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How to Drink Up: The Manhattan

Jane Ryan | 16/12/2015

Whiskey, vermouth and bitters - the holy trinity of the drinks world is one of the most perfect cocktails ever stirred down and served. Maraschino cherry optional.

Was there ever a drink as bold and sharp yet deeply relaxing as the Manhattan? Its smooth blend of flavours, which effortlessly sink in to one another, is about as close to perfection as a cocktail can come.

In fact the harmony of bitters, sweet vermouth and sharp, musky whiskey has been said to even rival that existing between gin and tonic water, at least according to the pen of David Wondrich, who also suggests it’s the only cocktail that can slug it out toe-to-toe with the Martini. And we believe him.

For some reason the Manhattan never grew to be as famous as the Martini, perhaps it was the lack of a James Bond figure, or the bracing taste of whiskey which kept it from the masses. Certainly its very name fails to bring up such passionate feelings and such righteouness as the Martini. Although it did make it into Sex and the City, so it’s arguably still one of the better-known cocktails.

Of course a drink which has been around since the 1880s is not without some controversy, and its imbibers will happily bicker over using bourbon or rye whiskey. We here at DrinkUp prescribe to the 'however the hell you like it' ethos, and although we are happy to accept rye is the original base, we would (and do) argue for some bourbons as well as rye to be included in a must-try list of Manhattans.


A Potted History

As its name suggests, the Manhattan is a New York native, which is about the only point cocktail historians agree on.

The much repeated story that it was invented for a banquet hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother at the Manhattan Club in New York City, on the occasion of Samuel J. Tilden being elected as governor, simply doesn’t hold. Mostly because the timing of the inaugural celebrations happens to coincide with the birth of Churchill in England.

So that puts his mother at a disadvantage for hosting banquets in New York.

There are several other accounts, some which link it to the Manhattan Club, and others which don’t, yet the club does claim the cocktail’s origin. However it came into being, the Manhattan was a well-loved drink by the 1880s, making its debut in print on September 5, 1882.

Ratios between the vermouth and whiskey have changed over time but the cocktail is still recognisable to what New Yorkers would have enjoyed over a century ago. Today there are a thousand and one spin offs and twists but we're concerning ourselves with the classic cocktail only. 

Your First Manhattan

If you’ve never had a Manhattan before – and actually like whiskey – discard this article immediately (if it’s after 5pm, if not sit tight for a bit) and jump on the central line to Bethnal Green, where you’ll find Satan’s Whiskers.  Sit down at the bar and order the house version. It’s made with chilled Knob Creek bourbon, Martini Rosso sweet vermouth and Angostura Bitters and is possibly the best introductory Manhattan you’ll find in London. If you’re unsure about it, finish the glass and order another. Midway through the second you’ll fall in love.

No matter what you’ve heard about bourbon being too sweet for a Manhattan, there are some which simply work and Knob Creek is one of them. This whiskey falls into that rare category of a product which is both brilliant and not too expensive. A Satan’s Manhattan (see it even sounds cool) will currently set you back £8.50. For a healthy glug of bourbon we think that’s not too shabby.

Knob Creek is aged nine years, has a long, smooth finish and a big kick at the end, which bursts through the cocktail as do its classic notes of oak, caramel and spiced fruits. Even if you’ve long been a Manhattan convert Satan’s Whiskers is an excellent bar to visit for the drink.

Sweet Vermouth

Now you've had your first Manhattan a little clarification is needed. There are three variants of a Manhattan; dry, perfect or sweet. Rather misleadingly a sweet Manhattan sounds unbearably, sickly sweet and a perfect Manhattan sounds as if it would be stupid to order something else. And it’s a common trap people fall into – in fact as we researched the Manhattan I stumbled across a comment on an article about must try classic cocktails that said “Sweet Manhattan...Obviously done by a person in their low 20's from the Midwest.”

When you see the term sweet, dry or perfect with Manhattans it simply refers to the style of vermouth. Sweet uses sweet vermouth; perfect is an equal split between dry and sweet while dry calls for dry vermouth. Sweet is usually recommended as this Italian-style vermouth is what would have originally been used and pairs with whiskey far better than drier French-style vermouths. It's a matter of personal choice, and you should try them all out before deciding. 

Brands To Call & London Bars To Order A Manhattan In

Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Woodford Reserve Rye

This stunning American whiskey is available as a bourbon and a rye whiskey, making it a wonderful candidate to see the difference between Manhattan styles. We asked brand ambassador and perpetual-Manhattan imbiber Tom Vernon to tell us a little more.

“As with any classic that has stood the test of time, the components are few and the result is huge. The star always being the base spirit and Woodford is an extremely rich and complex bourbon, the rye gives the depth and spice and the heavy toasting of our bespoke barrels delivers caramel, vanilla and toffee notes. I have always taken my Manhattan's sweet. However it's nice to play with ratios and vermouths depending on the mood. Cocchi Vermouth Di Torino, Martini Rosso and Antica Formula are all delicious. You can even experiment with different blends of vermouth to add depth."


“Bitters are an easy way to change the dynamic and balance of a Manhattan as well. Personally I love both rye and bourbon for a Manhattan. Woodford Reserve Bourbon has a high rye content of 18% so still has depth, spice and bite to carry off a well balanced flavour and finish. And our recently released Woodford Reserve Rye has an old school lower content of rye at 53%, so whilst still delivering black pepper and spicier notes, it still has smoothness, depth and complexity.”

Tom’s favourite places to enjoy a Manhattan include The Savoy, Nightjar, The Punch Room, Happiness Forgets, HIX, Satan's Whiskers and Sager + Wilde Restaurant.

Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (Rittenhouse 100)

A wonderful go-to rye whiskey which never fails to make a stunning Manhattan. Expect punchy spice, with hints of ginger, followed by creamy vanilla, dark chocolate and a subtle oiliness. You'll want to head to Callooh Callay for one of these, where the classic cocktails are stirred to perfection. 

Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Aged for seven or more years this is one bourbon with a very high rye content of 36%. It also has quite a punchy alcohol content, meaning it shines through brilliantly in a Manhattan. We headed straight to Michael Vachon from Maverick Drinks who looks after this beautiful whiskey to find out how to best to order an Old Scout Manhattan (which sounds delightfully rouge). 


"It’s incredible value for the quality of bourbon you’re getting. I can’t emphasise this enough: non-chill filtered whiskies just taste so much better. They’re oily, rich, and have so much more flavour than whiskies which have been chill-filtered. Plus the 49.5% ABV gives bartenders a lot of room to play with and really stands up in classic cocktails. This bourbon is practically made for Manhattans and any stirred down bourbon cocktails. The higher ABV carries those flavours through better than a lot of other bourbons. You’ll want something that’s just as big to match, so I’d probably recommend Antica Formula or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino."

As for Michael's bar to order one in; "Without question – Happiness Forgets. It’s also a favourite of John Little, the man behind Smooth Ambler." We're sold.

Booker's Bourbon

Booker's is quite different from other bourbons in that each batch will vary on proof and age. We've yet to try a bottle we're not avid fans of though and will always reach for it when stirring a Manhattan. It is more expensive than other whiskies but Booker's is special enough to justify this. We're sending you to MASH in Soho to order one of these. MASH is the king of American whiskey so look out for some brilliant ryes including 6-year-old Willett Straight Rye, 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve and Hudson Manhattan Rye. 

Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Bulleit Bourbon has its own unique blend of rye, corn, and barley malt which makes it a great spirit for the Manhattan. We suspect it's thanks to its especially high rye content that we're such a fan of it in this cocktail, yet the sweetness of a well-made bourbon still balances the bold, spicey chatracter. Bulleit Rye however is super spicy and complex, meaning rye drinkers will fall in love with a Bulleit Rye Manhattan - it's exactly the drink that David Wondrich was writing about when he said "But with rye, this venerable creation -- its roots stretch back to the old Manhattan Club, in 1874 -- is as close to divine perfection as a cocktail can be." We stole a few minutes of brand ambassador Andrea Montague's time to see how we should be knocking back our Bulleit Manhattans.


"I tend to err towards the sweet Manhattan (I think a dry Manhattan should be banished from the face of the earth) with the sweet vermouth perfectly complementing Bulleit's spicy character. I know many bartenders reach for the rye when making a Manhattan however I prefer the sweeter notes of the bourbon in mine. Saying this I realise I may have a bit of a sweet tooth! Classic Italian vermouth all the way, Punt e Mes being my preferred brand as it has the right ratio of depth and sweetness with a slightly bitter amaro finish. Bulleit has rich vanilla and apricot notes and tons of spice (think toasted cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper) which is highlighted perfectly with sweet vermouth and bitters. It is practically the perfect drink for it!"

Andrea recommended us to head to Portside Parlour in Shoreditch for a Bulleit Manhattan, promising that it wouldn't matter who was working they'd always be perfect. And naturally she was right. 

WhistlePig Rye Whiskey

The spice of this whiskey's aroma is beautiful. Stick your nose in a WhistlePig Manhattan and as well as the vermouth and bitters you'll easily pick up nutmeg, clove, vanilla and ginger. It's a bouquet fit for a king. The Manhattan will also really pull out the notes of vanilla, maple and spicy rye on the palate. Where else would you drink one but Original Sin in Stoke Newington where you can gently sip a brilliantly-made Manhattan and then play a game of pool? Or do both at the same time...we certainly do. 


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