I have been home bartending for years. However, despite my time shaking and stirring, I STILL mix up the recipe for the Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. In reality, these two whiskey drinks are quite different. However, they are both stirred and share the majority of their ingredients which can cause confusion. I know I’m not the only one. In an effort to clear things up, I am bringing you my first battle of the classics, Manhattan vs Old Fashioned. Invented in 1881 in Louisville, KY, the Old Fashioned is older than the Manhattan, which was introduced in 1894. Let’s dive into what makes them great, recipes for both, and how to create some riffs.
Manhattan vs Old Fashioned
Ingredients in a Manhattan
Served neat (no ice), the Classic Manhattan is spirit forward. Made without any cocktail mixers, the flavors of the whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters are present. The flavors marinate together well to create a rich flavor. The classic version of the Manhattan calls for rye or bourbon whiskey. I think Rittenhouse Rye is one of the best on the market for the price and it’s easy to find. The flavor is best described as bold and bitter, thanks to the amaro and bitters. The Manhattan cocktail recipe is generally left alone. But we’ll get into some ways to mix it up in a little bit.
- 2.5 oz rye whiskey
- 0.75 oz sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 cocktail cherry (Luxardo or brandied)
- Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice and stir for 20-30 seconds.
- Strain into a coupe or Nick & Nora glass and garnish with the cherry.
Ingredients in an Old Fashioned
The basic components of an Old Fashioned are bourbon or rye whiskey, a sweetener, and bitters. The drink is served over ice in an Old Fashioned glass, which is named for the drink. Since the whiskey is the primary ingredient, it’s certainly the prevalent flavor of the drink. This means you will want to find a bourbon or rye whiskey that you really enjoy. I like bourbon best. A few great, affordable bourbon choices for your Old Fashioned are Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon, Four Roses Bourbon, and Bulleit Bourbon.
Classic Old Fashioned
- 2 oz whiskey (bourbon or rye)
- 1 tsp demerara syrup (2:1, sugar:water)
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 orange peel
- Add all ingredients (except the orange peel) to a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir 20-30 seconds and strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Garnish with orange peel.
Which is Sweeter? A Manhattan vs Old Fashioned
If you read many cocktail books, you might read that the main difference between a Manhattan vs Old Fashioned is the level of sweetness. Most describe an Old Fashioned as the sweeter of the two. However, it really depends on how your palate perceives sugar. If you are familiar with spirits, you might be able to taste the sweetness of a sweet vermouth in a Manhattan. But, since the original Old Fashioned recipe includes a sugar cube, it’s overall level of sugar is technically higher.
How to Create Manhattan Riffs
Unlike some classic cocktails, the Manhattan stays relatively true to the original recipe. That’s not to say you won’t find riffs, but you will generally find minor changes to the recipe. This is when compared to the Old Fashioned which lends itself to an impressive range of riffs. Let’s explore some solid ways to invent a new Manhattan.
- Play with proportions: the recipe I use is from Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails. It calls for a little more whiskey and less sweet vermouth as some other recipes. A popular Manhattan riff calls for flipping the proportions of whiskey to sweet vermouth. So, try using twice as much sweet vermouth and half as much whiskey.
- Mix up the bitters: change the flavor up with orange, grapefruit, or Peychauds bitters. If you’re new to bitters, check out this post.
- Swap out the sweet vermouth: there’s so many kinds of sweet vermouth on the market. I used to think they were all the same, but I was very wrong. The three kinds pictured are all quite distinct and really change up the flavor of a Manhattan.
- Use a different base spirit: try making a Manhattan with something other than rye whiskey. You could use bourbon, or try cognac, an aged rum, or even an apple brandy.
How to Create Old Fashioned Riffs
One of my absolute favorite cocktails to riff on is the Old Fashioned. I love a classic, but the recipe lends itself easily to many different spirits, sweeteners, and bitters. This past summer I got a bit obsessed with making the Grilled Pineapple Old Fashioned (pictured above). It’s tart and smokey, perfect really. Even within riffs, there are variations. Take the Oaxaca Old Fashioned as an example. The classic recipe calls for Angostura bitter, a split of tequila and mezcal, and agave. But, I have seen plenty of recipes that swap out the Angostura bitters for chocolate bitters. Yum! Here are a few ideas on how to switch up your Old Fashioned.
- Try different sweeteners: changing the type of sweetener can easily transform your drink. The Grilled Pineapple Old Fashioned uses grilled pineapple syrup. Using agave, an infused simple syrup, or even honey can make great versions. Depending on what you’re using, you might need more or less depending on the spirit.
- Swap or split your spirit: easily my favorite way to invent new versions is to change the base spirit. The first time I tried a rum Old Fashioned, I knew I was onto something great. Try using Appleton Estate 12 Year in the classic recipe. But almost any spirit can work. You can also split the total volume of alcohol into two different spirits. A split of mezcal and tequila or rum and triple sec, like Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, work really well together.
- Use different bitters: there’s so many flavors of bitters on the market. You can find everything from smokey to spicy to floral. Try different flavors, or double up with two different flavors in the same drink.
- Double up: swap out the spirit and the bitters for a new Old Fashioned. Or use a different sweetener and liquor. There are no limits.
Now you know what the Manhattan vs Old Fashioned face-off is all about. What’s your favorite? If you’re looking for more ideas on how to make drinks at home, you might like this post on inventing your new favorite cocktail. Cheers!