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Cocktail History: The Manhattan

The Manhattan cocktail on a marble table

The Manhattan is a classic cocktail of choice for whiskey-lovers. This delightful mix of rye or bourbon whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters has been adored for hundreds of years because of its subtle bitterness and herbal undertones. Seasoned drinkers are able to pick up on the hint of sweetness from sweet vermouth and the caramel-like aroma of bourbon (if it is used).

Rye whiskey, however, is the more traditional ingredient and it imparts its distinct spice and savoury taste to this well-loved classic cocktail. Whichever is used in the mix, this cocktail is great for anyone looking for a balanced multidimensional taste with that very little hint of sweetness.

All-in-all the Manhattan is considered a strong cocktail with regards to its alcohol content as well as its undying appeal to bar-goers. Even now, with so many new signature drinks stepping into the scene, no respectable bar can ever go without this classic cocktail. In this article, we’ll dig a bit deeper into the history of the Manhattan cocktail. After all, nostalgia is, in essence, pleasantly bittersweet - just like the taste of a delicious Manhattan cocktail.

Let’s get started!

The Manhattan cocktail on a marble table

The Obscure Origins of The Manhattan Cocktail

As with many classic cocktails, the exact origin story of the Manhattan cocktail is lost in time. The most popular theory is that the recipe was invented by Dr. Iain Marshall in the early 1880’s for a party by Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill. The supposed explanation behind the name of the drink is because this party was held in the Manhattan Club in New York. Later on, this theory was pronounced as a myth because, during that time, Lady Randolph Churchill was pregnant and was in England - definitely not partying in New York.

The 1923 book entitled “Valentine’s Manual of New York” presented a more plausible story when it stated that a bartender at New York’s Hoffman House by the name of William F. Mulhall recounted, during the 1880s, that the Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway.

Unfortunately, the origins of the Manhattan cocktail remain inconclusive. However, some say that the dash of mystery about its origins even adds to its appeal.

First-Ever Written Mentions of the Manhattan Cocktail

It’s no doubt that the drink emerged around the early 1880s. The earliest known written mention of this classic drink was in an article published in September 1882 by the Sunday Morning Herald in Olean, New York. In this article, both the ingredients (whiskey, vermouth, and bitters) as well as the now known name of the drink were mentioned. However, other names, like Jockey Club Cocktail and Turf Club Cocktail, were mentioned and this adds a bit to the confusion.

Additionally, the first detailed recipe of the Manhattan cocktail was printed 2 years later in 1884. This was featured in O.H. Byron’s book called “The Modern Bartenders’ Guide.”

The Early Manhattan Cocktail Recipe and How It Evolved

As stated in O.H. Byron’s book, “The Modern Bartenders’ Guide”, there were two variants of the Manhattan Cocktail. The first variant had the following ingredients:

  • 1 pony French vermouth
  • 1 pony whiskey
  • 3 - 4 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 3 dashes gum syrup
The second variant had these ingredients:
  • 1 wine glass whiskey
  • 1 wine glass Italian vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 dashes Curacao

This recipe morphs further in Harry Johnson’s 1900 Bartender’s Manual. Here, the Manhattan cocktail has the following ingredients:

  • ½ wineglass of whiskey
  • ½ glass of vermouth
  • 1 dash of curacao or absinthe
  • 1 - 2 dashes of orange bitters
  • 1 - 2 dashes of gum syrup

Through the years after 1900, the recipe goes through plenty of changes. Gum syrup and absinthe are omitted. It is also now more common to use Angostura bitters instead of orange bitters due to the former’s better availability.

Another interesting change is the widespread use of Canadian whiskey in making this drink. The reason behind this is because, during the Prohibition Era, Canadian whiskey was far more accessible. Even after this point in history though, many stuck to the recipe using Canadian whiskey, preferring its distinct smooth taste.

It’s not clear exactly when bourbon whiskey became an ingredient of choice. But many believe that rye whiskey was the traditional ingredient used - although it’s not really explicitly stated in some of the early recipes that we’ve covered. Whatever the case may be, some stick to bourbon as the base spirit as they prefer its mellower taste with more hints of sweetness.

Now that you know these original recipes, would you care to give them a try? Maybe invite some friends over to try the 1000+-year-old recipe that was known as the earliest Manhattan cocktail. It’s sure to be quite an experience.

A shot of the original recipe from the O.H. Byron’s“The Modern Bartenders’ Guide

The Variations of The Manhattan

The Manhattan cocktail has the three main elements: the richness of whiskey, the subtle sweetness of vermouth, and the bitters to balance it all out. This makes the Manhattan a perfect starting point for many variations that still retain the classic flare but add a twist. Here are some of the most popular ones:

The Rob Roy Manhattan or Scotch Manhattan

Most likely an ode to the Scottish outlaw and folk hero, the Rob Roy Manhattan was created in 1894 by a bartender at the Waldorf Astoria located in Manhattan, New York City. The main defining ingredient of this drink is scotch whiskey - which is used instead of the traditional rye or bourbon whiskey.

The Perfect Manhattan

This twist on the Manhattan cocktail recipe involves the use of a 50/50 blend of sweet vermouth and dry vermouth instead of the traditional use of sweet vermouth only. Again, this is a subtle change in the already-subtle sweetness of the drink and it’s mostly detectable only to seasoned drinkers. It is unclear when this variant was made but is definitely a staple in many bars.

The Dry Manhattan

In this variant, dry vermouth replaces the traditional sweet vermouth completely. Dry vermouth is far less sweet- making this drink emphasize more on the rich, herby, and bitter flavour that remains the drink.

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Whipping up a batch of Manhattan cocktails? Whether you are making them at home, at your bar, or at your restaurant, you need choice ingredients for a truly authentic Manhattan Cocktail. We, at Spirit of York, are committed to crafting Canada’s best-tasting spirits, dedicating ourselves to refining our methods while also keeping tradition alive.

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If you’re stopping by at the Distillery District, a visit to the iconic redbrick building in the heart of the Distillery District (aka the home of Spirit of York) will crown your experience. Enjoy a spirit tasting, a behind-the-scenes tour, or simply bringing home quality spirits as a souvenir from this historic site, we’ve got you covered. Contact us today! Contact us today!

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