The Manhattan 100% of people think of when they order a Manhattan today is the post-prohibition style Manhattan. Bourbon, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters. A wonderful pairing of flavor but had you ordered a Manhattan in the 1880s to 1919 you would have been served this cocktail instead. This Manhattan recipe is pulled from the 1887 Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide. Not say Jerry Thomas invented it but this is the oldest printing I could find. The Manhattan remained mostly unchanged till 1919 as documented in the Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, which documented 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 2 dashes of orange liqueur. The change from Boker’s bitters is 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 in a recently deceased mans attic. The mixture was reverse engineered and it was discover to be a primarily cardamom, cinnamon, orange peel bitter. You are now able to find cardamom bitters made in the Boker’s style, but for almost 90 years the closest anyone could get was using Angostura Bitters. The second change was removing the 2 dashes of orange liqueur. This change had more to do with the transition from pre-prohibition mixing ideologies to prohibition era and post-prohibition mixing ideologies. The hallmark of pre-prohibition mixing ideology was to take a nice base spirit and adding 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. Not to say these styles were exclusive to any time period but there was a definite shift in what was popular and sold.
I am unable to find any specific genesis of the Manhattan or who maybe created it. Often with very old cocktails the creators were never credited and many people claim they invented the drink. I can’t find any reference to it prior to the 1880s and it was most likely invented in New York. In New York during the late 1800s and early 1900s it was trendy to name drinks after cities or popular locations in New York. This is what gives us cocktails like the Bronx, the Oyster Bay, Brooklyn, etc. So there is no real reason it’s called a Manhattan other than it being a popular New York cocktail naming convention of it’s time.
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 orange liqueur and cardamon bitters adds a nice gentle citrus and spice complexity to the cocktail. On their own these are all wonderful ingredients but the proportions elevate this to something out of this world. I like the modern angostura bitters Manhattan but this one is the superior version.
Manhattan vs 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 fashion uses simple syrup/gum syrup to cut the strength of the bourbon, the taste is still a very clean, bourbon forward cocktail. The Manhattan on the other hand comes across with a more mild bourbon taste that is balance against a lightly sweet herbal flavor. So the Manhattan is a slightly sweetened bourbon and herbal flavored cocktail and the old fashion is a slightly sweeter but clean bourbon tasting cocktail.
The Most Important Ingredient
The most important ingredients in the pre-prohibition style Manhattan is both the sweet vermouth and the cardamom bitters. Boker’s Bitters was one of the quintessential taste of the 1800s cocktail and you can finally get that flavor again with cardamom bitters. It’s like tasting history. A little bit more than the bitters though is the sweet vermouth. Vermouth is the defining flavor of this cocktail and for not much more you can buy some amazing sweet vermouths. There isn’t a “bad” sweet vermouth, the cheap stuff is still pretty good, but for 5 bucks more you can buy some top shelf amazing vermouths that will elevate this cocktail to new heights.