mixing glass. Stir the ingredients for 10 – 15 seconds. Try to avoid over-diluting the drink.
  • Strain into a glass.
  • Garnish:
  • Maraschino cherry.

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The History Of The Manhattan Cocktail.

The Manhattan most people think of when they order a Manhattan today is the post-prohibition style Manhattan. Bourbon, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters. An excellent pairing of flavors, but had you ordered a Manhattan from the 1880s to 1919, you would have been served this cocktail instead. The oldest printed reference to the manhattan cocktail I can find is from August 31, 1882, Crawford Avalanche newspaper of Michigan and the December 4, 1883, Evening Star newspaper of Washington DC. The bartender interviewed in the Crawford newspaper mentions that he was the first to introduce “Manhattan cocktails” to the area, and he likes to make his with “whiskey, vermouth, and bitters” The bartender in the DC newspaper says he pre-batches them with gin and vermouth. Both newspapers refer to a new Manhattan style of cocktail currently in vogue and talk about it as if it is a style rather than a specific drink. A few years later, both newspaper and cocktail books seem to have settled on the Manhattan as specifically a whiskey cocktail. This Manhattan recipe is pulled from the 1887 Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide. This is the oldest printing I could find from a cocktail recipe book. The Manhattan remained unchanged until 1919, as documented in the Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, which reported all their recipes from 1897 to 1919.

The two changes that changed the Manhattan from its pre-prohibition to post-prohibition form are changing from Boker’s bitters to Angostura bitters and no longer adding two dashes of orange liqueur. The recipe changed from Boker’s bitters because the Boker’s company, which was already struggling financially by the 1910s, completely closed the doors around prohibition, and those who knew the secret recipe took it to their graves. I believe in the mid-2000s, an old unopened bottle of Boker’s was found and reverse engineered, so it is possible to make a similar cocktail to the pre-prohibition one, but for the last 90 years, this is the only one you could make, and thus, the flavor most of us are used to. The second change was removing the two dashes of orange liqueur. This change had more to do with the transition from pre-prohibition mixing ideologies to the prohibition era and post-prohibition mixing ideologies. The hallmark of pre-prohibition mixing ideology was to take an excellent base spirit and add complexity and flavor with small amounts of bitters and liqueurs, with the base spirit still the most forward element. Prohibition-era and post-prohibition mixing ideology shifted to making flavorful cocktails where the base spirit blended in with the sodas or liqueurs. These styles were exclusive to any period, but there was a definite shift in what was popular and sold.

There is no specific genesis of this particular recipe. Realistically it was just 1930s bartenders trying to make Manhattans similar to the ones the previous generation made while not having the same ingredients—a product of its time and now the standard method.

What Does The Manhattan Taste Like?

Bourbon and Sweet Vermouth are a match made in heaven. The two ingredients flavors profiles pair perfectly. The sweet vermouth adds just enough sweetness to soften the bourbon and the bourbon adds just enough sharp toasted oak volume and flavor to bring down the vermouths strong herbal notes. The addition of just a few dashes of Angostura bitters adds a nice spicy complexity to the cocktail. On their own these are all wonderful ingredients but the proportions elevate this to something out of this world.

What Is The Difference Between The Manhattan And Old Fashioned?

Whether its the pre-prohibition or post-prohibition style, the Manhattan and old fashion are, for the most part, very similar cocktails; the main difference between the two is since the old-fashioned uses simple syrup/gum syrup to cut the strength of the bourbon; the taste is still a very clean, bourbon forward cocktail. On the other hand, the Manhattan comes across with a more mild bourbon taste that is balanced against a lightly sweet herbal flavor. So the Manhattan is a slightly sweetened bourbon and herbal flavored cocktail, and the old fashion is a somewhat sweeter but clean bourbon tasting cocktail.

Using The Right Ingredients To Make a Manhattan.

The most essential ingredient in the post-prohibition style Manhattan is the sweet vermouth. The bitters are essential, but they don’t make or break the cocktail. A little bit more than the bitters, though, is the sweet vermouth. Sweet Vermouth that is too old will make this cocktail unpalatable, and the difference between normal vermouth and top self vermouth is like night and day. Vermouth is the defining flavor of this cocktail, and for not much more, you can buy some fantastic sweet vermouths. There isn’t a “bad” sweet vermouth, the cheap stuff is still pretty good, but for five bucks more, you can buy some fantastic top-shelf vermouths that will elevate this cocktail to new heights.

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