Words by Simon Difford
Like so many cocktails, the origins of the Manhattan are lost in time. And, as neither the name nor the ingredients are so unusual as to prevent inadvertent duplication, the mystery is likely to remain unsolved.
The first known written mention of the Manhattan is in a September 1882 article of the Olean, New York, Sunday Morning Herald. "'It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue." The same article causes some confusion when it goes on to discuss the name of this concoction, "It went under various names - Manhattan cocktail, Turf Club cocktail, and Jockey Club cocktail."
The first full written recipe for the Manhattan appeared two years later in O.H. Byron's 1884 book, The Modern Bartenders' Guide.
Until fairly recently, it was wrongly and widely believed that the Manhattan was first created in November 1874 at New York City's Manhattan Club for Lady Randolph Churchill (née Jenny Jerome), at a banquet to celebrate the successful gubernatorial campaign of Samuel Jones Tilden. (The Manhattan Club was opposite the site that now houses the Empire State Building.) However, drinks historian David Wondrich has pointed out that the celebratory banquet in question was held in November 1874, during the period when Lady C was in England, giving birth to Winston - indeed, the banquet was held on the day Winston was christened at Blenheim.
A plausible story comes from a book published in 1923, 'Valentine's Manual of New York'. In this a William F. Mulhall who was a bartender at New York's Hoffman House in the 1880s recounts, "The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen] sixties - probably the most famous drink in the world in its time."
Yet another story involves a Col. Joe Walker on a yachting trip in New York. This last story is the most recent I have come across and is courtesy of Barry Popik's barrypopik.com where Barry notes an entry in the Daily Journal, Racine, Wisconsin, 8 March 1899. The article purports that Col. Joe Walker ran the then-famous Crescent Hall Saloon in New Orleans, at the corner of Canal and St. Charles Streets and that some years before he went on a little yachting trip with a party of friends while in New York.
"By some oversight the liquid refreshments in the icebox were confined to Italian vermouth and plain whisky, and it occurred to the colonel that a palatable drink might be made by mixing the two. The results were so good that he experimented a little on his return to New Orleans, and soon perfected the Manhattan cocktail, as it is known today. It was christened in honor of his friends on Manhattan Island, and the fame of the decoction soon spread all over the country. The true Manhattan cocktail is always made with Italian vermouth, but at half the places where they undertake to serve them, French [dry] vermouth is substituted, and the fine flavor is altogether destroyed. French vermouth is a sort of wine, while Italian vermouth is a cordial, pure and simple. They are as different as milk and molasses. A cocktail made from the French brand is no more a Manhattan cocktail than it is a Spanish omelette."[sic]
The Flowing Bowl (1891) page 128.
One of the first printed references to the Manhattan appears in William Schmidt's 1891 The Flowing Bowl. The recipe calls for gum (Gum arabic syrup), includes a dash of absinthe and suggests "a little maraschino may be added".
Harry Johnson's 1900 Bartenders' Manual includes the following recipe:
(Use a large bar glass)
Fill the glass up with ice;
1 or 2 dashes of gum syrup, very carefully;
1 or 2 dashes of bitters (orange bitters);
1 dash of curacao or absinthe, if required;
1/2 wine-glass of whiskey;
1/2 wine glass of vermouth;
Stir up well; strain into fancy cocktail glass;
squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top, and serve; leave
it for the customer to decide, whether to use
absinthe or not. This drink is very popular at the
present day. It is the bartender's duty to ask the
customer, whether he desires his drink dry or sweet."
Over the decades the gum syrup and absinthe has been omitted from the Manhattan while the maraschino has morphed into the garnish. It is also more common for Angostura aromatic bitters to be used in place of orange bitters - perhaps mostly due to Angostura being more commonplace over the decades. However, it should be noted that various bartenders favour the use of different bitters, including Abbott's Bitters. (As explained in (this piece on Abbott's Bitters by Jake Burger.) See his Portabello Star Manhattan below.
Frustratingly the recipes in the early bar books above simply state 'whiskey' but the Manhattan was probably originally made with rye whiskey, rather than bourbon, as New York was a rye-drinking city. Today it is common to use bourbon, although purists tend to favour bonded rye whiskey. Some folks even prefer Tennessee or Canadian whiskey.
Once you've decided on your choice of whiskey comes the decision of what vermouth to use. Firstly, you'll need to establish if you are making a Dry Manhattan, which calls for dry vermouth, a Perfect Manhattan which uses dry and sweet vermouths, or a Sweet Manhattan with just sweet vermouth. Not to mention the brand (although I prefer Martini).
While the Dry Manhattan is usually garnished with a twist, the more commonplace Perfect and Sweet Manhattans are generally garnished with a maraschino cherry. Maraschino and American whiskey (bourbon or rye) are a match made in heaven - so much so, that I am one of those people who likes a small spoon of cherry syrup from the jar added to the mixing glass so subtly sweetening and influencing the drink.
Mixing method and serve
Convention has it that a Manhattan should be stirred and served in a cocktail glass (coupe or martini) but the drink also works well served over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Some even prefer their Manhattans shaken rather than stirred. Each to their own.
Recipes & variations
Añejo Manhattan - Añejo tequila, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and orange bitters.
Apple Manhattan #1 - bourbon, apple schnapps and sweet vermouth.
Apple Manhattan #2 - bourbon, apple schnapps, triple sec and sweet vermouth.
Black Manhattan recipe - Rye whiskey, amaro, Angostura bitters and orange bitters.
Brandy Manhattan - made with brandy in place of whiskey (also see Harvard). Apparently popular in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Breakfast in Manhattan - orange marmalade, bourbon, sweet vermouth and orange bitters.
Brooklyn - with Amer Picon and maraschino liqueur.
Caramel Manhattan - bourbon, caramel liqueur, sweet vermouth, pineapple juice and Peychaud's bitters.
Cuban Manhattan - a Perfect Manhattan with aged rum in place of whiskey.
Dry Manhattan - made with dry vermouth and served with a twist in place of a maraschino cherry.
Devil's Manhattan - bourbon, Southern Comfort, sweet vermouth and Peychaud's bitters.
Elderflower Manhattan - bourbon, elderflower liqueur, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Fanciulli - made with Fernet Branca in place of Angostura aromatic bitters
Fourth Regiment - dating from circa 1889 this is made with equal parts bonded rye whiskey and vermouth with three dashes of each orange bitters, celery bitters and Peychaud's Bitters.
Harvard - made with cognac in place of whiskey (also see Brandy Manhattan).
I'll Take Manhattan - bourbon, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Irish Manhattan - bourbon, Tuaca, orange liqueur and vanilla syrup.
Manhattan (Sweet with Bitter Chocolate) - bourbon, sweet vermouth, dark crème de cacao, maraschino liqueur and chocolate bitters.
Manhattan Island - cognac, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and maraschino liqueur.
Met Manhattan - bourbon, orange liqueur, butterscotch liqueur and Angostura bitters.
Metropolitan - a brandy Manhattan made with a 3 parts brandy to 1 part vermouth.
Mexican Manhattan - reposado tequila, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Oddball Manhattan - bourbon, Yellow Chartreuse, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Paris Manhattan - bourbon, elderflower liqueur, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Perfect Manhattan - made with equal parts sweet and dry vermouths.
Perfect Summit Manhattan - bourbon, sweet vermouth, muscat wine, orange curacao and Whiskey Barrel aged bitters.
Portabello Star Manhattan - rye, sweet vermouth, Antica Formula and Abbott's bitters.
Preakness Manhattan - bourbon, cognac, Bénédictine, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Rob Roy - made with Scotch whisky in place of North American whiskey (and like David Embury we recommend replacing Angostura aromatic bitters with Peychaud's bitters.)
Rat Pack Manhattan - Grand Marnier, bourbon, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Red Manhattan - bourbon, sweet vermouth, red wine, maraschino and Angostura bitters..
Southern Manhattan - bourbon, Southern Comfort, sweet vermouth and Peychaud's bitters.
Star Cocktail - a Sweet Martini with calvados in place of whiskey
Tijuana Manhattan - made with an anejo tequila in place of whiskey.
The Manhattan may have been named after New York City's Manhattan Club but is most likely named after one of the five boroughs which jointly form New York City. After all, the Manhattan Club is in itself named after the borough it sits in. Three of the other four boroughs have also lent their names to Manhattan variations: Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Sadly, for Staten Island, it doesn’t have a classic cocktail named after it but a Staten Island Ferry cocktail is most usually considered to a Pina Colada-like equal parts coconut rum and pineapple juice.