Manhattan cocktail ingredients & mixing method image 1

Manhattan cocktail ingredients & mixing method

Words by Simon Difford

Early recipes (see below) for the Manhattan call for gum (Gum arabic syrup), including William Schmidt's 1891 The Flowing Bowl which also includes a dash of absinthe and suggests "a little maraschino may be added". Indeed, absinthe, gomme and curaçao all feature in pre-1900 Manhattans.

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William Schmidt, The Flowing Bowl, 1891

Over the decades the gum syrup and absinthe were omitted from the Manhattan while the maraschino has morphed into the garnish. Over the years, perhaps mostly due to Angostura bitters being the most readily available, it has become the default bitters in Manhattans. However, many bartenders favour the use of different bitters, most notably Abbot's Bitters. (As explained in (this piece on Abbot's Bitters by Jake Burger.)

Rye whiskey or bourbon

Frustratingly the recipes in the early bar books above simply state 'whiskey' but the Manhattan was probably originally made with rye whiskey, rather than bourbon, as New York was a rye whiskey-drinking city.

The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails quotes an early reference in the 9th December 1883 The Boston Sunday Herald, which describes the Manhattan as "the ordinary vermouth cocktail with a foundation of first-rate Bourbon whiskey," but the posthumously published 1887 Jerry Thomas' Bar-Tenders Guide stipulates rye whiskey.

Manhattan Cocktail.
(Use a large bar glass.)
Take 2 dashes of Curaçoa or Maraschino.
1 pony Rye whiskey.
1 wine-glass of vermouth.
3 dashes of Boker's bitters.
2 small lumps of ice.
Shake up well, and strain into claret glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If the customer prefers it very sweet use also two dashes of gum syrup.

The Bar-Tender's Guide, 1887

Through the second half of the 20th century, until the Millennium, bourbon was the established base for a Manhattan but with the rise in popularity of rye whiskies, this has become the favoured base spirit, particularly bonded rye whiskey, among the cocktail cognoscente. However, this is a matter of personal tastes and some folks even prefer Tennessee or Canadian whiskey.


Once you've decided on your choice of whiskey, or even blend of whiskies, 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.

As Harry Johnson says in his 1900 Bartenders Manual, "It is the bartender's duty to ask the customer, whether he desires his drink dry or sweet."

Mixing method and serve

Convention has it that a Manhattan should be stirred and served in a cocktail glass [Coupe, Martini or Nick & Nora] 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. Perhaps the Frozen Manhattan will be a hit this summer!

Early recipes

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.

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

(Use a large bar glass.)
Fill the glass up with ice;
2 or 3 dashes of Gum Syrup;
1 or 2 dashes of Bitters; (Boker's genuine only);
1 dash of Curaçao (or absinthe if required);
½ wine glass of Whiskey;
½ wine glass of Vermouth;
Stir up well, strain into a fancy cocktail glass, squeeze a piece of lemon peel on the 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.

Harry Johnson, New & Improved Illustrated Bartender's Manual, 1888

Manhattan Cocktail
Half a tumblerful of cracked ice,
2 dashes of gum,
2 dashes of bitters,
1 dash of absinthe,
2/3 drink of whiskey,
1/3 drink of vino vermouth.
(A little maraschino may be added.)
Stir this well, strain, and serve.

William Schmidt, The Flowing Bowl, 1891, page 128

(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.

Harry Johnson, Bartenders' Manual, 1900
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