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Trends among the liquor industry find their way onto the menus of cocktail bars and on to the drink carts of homes. Classics like Manhattan cocktails are among the staple drinks everyone should know how to make – be prepared by having the necessary ingredients on hand. Unlike other drink trends or specialty drinks, Manhattans call for simple ingredients that can be used to make a plethora of other cocktails when combined with one or two other common liquors. Using an easy Manhattan recipe, you can become a stellar home bartender with a few tips and a little understanding of what makes a signature Manhattan sing.

A Brief History of the Manhattan

Behind the bar of the Manhattan Club in New York City around 1880, a bartender created a cocktail that become famously popular shortly after its inception. The whiskey classic fell in and out of favor with the drinking public over the years, but has experienced a resurgence during the craft cocktail wave that has fallen upon many bars in the past 10 years. You'll find a Manhattan at the cornerstone of any cocktail menu. It's a complex and quality cocktail for savoring and dissecting among more-discerning palates. No matter the latest in brown liquor fads, the Manhattan is a well-balanced drink that can adapt to feature whiskey, bourbon or even a barrel-aged gin and survive the volatile tastes of fashionable cocktail drinkers.

What's in a Manhattan?

Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails are quite similar because they share two of the same three primary ingredients: Both are made with rye whiskey or bourbon and angostura bitters. The only components that vary between the two cocktails are the way in which they are sweetened and how they are served. Each is garnished with an orange peel and a maraschino cherry or two, though Old Fashioned cocktails may have one or the other rather than both garnishes every time.

Manhattans

A Manhattan cocktail is typically sweetened with sweet vermouth, a sweet, fortified wine similar to sherry that has been infused with herbs to provide additional flavors that range from herbal to bitter. Despite its name, sweet vermouth is not overly sweet, but instead balances the smokiness of the whiskey. The benefit of sweetening the cocktail with a fortified wine is that there is an added complexity of flavor. There are herbal and bitter notes from vermouth as well as from the bitters, and the whiskey and vermouth also provide slightly sweet tones such as vanilla and caramel flavors.

Unlike Old Fashioned cocktails, Manhattans are served "up" or in barware that is stemmed. Sometimes Manhattans are served in martini glasses, but should more often be served in a coupe or other stemmed glass.

Old Fashioned

An Old Fashioned is made with bourbon or rye whiskey, herbal bitters and white sugar or simple syrup for sweetening. Depending on the bar and the bartender, simple syrup – a mix of water and dissolved sugar – might be used in the mixed drink, but the proper method of making an Old Fashioned calls for a sugar cube to be muddled in the bottom of the glass with the bitters. Because this cocktail is sweetened with nothing more than sugar, it is a sweeter cocktail than a Manhattan. Old Fashioned cocktails also lack the complexity that Manhattans have and are less alcoholic.

While Manhattans are served in stemmed barware, Old Fashioned cocktails are served in short glasses for serving liquor on the rocks. Old Fashioneds may be served neat, meaning without ice, over a single block of ice or over a frozen metal cube to prevent the cocktail from being watered down by melting ice.

Classic Manhattan Recipe

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1 classic Manhattan

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce herbal bitters, such as angostura
  • orange peel
  • 1 or 2 jarred maraschino cherries

Directions:

  1. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and herbal bitters.

  2. Shake well to combine.

  3. Using the orange peel, rub it around the rim of a stemmed cocktail or martini glass.

  4. Drop one or two maraschino cherries into the bottom of the glass and pour the cocktail into the prepared glass.

  5. Serve immediately.

Traditional, classic Manhattan cocktails call for rye whiskey, which creates a stronger, edgier drink. For a smoother, well-blended and balanced Manhattan, try an alternative take on the classic by using bourbon, which seamlessly blends together with the vermouth. While orange peel and maraschino cherries are also very traditional, along with the herbal bitters, substitutions can be made for a more personalized drink.

Bourbon Manhattan Recipe

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1 bourbon Manhattan

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces rye bourbon, such as Angel's Envy, or bourbon of your choice
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes peach or orange bitters
  • 1 dash lemon juice
  • orange peel
  • 2 jarred maraschino cherries

Directions:

  1. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, sweet vermouth, fruit bitters and lemon juice.

  2. Shake well to combine.

  3. Using the orange peel, rub it around the rim of a stemmed cocktail or martini glass.

  4. Add two maraschino cherries to the bottom of the glass and pour the mixed cocktail into the prepared glass.

  5. Serve immediately while still chilled.

This less traditional spin on a Manhattan recipe is just as alcoholic as the original, but is more balanced and offers a complex flavor profile. Rye-based liquors are truer to the traditional Manhattan cocktail recipe, but bourbon blends more smoothly with sweet vermouth. This makes high-quality rye bourbon like Angel's Envy a perfect match for an updated take on this cocktail.

Alternative Takes on Manhattans

A well-stocked home bar is not a necessity for making Manhattans, since the drink calls for only a few, common ingredients. But utilizing substitutes for the drink's ingredients makes it easy to personalize the cocktail to your taste or the preferences of your guests. If you or your friends are not whiskey or bourbon drinkers or if you don't have bitters on hand, follow these substitution guidelines for building a better drink as you like. Using a Manhattan recipe, along with a few of these substitutions will also allow you to riff on the classic and get creative with your own bartending abilities. You never know – an amazing new drink could be behind your own spin on a Manhattan.

Liquor Substitutes

Whiskey and bourbon are quite similar, making bourbon the natural alternative to rye whiskey, which is necessary for the very traditional take on a Manhattan cocktail recipe. Other options, however, include Scotch whisky and cognac. While whiskey is not easily replaced, the flavor profile of a Manhattan will work well with Scotch whisky or cognac because it works well with bourbon, which often exhibits sweeter notes such as vanilla, caramel or even chocolate.

Other similar substitutes may include rye bourbon, cinnamon whiskey or even Canadian maple whiskey. Manhattans are on the sweeter spectrum of cocktails, so sweet, spiced and more flavorful liquors accompany the other ingredients well for a balanced and complex drink.

Sweet vermouth is easily replaced with dry vermouth as well. Sherry, another fortified white wine, may be substituted for sweet vermouth just as other regular sweet white wines, like riesling, may be used. If looking for another white wine swap instead of dry vermouth, try trading in a dry pinot grigio.

Bitters Substitutes

Angostura bitters are typically called for when making Manhattans and Old Fashioned cocktails because it is a gentian-forward bitter. Though star anise is prominently featured among the flavor profile, Peychaud bitters are an easy, direct swap for angostura bitters. Other substitutes, such as fruit-infused bitters, can be selected based on complementary flavors in the cocktail recipe. A Manhattan, which includes orange peel and maraschino cherries can be combined with orange, peach, lemon or even raspberry bitters for a different taste.

Though gentian herbs are likely not on hand, it is possible to make your own bitters in a pinch. To do so, use a small bowl and the back of a spoon to grind up nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, coarsely ground black pepper and allspice into a fine powder. Pour up to two tablespoons of vodka over the spices and let sit for at least five minutes. Use cheese cloth to strain the solids from the flash-infused bitters and use in the drink recipe you are making.

Alternative Sweeteners

Similarly to adding bitters that serve as complementary flavors to the drink recipe, alternative sweeteners can be used to add other flavors and notes to a drink. While Manhattans are sweetened by vermouth and maraschino cherries, other sweet brandies can be used to make the drink while sweetening it.

A Manhattan that lacks sweet vermouth and is sweetened with simple syrup is closer to an Old Fashioned. Those who prefer their drinks sweeter than the level that classic Manhattan cocktail recipes call for can adapt their drink by adding simple syrup to the mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Plain simple syrup, which is water that contains dissolved granulated white sugar, best maintains the flavor profile of a classic Manhattan, but other flavored simple syrups can be used to make the drink more interesting.

Try adding muddled or crushed mint, lemon, orange, maraschino cherries, peach, raspberries, blackberries or other complementary fruits to the simple syrup when making it. This will infuse the flavor into the sugar water and add another layer of complexity to the completed drink. Another option when making homemade simple syrup for sweetening drinks is to use less white sugar and mix in natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave nectar, all of which add their own distinct note to the drink. Get creative and mix any combination of two of these suggestions for a high level of complexity and flavor in the craft cocktail.

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About the Author

Molly Harris

Molly is a freelance journalist and social media consultant. In addition to Leaf.tv, Molly has written for Teen Vogue and Paste magazine. She is the former assistant editor of the Design and Style section of Paste magazine. View her work at www.mmollyharris.com.