The Manhattan, A Cocktail That Stands the Test of Time

Manhattan cocktail / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Dylan Garret

In the pantheon of drinks named after cities and regions (Singapore Sling, Moscow Mule, Brooklyn, Long Island Iced Tea), few have as much history and pedigree as the venerable Manhattan.

Like most drinks created in the 19th century, the recorded origins of the Manhattan cocktail waver between tall tales, hearsay, urban legends and a few hints of truth.

Common retellings are that the cocktail was invented in the late 1800s by Dr. Iain Marshall at the Manhattan Club in New York City, for Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill’s mother), who records show was almost certainly not in America at the time. A 1932 story by bartender William F. Mulhall credits someone with the name Black, who kept an establishment on Broadway, south of Houston Street, in Manhattan. A different tale says the drink was created by a New Orleans-based, saloon-owning colonel on a yachting trip in New York. Other records show that the cocktail predates all of these stories, but was simply called by different names.

What Makes a Cocktail a Classic?

What can’t be argued is that the simple combination of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters has endured for well over a century. The recipe has remained remarkably unchanged since its creation.

The Manhattan’s proportions follow what has become a fairly standard template for spirits-and-bitters cocktails: liquor and vermouth in a 2-to-1 ratio, and a few dashes of bitters. Early recipes called specifically for “American whiskey” which was often understood to be rye, a choice compounded during Prohibition when illicitly procured Canadian rye whiskey became the only viable option. However, Bourbon is still often substituted.

Some 150 or so years since its creation, the Manhattan is used commonly as a test for new bartenders to prove they have basic command of mixing cocktails. The combination is so well known, its also become a canvass for creative-minded establishments to customize the drink using ingredients like housemade bitters, vermouths and infusions.

Still, however individual bars and bartenders tweak and play with this venerable cocktail, the classic Manhattan still remains a cornerstone recipe for every drinks mixer to commit to memory.

Ingredients
  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Brandied cherry, for garnish
Directions

In mixing glass filled with ice, add all ingredients except garnish. Stir for 30–45 seconds, until well-chilled. Strain into chilled coupe glass. Garnish with brandied cherry.

Published on July 17, 2021