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Manhattan cocktail history

Words by Simon Difford

Emerging in the 1860s-1870s, the Manhattan is regarded as the first "modern cocktail" due to the inclusion of an aromatised and fortified wine in the shape of vermouth to what otherwise would be an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail. Gary "gaz" Regan went as far as to say it was "the drink that changed the face of cocktails."

Earliest recipe

The first known written mention of the Manhattan appears in the "New York Letter" column of the 5th September 1882 The Olean Democrat, Olean, New York, "It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue."

Talking about compounders of drinks reminds me of the fact that never before has the taste for 'mixed' drinks been so great as at present and new ideas, and new combinations are constantly being brought forward. It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue. It went under various names - Manhattan cocktail, Turf Club cocktail, and Jockey Club cocktail. Bartenders at first were sorely puzzled what was wanted when it was demanded. But now they are fully cognizant of its various aliases and no difficulty is encountered. At one of the hotels, famous for its bar, a new drink has just been invented. It consists of brandy, a touch of bitters, a dash of Maraschino a suspicion of lemon and plenty of ice. They call it a foxhound cocktail and its invention is attributed to a well known hunting man, who in his moments of leisure at Newport concocted it and on his return to the city confided the secret to the head bartender of the hotel alluded to. It is an excellent appetizer and its inventor claims that as an after dinner drink it cannot be surpassed since he has found it to be and best aid to digestion he has partaken of.

"New York Letter", The Olean Democrat, Olean, New York, 05/Sep/1882

The first full written recipe for the Manhattan appeared two years later in O.H. Byron's 1884 The Modern Bartenders' Guide and then in the same year, also in George Winter's 1884 How To Mix Drinks–Bar-Keeper's Handbook and J.W. Gibson's Scientific Bar-Keeping, and Charlie Paul's 1884 American and Other-Drinks.

Manhattan Cocktail, No. 1.
(A small wine-glass.)
1 pony French vermouth.
½ pony whisky.
3 or 4 dashes Angostura bitters.
3 dashes gum syrup.

Manhattan Cocktail, No. 2.
2 dashes Curacoa.
2 " Angostura bitters.
½ wine-glass whisky.
½ " Italian vermouth.
Fine ice ; stir well and strain into cocktail glass.

O. H. Byron, The Modern Bartenders' Guide, 1884

(Use large bar glass.)
Two or three dashes of Peruvian Bitters;
One to two dashes gum syrup;
One-half wine glass of whiskey;
One-half wine glass of Vermouth;
Fill glass three-quarters full of fine shaved ice, mix well with a spoon, strain in fancy cocktail glass and serve.

George Winter, How to Mix Drinks, 1884

MANHATTAN COCKTAIL.–2 or 3 dashes of gum syrup; 2 or 3 dashes of bitters; 1 wine glass of Italian vermouth; one wine glass of whisky. Fill the glass with ice; shake well; strain into a cocktail glass; squeeze the juice of lemon rind and serve.

J. W. Gibson, Scientific Bar-Keeping, 1884


Until fairly recently, thanks to a 1945 piece written by columnist Patrick Murphy recounting information from a journalist named Ed Gibbs, it was wrongly and widely believed that the Manhattan was first created on the evening of 29th December 1874 at New York City's Manhattan Club at a banquet to celebrate the successful gubernatorial campaign of Samuel Jones Tilden.

This story was given added credence by its being repeated in a 1950 column by Walter Winchell but with the added embellishment that the Manhattan Club was housed in the former home of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's mother. The link to Lady Randolph Churchill developed as the story was repeated to the extent that it was said the Manhattan was created for her at the dinner.

There is no doubt this dinner took place and notes on the banquet confirm that an aperitif made with "American Whisky, Italian Vermouth and Angostura Bitters" was served. However, drinks historian David Wondrich has pointed out that Lady Churchill gave birth to Winston at Blenheim Palace less than a month earlier [on 30/Nov/1874] so was in England when the dinner was held, indeed, the banquet was held just two days before Winston was christened in the chapel at Blenheim on 27th December 1874. What's more, the Manhattan Club didn't move from the old Benkard mansion on Fifth Avenue to the former Jerome's mansion until 1899, 25 years after the dinner.

While the Manhattan may not have been created for this dinner and certainly not for Lady Churchill, the club's historical records claim the creation of the cocktail and in 1889, a "Boston Bartender" is quoted as saying, "the Manhattan cocktail originated in the mind of the drink mixer at the Manhattan Club's rooms in New York."

The club being the birthplace of this cocktail is given further weight by the New York Sun reporting in 1891, "the famous Manhattan cocktail was invented at the club."[source: The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails]

Nearly all the clubs in New York have some one drink which has been specially concocted by a member and the recipe of which is sometimes jealously guarded until at least it becomes public property.Legend states that it was the Manhattan Club which first gave birth to the Manhattan cocktail.

The New York Times, 29 Jun 1902, page 46

Not all evidence leads to the Manhattan Club and yet another story involves a Col. Joe Walker on a yachting trip in New York. This story is courtesy of Barry Popik's barrypopik.com where Barry notes an entry in the Daily Journal, Racine, Wisconsin, 8 March 1899. The article, which originally ran in the New Orleans Times Democrat on 17 January 1899, 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.

Daily Journal, Racine, Wisconsin, 8 March 1899

Due to the Manhattan cocktail not appearing in New Orleans newspapers prior to 1890, and Stanley Clisby Arthur's 1937 book Famous New Orleans Drinks crediting its origin to Delmonico restaurant in New York [it wasn't], Col. Joe Walker's involvement in the Manhattan's origin has been discounted.

Perhaps the real origin

The most plausible origin of the Manhattan 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."

Credence to Mr Black being the creator of the Manhattan comes courtesy of David Wondrich who searched address books from the period. Due to the "[eighteen] sixties" reference that's the decade he started at but only found a John Black who ran a bar on 130th Street – obviously more than 100 blocks uptown from the "ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway" location. However, in 1870s records he found a George Black who ran a bar at 439 Broadway from 1874 until his death in 1881 (confirmed by a "for sale" notice run in the New York Journal from 9th to 11th June 1881).

George Black's "popular lunch and sample room" was called the Manhattan Inn and although a little way off "ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway" it is close enough, particularly when recounted some 40 years after the fact. The area in between Prince and Houston Streets was noted as being "the liveliest part of New York City" in 20th February 1864 The New York Clipper and Black's bar was so close that could have been considered part of this area.

William F. Mulhall (the bartender who cited Mr Black) started bartending, aged 22, in 1882 at the Hoffmann House. This was regarded as being one of the best bars in New York with luminaries such as Frank Meyer and Harry Craddock his fellow bartenders. Indeed, William F. Mulhall progressed to be the head bartender at this prestigious bar. His 1923 witness account is the best evidence that George Black created the Manhattan cocktail, which he understandably named after his own bar, the Manhattan Inn, in the 1860/70s.

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