The Basics Tips & Tricks

The Dos and Don'ts of Making a Manhattan

Image: Tim Nusog

All hail the almighty Manhattan. As iconic as it is potent, the whiskey cocktail, which is believed to have first been mixed in New York City in the late 1800s, has stood the test of time. If you’re looking to master a classic that will impress your friends as well as get them a nice buzz, the Manhattan is your starting line.

Like many old-school classics, the drink consists of just three ingredients—whiskey, vermouth and bitters, as well as a garnish of cherry or lemon peel. Despite its simplicity, a great debate rages on about the precise method and specific ingredients needed to make a proper Manhattan. But whether you’re a traditionalist or a tinkerer, there are some generally agreed upon dos and don’ts to keep in mind when mixing a Manhattan.

DO: Have the right tools

The Manhattan doesn’t require anything fancy, but you will want to make sure to have a few key tools for best results: a mixing glass, a proper bar spoon, a jigger and a strainer. Don’t forget your favorite cocktail glass; a coupe works nicely.

DON’T: Overthink your whiskey choice

Many insist American rye is the only spirit that will do; this traditional choice offers a drier and slightly spicier taste. However, many enjoy using bourbon to get a rounder, slightly sweeter drink.

DO: Invest in the good stuff

No matter what whiskey you decide to use, make sure it’s high-quality (or at least not bottom shelf). The Manhattan is meant to showcase and elevate the whiskey, so choose wisely because this drink doesn’t have much to hide behind to cover up bad liquor.

DON’T: Buy the wrong vermouth

Well, there’s no wrong vermouth (to each their own), but it’s generally recommended that you use sweet red vermouth in this cocktail. If you’re going for the “perfect” Manhattan, you’ll need to use half sweet and half dry vermouth. In terms of which brand to buy, it’s smart to do a little research about what may pair nicely with your liquor choice (for example, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino pairs well with Woodford Reserve) or make it a goal to experiment over time to see which mashup you like best.

DO: Opt for Angostura bitters

With notes of tamarind and cinnamon, this tried-and-true aromatic bitter adds warmth and spice to the drink without overwhelming the other ingredients. There are others, to be sure, but Angostura is always a safe bet here.

DON’T: Go overboard on the ratio

The general guideline is two parts whiskey to one part vermouth with two to three dashes of bitters. You can go up to three parts to one and add a couple more dashes, at your own risk, and no one will judge you ... too much.

DON’T: Shake the cocktail

Repeat after me: A Manhattan must be stirred, not shaken. While shaking gets the drink cold like stirring, it leaves the concoction a cloudy mess. It’s the worst mistake you can make with this drink. The best method is to stir the drink with a bar spoon, leisurely, for at least 20 to 25 rotations.

DO: Garnish how you like

Once you stir the mixture with ice and strain it into your glass, don’t forget the garnish. Use either a cherry or lemon peel. Some people use both. It’s up to you, bartender.

DON’T: Use a processed maraschino cherry

A lot of Manhattan recipes call for a maraschino cherry—the waxy, unusually pink ones you find in Shirley Temples or a bad drink at a dive bar. These cherries have been processed with chemicals like food coloring and corn syrup and are just plain gross. The last thing you want to do is plop one of these into your beautifully crafted drink. You’ll find a much better choice in deliciously luxe deep red Luxardo Italian cherries.

DON’T: Imbibe too quickly

The Manhattan is meant to be sipped slowly and savored. Let this boozy drink’s complexities soak in, and make sure to take your time enjoying your creation.

DO: Make it your own

This cocktail’s classic formula has been played with for more than 130 years. Master it in its classic form, or mix it up with new techniques and flavors. Either way, everyone should find their own ideal Manhattan.