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Best whiskeys for a Manhattan

Decanter recommends a selection of rye whiskeys that make the perfect base for this legendary cocktail

This iconic cocktail first appeared in the late 19th century, with its origins still shrouded in mystery. Some insist that it first featured at the Manhattan Club in 1878. Others state it made its first appearance in William Schmidt’s book The Flowing Bowl, published in 1891.

There is also a hotly contested rumour that it was invented for Governor Samuel J Tildem’s electoral win party in 1874. The host of said party was supposedly Jennie Jerome, also known as Lady Randolph Churchill. The main flaw in this story however is that she was supposed to be in London giving birth to her son, Winston Churchill, at the time.

The star of the show here is whiskey, in particular rye, which is insisted on by purists and aficionados alike. It is thought that rye was preferred over bourbon as the style was popular with New Yorkers at the time. Bourbon can work equally well in the cocktail, particularly if you prefer a slightly sweeter style.

As Laura Foster writes in her guide to  the best whiskies for cocktails, ‘a useful starting place is to consider where in the world that whisky cocktail originated, and to look for products from the corresponding country.’

Next comes the vermouth. Both the type and amount of vermouth added will determine the style of Manhattan that is being made.

A Dry Manhattan calls for a dry vermouth (such as Martini Extra Dry or Noilly Prat). A Sweet Manhattan will be made with sweet vermouth (Cocchi Vermouth di Torino being a favourite of mine). While a Perfect Manhattan uses a mix of sweet and dry vermouth.

The profile is very much determined by both the choice of whiskey and vermouth (and indeed bitters) but like many classic cocktails, the beauty here is in its simplicity.

Whatever the style, when everything is in balance, this truly is a cocktail that’s hard to beat. Strong, spicy and satisfying.


How to make a Manhattan

Glass: Coupe
Garnish: Lemon or orange peel, cherry
Method: Pour the whiskey, vermouth and bitters into a mixing glass or shaker filled with ice and stir well to mix. Strain into a chilled coupe glass.

Dry Manhattan
60ml rye or bourbon whiskey
30ml dry vermouth
2 dashes bitters (Angostura, aromatic or orange)
Small piece lemon peel to garnish

Sweet Manhattan
60ml rye or bourbon whiskey
30ml sweet vermouth
2 dashes bitters (Angostura, aromatic or orange)
Maraschino cherry to garnish

Perfect Manhattan
60ml rye or bourbon whiskey
15ml sweet vermouth
15ml dry vermouth
2 dashes bitters (Angostura, aromatic or orange)
Maraschino cherry or small piece lemon or orange peel to garnish

Best whiskeys for a Manhattan


Michter’s US*1 Single Barrel Straight Rye

Produced from select American rye grain with each bottle coming from a single barrel, this is a complex rye showing notes of caramel, cinder toffee and black pepper. As part of a Manhattan, this is rich, nutty and well-rounded with a citrusy finish. Alc 42.4%


Balcones Texas Rye

Pot distilled in small batches this is unmistakably rye showing a real spicy, warmth on the nose. The palate is packed full of savoury spice and roasted coffee flavours. The alcohol is well-balanced but would certainly lend itself to a sweeter style of Manhattan to further manage the burn. Alc 50%


FEW Rye

Hailing from Evanston, Illinois this is a truly superb rye that packs serious flavour. Roasted spice aromas lead to rich, punchy flavours of burnt sugar and orange peel. This mellows beautifully when mixed well with vermouth, making a satisfying and peppery Manhattan. Alc 46.5%


Ragtime Rye Whiskey

Straight rye produced by Brooklyn-based New York Distilling Company – and a perfect introduction to the style. Showing all the typical hallmarks of spice and pepper, these are tempered by a hint of caramel and a smooth finish. Well-suited to a Perfect Manhattan. Alc 45.2%


Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof

Aged for a minimum of four years, this is a classic rye with dried fruit aromas over hints of resin and cinnamon spice. Punchy and powerful on the palate with flavours of gingerbread and vanilla coming through. Ideal for a classic Manhattan but could also be used in an Old Fashioned or Vieux Carré. Alc 50%


Sazerac Straight Rye

An iconic New Orleans rye dating back to the 1800s when bars masqueraded as Coffee Houses and the legendary Sazerac cocktail was born. Aromas of aniseed, clove and sweet, toasted wood lead into flavours of liquorice and spiced vanilla. There is a herbal edge which complements the vermouth beautifully. Alc 45%


Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Canadian Whiskey

A Canadian rye made from 90% rye mash which results in a superbly balanced whisky showing aromas of dried fruit and butterscotch. The palate is surprisingly smooth with a delicious, velvety texture and creamy finish. The combination here would work well with a sweeter vermouth and garnish of maraschino cherry. Alc 45%


Adnams Rye Malt

Distilled in Southwold, Suffolk using 75% rye and 25% barley, this creates a characterful yet bold rye whisky showing serious amounts of spice on the nose. There are some fruity hints on the palate, but this is certainly a drier style of rye that stands up perfectly with vermouth and generous additions of bitters. Alc 47%


Templeton Rye Maple Cask Finish

Aged for two months in maple syrup casks this rye still delivers notes of baking spice aromas but with evident hints of maple and brown sugar. The palate isn’t as sweet as expected but certainly has a mellower feel. Just the style for a sweeter, more vermouth-led Manhattan. Alc 46%


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Best whiskies for an Old Fashioned

Best whiskies for a Whisky Sour

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