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Best whiskeys for a Manhattan: 12 to try

If you're mixing up a classic Manhattan cocktail, which whiskey should you use? Decanter recommends a dozen great rye whiskeys to try, with tips on how to make a Manhattan to suit every palate.

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

Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Distiller’s Edition 92 Proof

Made from 100% Virginian rye aged for around three years. This Distiller’s Edition is taken from only one in 10 barrels and bottled at a slightly higher ABV than Catoctin Creek’s flagship Roundstone Rye. Deep gold in colour with lovely warm notes of candied walnuts, cinnamon and white pepper, which remain when mixed into a Manhattan. Alcohol 46%

Jack Daniel’s Triple Mash

A bottled-in-bond whiskey that’s made from a blend of American malt and rye and Tennessee whiskies. Certainly more oak-dominant with flavours of vanilla and fudge, but there’s also a nice creamy texture, along with touches of dried citrus. The alcohol and spice are nicely tempered with the sweet, herbal vermouth notes. Alc 50%

Lot 40 Dark Oak

A well-balanced Canadian rye from Windsor, Ontario. This is an excellent example with a broad flavour profile consisting of gingerbread, toffee apple, leather and nutmeg. An intense style of rye that stands up well to all versions of the Manhattan and other whisky-based cocktails. Alc 48%

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%

New Riff Kentucky Straight Rye Bottled in Bond

Beautifully rich and robust having spent four years in new oak barrels. The nose is spicy and complex with hallmark notes of black pepper, rye spice and cinder toffee. A truly superb rye with minty hints providing an extra layer of freshness when mixed with vermouth and bitters. Bottled in bond, meaning that it must adhere to some of the strictest regulations in the spirits industry before release. Alc 50%

Oxford Pure Rye Spirit

Locally and sustainably grown heritage grains are harvested, double-distilled in Oxford and aged in American oak barrels. This produces a pure and savoury rye with grassy, green hints over sweet baking spices and bready notes. Superb mixed with white vermouth for a dry style of Manhattan. Alc 40%

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%

Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye

Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, this is a slightly sweeter style of rye that would appeal to bourbon drinkers but still makes a cracking Manhattan base. It’s easy-sipping its own, with notes of clementine, caramel and maple sugar, plus baking spices coming through on the finish. Ideal for a dry or perfect style. Alc 41.5%

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 in a Manhattan beautifully. Alc 45%

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%

Uncle Nearest 1884 Premium Small Batch Whiskey

A small-batch Tennessee spirit made from a blended mash bill of at least 51% corn, rye and malted barley. Not technically a rye whiskey, but there are robust, spicy notes for enthusiasts to enjoy. It is well-balanced with notes of cacao nibs, spiced nuts and clove. When mixed into a Manhattan, the butterscotch flavours come out a little more and make this a great base. Alc 46.5%

WhistlePig 10 Year Old Small Batch Rye

Bright, generous and wonderfully spicy, this renowned Vermont-based rye certainly doesn’t hold back on the complexity, boasting tones of dried orange peel, pickled ginger, liquorice and black cherry. Very much a sipper on its own, but certainly makes a luxurious ingredient for an opulent Manhattan. Double down on the fruity notes with a generous slice of orange peel and a maraschino cherry. Alc 50%

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