Celebrating Bourbon Cocktails: The Manhattan

Creative cocktails are great, but sometimes, nothing beats a classic. In honor of National Bourbon Heritage Month, we’re taking a second look at some of the most canonical bourbon cocktails. None of these will win you Crazy Mixologist of the Year award, but that’s OK. Drinks become classics for a reason: they’re particularly delicious, and as a bonus, most are also easy to make. We’ve already paid homage to the Old Fashioned and the Mint Julep, and now we’re moving on to the Manhattan.


A classic Manhattan cocktail (image via Larry Vincent/flickr)

The Manhattan

But first, a disclaimer. Any cocktail nerd worth their Boston shaker will tell you that the Manhattan is a rye cocktail, and they’re not wrong. Evidence seems to suggest that the original Manhattan called for rye whiskey, and the drink unequivocally benefits from a whiskey that’s not too soft, not too sweet, and a little bit spicy. But the fact remains that many people enjoy a bourbon Manhattan—and, that many of the mainstream ryes are closer to bourbon in mash bill and flavor profile than you might think.

The drink’s history can, in seems, actually be traced back to its eponymous borough. Most sources say the magic combination of American whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters was first concocted at the Manhattan Club in New York in the 1880s. That first incarnation of the drink called for equal parts whiskey and vermouth; today, Manhattans are usually made with two parts whiskey to one part vermouth. I wonder if this corresponds to the great drying-out of another classic cocktail, the martini, which once called for generous lashings of vermouth before morphing into a quick-delivery system for straight, icy cold gin. What vermouth did to deserve such poor treatment, I’ll never know. But I digress.

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If you’re using bourbon in a Manhattan, select something with oomph—either high-rye, high-proof, or both. Anything too retiring can end up overpowered by the bitters and vermouth. High-rye barrel-proof bourbons like Booker’s are a home run, but Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, despite its total lack of rye, also produces a delightful, albeit slightly sweeter, drink.

Here’s a recipe to get you started, but think of it as an introduction, not the final word. Few cocktails reward tinkering quite like the Manhattan. When it comes to vermouth, the sky’s the limit. Carpano Antica is always a classy option, but I’d also suggest exploring some of the lesser-known Spanish vermouths, some of which have a lovely orange-y note that works beautifully in a Manhattan. We’re working our way through a bottle of Berto vermouth, which is made with white wine but has a pretty solid dose of sweetness that makes it work in a Manhattan, especially with something mineral-y like Barrel Bourbon 012. The classic bitters choice is Angostura, but Regan’s or Fee’s Orange Bitters can be a nice change of pace once in a while.

Manhattan Cocktail

  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2-3 dashes bitters
  • Optional garnish: orange twist or amarena cherry

Fill a shaker with ice. Add the bourbon, vermouth, and bitters. Stir until frost forms on the exterior of the shaker. Strain into a chilled glass (coupe, tumbler, or cocktail glasses are all acceptable), garnish, and enjoy.