The two cocktails feature many similarities, but taste quite different from each other. If you’re unsure of the differences or simply can’t decide between the two, this is what you need to know.
What Is an Old Fashioned?
An Old Fashioned conforms precisely to the original definition of the word “cocktail,” as given in 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York: spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. What that means today, in this particular cocktail, is whiskey (either bourbon or rye whiskey), a sugar cube or simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and ice. It’s served in a rocks glass, generally over one large ice cube, and is often garnished with an orange twist.
One of the most popular variations includes the Wisconsin-style or Brandy Old Fashioned, which involves muddling orange slices and cherries with sugar and bitters, mixing it with brandy, and topping it all with soda. Other riffs call for using spirits other than whiskey as the base, such as the Rum Old Fashioned or Añejo Old Fashioned. Many others add a number of ingredients, flavorings, or infusions, such as the Benton’s Old Fashioned, which calls for infusing the bourbon with bacon and using maple syrup in place of sugar.
What Is a Manhattan?
This classic cocktail is a combination of whiskey (usually rye), sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. It’s served up in a stemmed glass such as a coupe or Nick & Nora, and is most commonly garnished with a brandied cherry.
As with the Old Fashioned, variations abound. Some, like the Reverse Manhattan, play with the proportions of whiskey to vermouth. The Perfect Manhattan divides the vermouth between sweet and dry. The Rob Roy calls for Scotch whisky as the base. The Brooklyn and its many spinoffs named for the borough’s neighborhoods, such as the Red Hook, add extra components such as amaro or liqueurs or use them instead of vermouth, as does the popular Black Manhattan.
How Are the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned Similar?
Both are spirit-forward cocktails made with whiskey, either bourbon or rye; you can use either whiskey in both drinks, according to your personal preferences. Both also call for Angostura bitters, which add baking-spice notes and aromas that accentuate those of the whiskey. Both are stirred rather than shaken. And both are elegant and very respectable cocktails that work well as nightcaps.
How Are the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned Different?
The main difference between the two cocktails lies in the sweeteners used in each. The Old Fashioned calls for sugar, either as a cube or in simple syrup format (where sugar is dissolved into water), whereas the Manhattan employs sweet vermouth, a type of fortified wine. The vermouth adds earthy, spiced notes, contributing additional depth of flavor to a Manhattan, whereas the Old Fashioned is less complex and, as such, might be a better option for letting the whiskey itself shine.
While the two drinks can be made with either bourbon or rye whiskey, a Manhattan is made with rye more commonly, while an Old Fashioned is more often made with bourbon.
You can also generally tell them apart visually: An Old Fashioned is served in a rocks glass (sometimes called an Old Fashioned glass), most often with an orange twist, while a Manhattan is served up in a stemmed glass such as a coupe and is usually garnished with a brandied cherry.
Is One Cocktail Better than the Other?
In short, no. It comes down entirely to personal preference, and often the drinker’s mood. Try making both—or ordering them at a bar—and see which you like better. You might just discover your new go-to drink.