The Manhattan should be in any home bartender’s repertoire. It’s in the cocktail pantheon for a reason: simple enough to spread across the world and endure through time, yet versatile and complex enough to invite the tinkering of curious minds. When done right, it has balance, a multi-layered flavor, a velvety smooth texture, and is the perfect cocktail to make when you’re not quite sure what you want, because you’ll never be disappointed.
Considered the first modern cocktail, the Manhattan arrived on the scene in late 19th century America and marked a turning point in cocktail evolution. Before then, a whiskey cocktail just meant whiskey, bitters, and sugar. The Manhattan, which was popularized (and possibly originated) at New York’s Manhattan Club, added vermouth to the party, which took the flavors and the texture into uncharted territory.
But like so many other cocktails, the Manhattan recipe was corrupted by the telephone game of time. Bartenders went too far in pulling back on the original heavy-on-the-vermouth ratios, including only a splash of vermouth that pushed the whiskey enough to taste “off,” but not enough to become a unified cocktail. Far worse, some swapped the original lemon twist with industrial Maraschino cherries and dollops of the dyed syrup they’re packed in. Mercifully, the Manhattan was one of the first cocktails to be revamped by 21st century mixologists, and with all that we know now and have access to, it has never been better.
To help you get it right at home, we spoke to two of the country’s top bartenders: longtime New York bartender Joaquin Simo, also the inventor of the Naked and Famous cocktail, and Jake Powell, Head Bartender at Death & Co, Denver. Here’s their expert advice for making a Manhattan you’ll never be mad at.
8 Tips For Making A Perfect Manhattan
1. Know the Rules, But Don’t Be Afraid to Bend Them
The typical modern ratio for the Manhattan is two parts whiskey to one part vermouth to two dashes of bitters. It’s a classic for a reason. But Joaquin Simo encourages people to not be constricted by that.
“I prefer to think of Manhattan the cocktail like Manhattan the place,” says Simo. “There’s a lot of ways to get into Manhattan — a lot of bridges and tunnels — and likewise, there are lot of ways to get to a great Manhattan cocktail. The right one is just the one you like the most.”
2. Master the Mini Manhattan First
There can be a lot of tinkering with a Manhattan, especially if you’re making a Perfect Manhattan, which uses a combination of sweet and dry vermouth. Depending on your mood or your whiskey of choice, you may want to lean on the dry vermouth, sometimes you’ll want to lean on the sweet vermouth, and sometimes you’ll want them in equal parts. But, if you make full-sized drinks every time you try a new ratio, you’ll either be wasting ingredients or you’ll be wasted.
Instead, Simo says to make a mini version of the drink as a tester. Pour a quarter ounce of each vermouth into a glass, have a sip, and see how they taste together. The combo has to be delicious on its own, or it shouldn’t go into a drink. “Don’t plate a dish and then ask where it went wrong,” says Simo, “Taste the sauce in the pan.” Doing this R&D in small amounts will let you know what you’re working with more efficiently. “If they work, then make the big boy version,” says Simo.
3. Play Around With Whiskey
From the beginning, bartenders in the 1800’s were using both rye and bourbon for Manhattans. To figure out which whiskey you like best, pay attention to what’s in the Manhattans you enjoy most when you’re out at a bar.
“If you’ve ever had one you love, ask the bartender what the recipe is,” says Simo. “Then you’ll know — I like a rye, I like a bourbon. Do I like high rye or wheated bourbon? If it’s rye, is it high rye?” This will help you figure out what bottle to have at home. And a good thing about the best whiskies for Manhattans is that they’re not in a category that’s particularly expensive.
“I always look for something that’s at least 100 proof to stand up to the vermouth and the dilution from stirring,” says Powell, who prefers to use rye. “If you prefer bourbon, I’d still look for one with a high rye content in the mash bill for that black pepper spice that makes a Manhattan,” he says. “I also look for something that’s spent significant time in a barrel, and preferably a distillery that uses a high char level, to bring out more of those caramel, toffee, and brown sugar flavors.”
4. Double Check That Vermouth
Vermouth is the ingredient that distinguished the Manhattan from what had come before it, so instead of putting all your focus on the whiskey, it’s important to be thoughtful about your choice of vermuth. “For me,” says Simo, “in both a Manhattan and a Negroni, the sneaky underrated part is the fortified wine.”
Most of these are not that expensive, so you can try a few without breaking the bank. After deciding what whiskey you like best in a Manhattan, know that different vermouths will interact with it in different ways. “Carpano Antica is a vanilla bomb,” says Simo. “If you want something more herbaceous, look at Cinzano, Martini and Rossi, or Cocchi,” he says. For Simo, while learning how to make a Manhattan is a way to learn about whiskey, it’s an even better way to learn about modifiers.
Fresh vermouth is key. It’s made from wine and will oxidize, warns Powell. He and Simo both insist on keeping it in the fridge once opened, which will allow it to last for a month or two before it loses its luster. Both also recommend buying smaller bottles, the 375ml, both so you can try more varieties and because there’s less of a risk of them going bad before you finish them.
5. Pay Attention To — And Don’t Hold Back On — The Bitters
Bitters are the third key element of the Manhattan after the whiskey and vermouth, and while Angostura bitters is the classic choice, “there are so many aromatic bitters in a global pantry’s worth of flavors,” says Simo. “If you want a Caribbean Manhattan, add a dash of rum and allspice bitters,” he says. “In the summer, maybe lighten it up with citrusy bitters.”
You should think of bitters as the spice rack for the drink, and Simo emphasizes that bitters are far more important than most people realize, calling them “surprisingly loud ingredients,” because they’re actually the binding agent in the cocktail — harmonizing the whiskey with the fortified wine as a focal point for the other ingredients to mingle together.
Try making a Manhattan without the bitters and you’ll see how important they are. “Vermouth and whiskey is a shit drink,” says Simo, “it’s really boring.” Add those bitters and everything changes. While Simo considers Angostura to be one of the greatest amplifiers and binding agents in the world, he still believes that you should use the bitters that you like.
As for how much bitters to use, Powell’s advice is“Don’t hold back.” He suggests that while the classic spec calls for two dashes, you shouldn’t be afraid to add a few more. “When I’m making a Manhattan, I treat bitters the way I treat garlic cloves in recipes,” he says, “Just do what feels right.”
6. Garnish Wisely — And Rinse Off Those Cherries
“Get the best cherries you can get,” Simo says of sourcing the classic garnish for a Manhattan. You can’t go wrong with a jar of Luxardos. Buy a small jar so they stay fresh, and he says that if they’re “really drippy,” you should rinse them off.
For the adventurous, if you live somewhere that has great homegrown cherries, you can make your own. Otherwise buy them well, and Simo recommends switching to a lemon twist when making a Manhattan to serve in warmer weather, or when making a Perfect Manhattan.
7. Under-Stir For On-The-Rocks, Stir Well for Straight Up
“Up or On the Rocks, there’s no right or wrong in how you serve it,” says Simo. In his experience, a Maker’s Mark Manhattan is better on the rocks. “It never changes, flavor-wise, it’s magic.” But dilution is something to consider for anyone serving it on the rocks. Simo would encourage people to stir a lot less if you serve on the rocks, even if you’re using a single giant cube of ice. Stir it less than you think you need to, because of the dilution that will happen in the glass over time. By contrast, if you’re serving it up, then stir it for a lot longer because it won’t get any colder or more diluted over time.
“Stir, don’t shake,” says Powell, “Pack your mixing glass with as much ice as possible, and stir till the drink is very cold.” The goal, he says, is that after stirring, the dilution should be about an ounce of water, or 25% of the total drink.
8. Don’t be intimidated.
The biggest piece of advice that Simo has for home bartenders trying to perfect the Manhattan is to just not stress about it.
“Manhattans are the pizza of cocktails — even an okay one is still pretty satisfying,” he says. “Even at airport bars or dive bars, as long as all three ingredients are in there, you’re gonna get close to what you want.” And as a bonus for the home bartender, “You can always drink your mistakes.”
In Simo’s experience, the Manhattan truly cuts across all demographics. Men and women, and young and old. “There’s so much variety,” says Simo, and with a “staggering amount of whiskies and vermouth options, we could do this for years.”
1. Joaquin Simo’s Classic Manhattan Recipe
Stir and single strain in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the best cherry you can get.
2. Joaquin Simo’s Perfect Manhattan Recipe
Stir and single strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
3. The Carroll Gardens Manhattan Recipe
An Italian-themed Manhattan, named for a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its Italian community, this was created by Simo around 2008, at Death & Co, NYC.
Stir, then single strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express and discard a lemon peel.
4. The Time & Place Mahattan Recipe
“This is my favorite Manhattan riff I’ve ever had,” says Powell. “Written by our Head Bartender in Denver, Summer Goff, it uses a high proof and very bold bourbon as well as some very rich fortified elements, and the carrot eau de vie gives it a great earthy spice.”
Stir until properly chilled, strain into Nick & Nora glass, garnish with a lemon twist.