The Classic Whisky Cocktails: Manhattan vs Old Fashioned

The Manhattan and the Old Fashioned: two of the most well-known cocktails in the world. Walk into any bar and you’ll be able to order one without thinking twice.

But what really is the difference? Whether you’re looking for a solid go-to cocktail or just curious about the difference, get ready to explore two of the most classic whisky cocktails. 

Main Differences Between Manhattan vs Old Fashioned?

The main differences between Manhattan vs Old Fashioned are:

  • Manhattan is made with Sweet Vermouth, whereas Old Fashioned is made with sugar.
  • Manhattan is a dry cocktail with savory notes, whereas Old Fashioned is a sweet cocktail.
  • Manhattan is served in a coupe straight up, whereas Old Fashioned is served in a “rocks” glass.
  • Manhattan is stirred instead of shaken, whereas Old Fashioned is shaken.

The Manhattan Cocktail

You have to be a pretty good cocktail to feature in one of the best comedy films of all time, Some Like it Hot. Sharing a name with the glittering New York island, the Manhattan conjures up images of slick, modern nightclubs and glamorous nightlife. And from the moment it debuted in the 1880s through today, it fits right in.

History of the Manhattan Cocktail

The exact origins of Manhattan will probably never be uncovered. There are at least three different origin stories. The most exciting involves a political banquet at the New York Manhattan Club with Winston Churchill’s mother in attendance.

Unfortunately, like most dramatically romantic stories, this one doesn’t hold up to facts. Churchill was being born in England on the day of the banquet, and it’s highly unlikely his mother missed the birth, even for politics.

The other two stories are less interesting but more likely. Either someone named “Black” or someone named “Walker” combined a few simple ingredients together for this beautifully complex result. From there, Manhattan’s popularity took off.

What we do know for certain is the first mention of the Manhattan cocktail is in the 1882 Sunday Morning Herald and the first full recipe appears in 1884.

Classic Version of the Manhattan

The traditional ingredients for a Manhattan are so simple and so common that almost any origin story is possible. The basic ingredients are whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. (Early recipes also included gum and absinthe, but those have fallen out of favor these days.)

The ingredients should be combined in a 2:1:2 ration. Two parts whiskey, one part vermouth, and two parts bitters.

  • The Whiskey: In the traditional version, this was likely American Rye Whiskey
  • The Vermouth: Sweet Vermouth is key as you need a little sweetness mixed in
  • The Bitters: Originally were orange bitters, but today Angostura is usually substituted instead

Making a Manhattan is quite easy! Pour all ingredients over some crushed ice in a cup. Stir to combine and chill. Pour over a strainer and serve straight up!

Variations on a Manhattan

As with any cocktail that has been around for over 100 years, Manhattan has gone through a myriad of changes, alterations, and substitutions. While there are dozens and dozens and they each have a name, I’ll list the most common changes you can make yourself below! (For a full list of possible Manhattan variations, check out this list from Difford’s Guide.)

  • Use bourbon or Canadian whiskey instead of rye
  • Add in a bit of maraschino juice (suggested in some of the original recipes)
  • Try dry vermouth for a Dry Manhattan
  • Serve it on the rocks
  • Try shaking the cocktail to get a foamy top
  • Make it a Brooklyn cocktail by substituting Amer Picon instead of bitters and dry vermouth with maraschino juice instead of sweet vermouth

What does a Manhattan Taste Like?

Part of what made the Manhattan so popular is its surprising complexity for so simple a drink. You’ll find it remarkably approachable and layered, although it is very strong. There is a hint of sweetness and a bit of savory bitterness like rosemary. It’s amazing how much depth a little sweet vermouth can add!

Best Whisky for a Manhattan

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Manhattans and I find the best whiskey to add is traditional old rye. The extra kick in the rye balances out nicely with sweet vermouth and adds yet another layer of complexity to enjoy.

But there is something to be said for a softer, more approachable corn whisky. Especially if you prefer a sweeter, milder version of this cocktail.

Looking for more suggestions? We have a full article on what works best in a Manhattan cocktail!

Traditional: Knob Creek Straight Rye

By far my favorite rye whiskey, especially with a little ice. It’s got a very strong spicy kick and rich vanilla, honey flavor. 

Fortunately in the Manhattan cocktail, you add a little sweet vermouth, some bitters, and a bit of ice so that intense rye kick and burn are tempered. Instead, you get just a slight spice, a very strong drink with the perfect layered complex approach.

Makes the perfect traditional Manhattan!

A Little Softer: Maker’s Mark Bourbon

Maker’s Mark is one of the rare bourbons made with high wheat content. This makes it a very soft, light, approachable drink. When it’s combined with sweet vermouth and bitters there a bit more sweetness and lightness to the drink.

You almost won’t realize how strong it is! Some of the layered complexity is lost, but you gain a very easy-to-sip cocktail. Be careful how many you drink at once!

Read More:

Middle Ground: Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whisky

Woodford Reserve is a remarkably elegant bourbon with a bit more kick and burn than Maker’s Mark but a definitively more approachable style than Knob Creek.

Woodford Reserve has a strong note of chocolate oranges and cinnamon. Combine it with the Manhattan ingredients and you have a rich, almost festive version of this cocktail.

Read More:

Knob Creek vs Woodford Reserve: The Battle of the Bourbons!

Simple Manhattan Recipe:

  • Ice
  • 2 oz. Rye Whiskey
  • 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • Maraschino Cherry for Garnish

  1. Combine rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters into a mixing glass with ice.
  2. Stir until chilled and combined
  3. Strain into a coupe or old fashioned rocks glass
  4. Top with a maraschino cherry or orange peel

If it’s too dry for you, try adding a few drops of the Maraschino juice. You don’t need much to sweeten it up!

You could also try adding one dash of Orange Bitters as well for a richer, fruitier flavor.

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

One of the most common whisky cocktails, but dare I say one of the most hard to define? Every bartender seems to have a different definition. You could make an entire study of visiting different bars and examining their version of an “old fashioned.” So what is the oldest version of the classic Old Fashioned?

Note: The drink described below is the simplest, most traditional version.

History of the Old Fashioned Cocktail

It’s no surprise that the Old Fashioned is such an indefinable cocktail when it’s very origins and name are based on that very fact.

Louisville Kentucky claims to be the true birthplace of the Old Fashioned as we know it. Whether or not they are right, they’ve named it their official cocktail. So tread with caution!

The cocktail’s story begins in the early 1800s when it was simply described as a “cocktail” in a New York newspaper. At the time this meant a mixture of water, sugars, bitters, and spirits. And the spirits included gin, brandy, or rum. Whiskey wasn’t even on the list!

It wasn’t long before the 19th century’s version of hipster mixologists began experimenting with different liqueurs, garnishes, flavorings, and even entirely different alcohols.

By the time the traditional version came back into style in the 1860s, people were calling it the “Old Fashioned.” And the most popular of these simple cocktails used whiskey.

Traditional Version of the Old Fashioned

Since this is a whiskey blog, we’ll skip all the gin, rum, and brandy nonsense and get straight to the good stuff. 

Like a Manhattan, the Old Fashioned is a simple cocktail with three basic ingredients. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. It’s a classic for a reason!

You’ll be mixing whisky, sugar, and bitters all in one glass. And adding ice. That’s really all you need to do. You don’t even need a set ratio for this one!

  • Whiskey: Once whiskey was on the old-fashioned table, rye was probably the drink of choice.
  • Sugar: You just need one cube, which is about 1 teaspoon
  • Bitters: Usually added by “dashes,” you’ll want enough to saturate your sugar
  • Garnish: Typically a maraschino cherry and an orange peel

Simply drop your sugar into your old fashioned glass. Add a few dashes of bitters, muddle together. Then add two ounces of whiskey and one rock of ice. Stir and serve with a garnish of your choice!

Variations on an Old Fashioned

If you thought Manhattans had a wide range of variations…you’ll want to sit down. There are hundreds of variations on the Old Fashioned cocktail. (Here are just 35 for your perusal.)

The Old Fashioned is a remarkably simple cocktail which means it can be manipulated and changed in any number of ways. The early versions used gin, rum, or brandy in place of whisky. Later versions tried absinthe, orange curaçao, and fruit liqueurs.

Nowadays people add tequila, chocolate, butternut squash…you name it, someone’s probably put it in an Old Fashioned.

Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Try it with bourbon, Canadian Whisky, Tennessee Whisky, etc.
  • Add a splash of club soda to top it off
  • Use a whiskey cube instead of ice so you don’t dilute the flavors
  • Muddle a lemon or orange peel with your bitters and sugar
  • Try a new flavor of bitters like Cardamom or Rhubarb

What does an Old Fashioned Taste Like?

Assuming you aren’t making one of those fancy concoctions up above? The Old Fashioned tastes much simpler and sweeter than a Manhattan. What you’ll really taste is the whiskey you chose to use. Plus a little added sugar and a slightly savory note from the bitters.

The real difference in taste between the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned lies in the sweetener. Sweet Vermouth adds rich complexity and savory notes with a subtle sweetness. Sugar adds…well, sugar. Not much else there.

So for heaven’s sake, pick a good whiskey! 

Best Whisky for an Old Fashioned

The key to an Old Fashioned is to pick a whiskey you really enjoy. You want something you like to sip on the rocks by itself. Really all you are doing is dressing it up with a pair of nice heels and some jewelry, so better make sure it’s a pretty one to start with!

Find additional suggestions in our in-depth article on Old Fashioned and Bourbons.

Traditional: Basil Hayden’s Rye

I find most Rye a little too harsh in this cocktail, but Basil Hayden’s Rye adds a bit of kick without that overwhelming burn. It has a lovely caramel flavor that doesn’t require too much thought to enjoy. Add a bit of ice and sugar and you’ve got a very drinkable cocktail with all the “traditional” flavors.

Modern: Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

This is my go-to choice since Four Roses Bourbon is so easily sippable and approachable. There’s a great deal of honey, vanilla, and caramel in Four Roses. I do tend to shorten the sugar a bit, otherwise, it feels too sweet.

You won’t find many subtle flavors in this version of the cocktail. But this could be the perfect opportunity to add a few unique flavors in your garnish, bitters, or liqueurs.

Something Unique: Kings County Peated Bourbon Whiskey

I absolutely love this bourbon. I love anything with peat, honestly, but the combination of smoky, salty, earthy peat and rich chocolate caramel is truly special.

Combining it with bitters and sugar, the peat adds a unique smoke and cozy campfire feeling to a normally sweet and light cocktail. This won’t be for everyone’s taste. But if you’re a peat-lover or a whiskey-experimenter, you’ll enjoy it!

Smoky Old Fashioned Recipe:

  • 1 ice cube
  • 2 oz. Kings County Peated Bourbon
  • 1 tsp sugar (or 1 cube)
  • 2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • Fresh Blackberry for Garnish
  • Orange peel for Garnish

  1. Add the sugar to the bottom of a rocks glass.
  2. Saturate the sugar with a few dashes of bitters. Muddle with the back of a spoon.
  3. Add in your whiskey or bourbon of choice.
  4. Add an ice cube, preferably a large one
  5. Stir to chill.
  6. Garnish with a blackberry and an orange peel

Conclusion: Old Fashioned or Manhattan?

Which wins? Not really a fair question. It depends on your taste!

The Manhattan may win for glitz and glamour and history. After all, it had whiskey in it’s ingredient list from the beginning.

But the Old Fashioned clearly wins for versatility and simplicity. In the end, the choice is yours.

If you want something complex, layered, and yet easy to drink…go for a Manhattan.

If you want something sweet, approachable, and simple…go for an Old Fashioned.

FAQ’s About Manhattan and Old Fashioned Cocktail

What kind of bitters go into Old Fashioned cocktail?

Nowadays, there are lots of choices when it comes to bitters, and some of the most commonly used in an Old Fashioned cocktail are: Angostura bitters, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s The Dead Orinoco Aromatic Bitters, Jack Rudy Aromatic Bitters, etc. These are fairly priced and you will be able to make plenty of cocktails from one bottle.

How much alcohol is there in an Old Fashioned cocktail?

In one glass of Old Fashioned cocktail, there are 2.44oz in volume and 0.93oz alcohol per one serving.

How much alcohol is there in a Manhattan cocktail?

The Manhattan cocktail definitely has more alcohol per one serving and it’s more powerful. In one glass, there are 4.75oz in volume and 1.31oz alcohol.

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Kathryn Loveless

Kathryn Loveless is a freelance writer for hire who delights in all things delectable. You can find her perfecting a roast chicken recipe, hunting down a new bottle of scotch, or hosting a wine and cheese soirée somewhere in New York. My passion for Scotch started in college when my conniving parents gave me their best whisky for my "first taste." Needless to say, the stuff my friends had at school didn't compare. They had a joke "If Kathryn comes to a party, you need a whiskey that's over $40." My first job in NYC was hosting several fine-dining establishments where I learned everything I could from bartenders and mixologists. Now that I work in writing and development full-time, I continue my education in classes around the city and explore the newest whiskeys on the market. (Still trying to find a bottle of Compass Box No Name if you have any leads...) Newest in my collection: Compass Box Peat Monster and Port Charlotte Islay Single Malt (I love peat if you can't tell.) Most interesting thing on the market right now: Japanese whisky! (No "e" since much of the trade was learned in Scotland.)

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