Manhattan – Original Recipe & History

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Pre-Prohibition Manhattan

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Course: DrinksCuisine: American






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Learn how to make a pre-prohibition style Manhattan cocktail


  • 3 dashes 3 Cardamom Bitters

  • 2 dashes 2 Orange Liqueur

  • 1 oz 1 Sweet Vermouth

  • 2 oz 2 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:
  • Lemon peel.

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The History of The Manhattan.

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 using Boker’s bitters because the Boker’s company, which was already struggling financially by the 1910s, completely closed its doors around the start of prohibition. 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 man’s attic. The mixture was reverse engineered, and it was discovered to be primarily cardamom, cinnamon, and 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 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 a decent 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. Not to say these styles were exclusive to any period, but there was a definite shift in what was popular and sold.

I cannot 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 before the 1880s, and it was most likely created 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 being a famous New York cocktail naming convention of its time.

What Does The Pre-Prohibition Manhattan Taste Like?

Bourbon and Sweet Vermouth are a match made in heaven. The two ingredients’ flavor 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 vermouth’s solid herbal notes. A few dashes of orange liqueur and cardamon bitters add a nice gentle citrus and spice complexity to the cocktail that Angostura bitters do not provide. These are all wonderful ingredients, and combined; they make a wonderfully sweet and spicy cocktail. I like the modern Angostura bitters Manhattan better, but this one is also tasty. If I were to equate the two to sipping spirits, I would say the original pre-prohibition one is like sipping rye whiskey, and the current one everyone knows it is like sipping bourbon.

What Is The Difference Between The Manhattan And The Old Fashioned?

Whether it’s 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.

Get The Sweet Vermouth Right.

The most essential ingredients in the pre-prohibition style Manhattan are the sweet vermouth and the cardamom bitters. Boker’s Bitters was one of the quintessential tastes 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 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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