When considering the world of classic cocktails, one must include the Manhattan. This simple and endearing drink is usually made with just four ingredients - whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry for garnish.
Traditionally, the Manhattan is made with rye whiskey which pairs the spice from the grain against the sweetness of the vermouth, but bourbon can be used as well to great effect. Of course, this depends on what type of bourbon you are using as this style of whiskey has many variables, including mash bill, proof, age, and sometimes cask finishing. There are also different versions of the Manhattan that you can make, including a Perfect Manhattan or a Black Manhattan. We spoke to some top bartenders around the country to get their favorite bottles to use when making this classic cocktail based on factors like price, style, and proof. Here are the best bourbons for crafting Manhattans, according to industry experts.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45.2% | Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Cocoa, Caramel
“I think Woodford Reserve is the best bourbon for making Manhattans,” says Brendan Holmes, restaurant manager at JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa. “It is an extremely well-rounded bourbon that has enough bite to contrast with whatever sweet vermouth is being used. It makes for an interesting and complex cocktail that is easy to drink.”
“The higher rye content and flavor diversity also make Woodford an ideal choice for a Manhattan,” add Dimitre Darroca and Sunny Seng, the bar team at Moon Rabbit at InterContinental Washington D.C. - The Wharf. Pablo Guerrero, F&B manager for Azabu Miami Beach is also a fan. “It has great wood notes that complement other sweet flavors,” he says.
Old Forester 86 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Spice, Vanilla
Graham Courter, bar manager at Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, TN, considers Old Forester a great bargain bourbon for a Manhattan that is often priced between $20 - $25 per bottle. “It’s strong enough to stand up to the Carpano Antica I typically use,” he says, “with strong vanilla notes and just enough spice from the rye, and the vegetal notes on the finish really blend with Angostura and orange bitters I use.”
“Old Forester is always my go-to bourbon for cocktails or sipping,” agrees Reece Dodd of Helen in Birmingham, AL. “Not only does it make a phenomenal Manhattan, it’s just good juice.”
Related: The 12 Best Bourbons Under $50
Best High Rye
Belle Meade Reserve Bourbon
Region: Indiana/Tennessee | ABV: 54.15% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Spice
“I prefer using bolder, high rye bourbons for my Manhattan,” says Gretchen Overstrom, bartender at King & Rye at The Alexandrian in Virginia. “Belle Meade has the perfect balance of oak, spice, and sweetness to compliment the vermouth and bitters. I love to add our house-made cherry bitters which brings an additional layer of complexity.”
“When drinking a Manhattan, I look for boldness, spiciness, and texture,” adds Adam Morgan, head bartender at Husk in Nashville. “You can find all of this in Belle Meade. Their small batch release yields a high rye mash bill that brings in oak, dry fruit, and spiciness that compliments any sweet vermouth. Extra points for soaking maraschino cherries in the bourbon beforehand.”
Best for Black Manhattan
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Stone Fruit, Vanilla, Oak
A Black Manhattan subs amaro for the sweet vermouth, adding a layer of bitter complexity to the drink. Tobias Hogan, of The Aimsir Distilling Co, likes Buffalo Trace for a regular Manhattan, but the palate of the bourbon would work well for this version as well.
“This whiskey has it all,” he says. “It's smooth and rich on the palate with secondary and tertiary flavors that linger with subtle herbal aromas that coordinate with sweet vermouth. My go-to vermouth for a baller Manhattan is Perucchi Rojo but the classic Antica formula is also a great option.”
Best for Perfect Manhattan
Basil Hayden's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Pepper, Citrus, Vanilla
A perfect Manhattan uses sweet and dry vermouth in equal proportions. Myles Holdsworth, director of food & beverage at The Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, recommends this easy-drinking bourbon.
“It is best to know the preferred bourbon for the person drinking the Manhattan considering it showcases the spirit so well,” he says. “I prefer a smooth, lighter Manhattan, so Basil Hayden’s is typically my go-to.”
“I would hands down pick Basil Hayden’s in my Manhattan,” says Timmie Hoffman of SALT7 in Florida. “I think it is rich and smooth and goes perfectly with some sweet vermouth and bitters.”
Related: The Best Bourbons
Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Vanilla, Orange
Wheated bourbons use wheat as a secondary grain in the mash bill instead of rye. Reniel Garcia, corporate beverage manager for V&E Restaurant Group on Española Way, suggests using Maker’s Mark.
“It is made with soft winter wheat instead of the usual rye, easy to drink, and perfect for a Manhattan as it is never sharp,” he says. “On the palate, it’s sweet and balanced with vanilla, caramel, and fruity essences, aromas of vanilla, caramel woody oak with a smooth finish.”
Best Barrel Finished
Angel's Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43.3% | Tasting Notes: Dried Fruit, Spice, Butterscotch
“Angel's Envy from Kentucky is my go-to bourbon for a Manhattan,” says Nestor Marchand, director of food & beverage at Florida's Plunge Beach Resort. This whiskey is finished in port barrels for a period of time before bottling. “There are hints of dark cherry and a touch of baking spices and orange oil that lends a depth of port wood finish, balancing the sweetness.”
That finish is appealing to Clay Tolbert of The Alley Light in Virginia as well. “Angel’s Envy plays the nicest with fortified wines, period,” he says. “Probably, it’s because the folks at A.E. finish their lovely uisce beatha in port casks, which teases out the dried-fruit and nutty notes from both liquors and creates a Manhattan that is greater than the sum of its parts, instead of two products in the same glass.”
Best Bottled in Bond
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Vanilla, Cinnamon
“Personally, I’m more a fan of rye when drinking Manhattans,” says Jon Feuersanger, bar manager at Death & Co Denver. But if he is going to drink this cocktail with bourbon, Old Grand-Dad Bonded is an inexpensive, flavorful, and high proof choice.
The bottled in bond designation ensures it’s 100 proof and at least four years old. “This high rye bourbon really checks the boxes on proof and time in cask that is really perfect for this classic.”
Related: The Best Scotch Whiskies
Kings County Bourbon
Region: Brooklyn, NY | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Cinnamon, Cherry
“I am usually not a fan of bourbon in Manhattans, but Kings County Bourbon is up to the task,” says Isabella Marriott, bartender at Bar Beau in Brooklyn. “It has surprisingly good structure and doesn't get lost in a vermouth-heavy cocktail.”
Kings County is a craft distillery in Brooklyn making all of its own whiskeys, which are stellar examples of how craft bourbon can be used in a classic cocktail like a Manhattan.
Best Barrel Strength
Region: Kentucky | ABV: Varies by batch | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Black Pepper, Oak
“If I had my choice, I would select a bourbon with a strong backbone and a bit more heat,” says Jason Sorge, mixologist at Rancho Bernardo Inn. “As my years behind the stick continue to grow and my palate continues to change, the lower proof bourbons paired with that fine Italian vermouth can be a tad too sweet for me. Hence, Booker’s Bourbon, coming in at a whopping 60-65% ABV, levels the playing field and makes a Manhattan with a bit of a kick. An excellent cocktail to start off an evening or finish it.”
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.