The Manhattan Project: Making the Manhattan Great Again

by Lucas Heckenberger

So, in our first foray into the world of spirits and cocktails, we visited the haciendas of Mexico to talk about the origins of one of our favorite happy hour drinks; the margarita. In our next installment in the history of spirits and cocktails, we now visit the oldest vermouth driven cocktail: The Manhattan.

There is no doubt the Manhattan originated in one of the five boroughs of New York City, and I’ll let your imagination run wild in guessing which one. But once again, we have a contentious origin story for the great American classic that has seen a boom in popularity in recent decades.

Some historians point to Jennie Jerome, the famous Lady Churchill (mother of Sir Winston Churchill) as someone who helped create the iconic drink. Some will say in 1874 during a party thrown for then-presidential hopeful Samuel J Tibbet at the Manhattan club, that this masterful pairing of Rye whiskey, vermouth, and aromatic bitters was created. Heck, many history books will attest to this as being fact. However; David Wondrich per Imbibe! Magazine and notable author in cocktail history disputes this as fact.

According to Wondrich, during that time period, Lady Churchill was in England about to give birth to the great Sir Winston Churchill instead of galavanting at cocktail dinners trying to raise money for a presidential candidate. Instead, Wondrich points to William F. Mulhall; a bartender at the famed Hoffman House who applied his trade as a bartender for over thirty years as being someone who has the secret to the origins of this particular cocktail. According to Mulhall, a man who went by the name of “Black” (yes, that’s it) “who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the 1860’s.”

Regardless of the origin of this American classic, it predates any vermouth driven cocktails such as the Martini (YES, A PROPER MARTINI GETS VERMOUTH PEOPLE!), Martinez or Rob Roy. Alas, I digress. Another point of contention amongst bar aficionados is the proportions for a Manhattan in and of itself. Some will go the 2 ½ ounces to ¾ ounce vermouth ratio. Some prefer a Canadian blended whiskey with little to no vermouth and no bitters. My standard recipe for a Manhattan is as follows:

  • 2 ounces of Bourbon or Rye Whiskey (I prefer Rittenhouse 100 proof Rye made in Maryland)
  • 1 ounce of Sweet Vermouth (Carpano Antica is without a doubt my favorite.)
  • 3 dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters.


Add all three ingredients to a glass filled with ice and stir – never shake a drink with no citrus as it bruises the booze – and garnish with an orange twist (unless you have proper brandied cherries, no maraschinos in my bar please.)

Before I go onto some variations in the cocktail, let’s again take a look back through history to understand how certain variations and taste profiles have come to be.

During prohibition, we as Americans obviously could not make (unless for medicinal purposes) any alcohol to be sold or consumed in the United States. That lead to backyard stills and sub-par alcohol. So, people looked to Canada as one of the leading exporters of actual distilled alcohol that helped add the authentic flavor that people were used to. So as that generation and the next came of drinking age, more and more Canadian whiskey was drank. Due to its charcoal filtered finish, it doesn’t have the same “bite” in the finish as traditional American bourbon or Rye whiskey. Hence the need for less vermouth and not so much with the bitters. Baby boomers and some of their children still prefer our northern cousin for a Manhattan due to its easy drinkability. Being the traditionalist that I am and having a slight penchant for harsher undertones that to me provide more character and depth to the cocktail, prefer the American standard of bourbon or rye.

With all of this being said, the Manhattan cocktail is one that bartenders of the modern era love to re-create with the abundance of spirits that are available on the back bar of institutions with a serious drive for complexity. With the reemergence of Amaros, Amaris, and vermouth in particular; there are so many layers of flavor that can be added to the drink itself. With a deft hand and understanding of the spirits themselves and how they blend together, different combinations and variations are able to be re-created. Here is my latest, softer and summer themed Manhattan recipe deftly named: Making Manhattan Great Again.

  • 2 ounces of Maker’s Mark Bourbon
  • ½ ounce of Averna Amaro (probably the most accessible amaro in Pennsylvania)
  • ½ ounce Luxardo Apricot liqueur
  • 2 dashes of Orange bitters (Regan’s number 9 is my favorite)
  • Garnished with an orange twist


Until the next installment of cocktails in Network Magazine, I hope you all continue to drink fresh ingredients, buy local, and always trust a good bartender!


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