The Strangely Cool Origin Story of the Manhattan

A look at the origins of this classic drink and how to mix it up properly.


The greatness of the Manhattan cocktail was recognized while it was still in its hot youth, back in the 1880s, and its acclaim lasted long into the 20th century. And if the last decades of that difficult century saw the drink reduced to playing the dinner-theater circuit, as it were, the first (difficult) decades of the present century have seen it come swaggering back, starring again in the biggest shows on Broadway.

Unlike some drinks—the Singapore Sling comes to mind—the Manhattan today is remarkably like the Manhattan of 1900, at least if the liberally-inked young mixologists who are stirring up most of our fancy drinks these days can be persuaded to refrain from “improving” it with the various amari, mezcals, infusions and whatnot that they splash around so freely. The standard Manhattan—two parts rye, one part sweet vermouth, two dashes bitters, up with a cherry or twist—has survived good times and bad, wars, recessions, Prohibition, the Depression, cultural upheavals, and, comfortingly, any number of truly terrible presidential administrations. It sailed through the Taft years and the Hoover ones; Nixon couldn’t kill it and Bush Jr. actually gave it strength. It will survive Trump, even if the rest of our society doesn’t.

That two-one-two formula, however, is not the recipe the Manhattan was born with. Now, here I have to admit that the circumstances of the Manhattan’s birth are not crystal clear. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was no corps of underpaid young drinks writers eager to shout every new act of cocktail creation, no matter how nugatory, from the rooftops. Cocktails were for drinking, not chronicling, and bartenders were for talking to, not about. But the consensus of the day and the preponderance of the evidence agrees with the popular legend that has the Manhattan invented at New York’s Manhattan Club in 1880, give or take a couple of years, although the rest of the legend—that Winston Churchill’s mother had a hand in it, and that the occasion was a banquet for Samuel Tilden (another Democrat who won the popular vote but got screwed in the Electoral College)—is horseshit.


Assuming it was born at the Manhattan Club, that gives a certain weight to the Club’s recipe for it, recorded in the 1916 second edition of the organization’s official history, Henry Watterson’s History of the Manhattan Club: A Narrative of the Activities of Half a Century. And the Club’s recipe, while not radically different, is just different enough to yield a drink that’s just that much mellower, softer, and more agreeable than the already mellow, soft, and agreeable standard one.


“The Celebrated Manhattan Cocktail was inaugurated at the Club. This consists of equal portions of vermouth and whiskey, with a dash of orange bitters.”


The Manhattan Club was known for the extensive stocks of old rye whiskey that ennobled its cellars. Old rye these days is not easy to come by and even if you find it it’s not made the way it was. Nonetheless, a whiskey like the Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Rye or the Woodford Reserve Rye works very well here. At the club, they probably used an ounce of it, but an once and a half makes a drink that better fits modern glassware. For the vermouth—and again, use an ounce and a half—I’m partial to the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, but any good red vermouth works well here, with one exception: Carpano Antica Formula, although lovely, is an example of the old Italian “vermouth alla vaniglia” style, and has too much vanilla to balance well in this. For the orange bitters, still my favorite is what bartenders call “Feegan’s,” an equal-parts mix of Fee Bros West India Orange Bitters and Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6. Two or even three dashes are better than one. The Club is silent as to the garnish. In 1880, they would have used a twist of lemon peel. They knew their business.

Notes on Execution:

Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with plenty of cracked ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.

For more on the Manhattan and its history, see Philip Greene’s fine book on the subject, The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail with Recipes.

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The Annotated Cocktail presents a recipe for a classic drink exactly as it appeared for the first time in print and walks you through how to make it today so that it will be both historically accurate and delicious.