I’m often asked the difference between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. The two classic whiskey cocktails seem widely different to me, but I’ve tasted hundreds of them. To someone new to the whiskey or cocktail space, Manhattan vs Old Fashioned seems mysterious, because there really are a lot of commonalities between them. Both are storied cocktails that keep whiskey front and center in the cocktails – whether that’s rye or bourbon.
If you’d rather have the cliff notes, here’s a table for you, otherwise, for the details on why these elements matter, read on below.
Cliff Notes: Manhattan vs Old Fashioned
But let’s get into the details, because that’s far more interesting.
Similarities between the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan
First, the similarities. Both have whiskey as their base ingredient, and for both the preferred base spirit is a matter of contention between enthusiasts and experts. You already know how I will answer it – build the cocktail to your own palate.
Both Old Fashioneds and Manhattans can be made with either bourbon or rye (or any whiskey, really, even historically there’s some debate as to what whiskey was used for the earliest versions).
Each cocktail also requires bitters to balance out flavors. Again, there are traditional bitters that are used (Angostura), but I personally prefer to add bitters that bring out flavors and aromas that aren’t as present at first sip. Mixologists will often change out the bitters they are using depending on the flavors of the whiskey and the sweet elements.
Speaking of sweet elements, in addition, each of the cocktails has a sweet element. For the Old Fashioned, it’s a simple syrup or a sugar cube. For the Manhattan, it’s sweet vermouth. Vermouth is an aromatized fortified wine that has a bit of spirit added to it and some botanicals to round out the flavors of the wine.
Stir or Shake: Manhattan vs Old Fashioned
You’ll find both of the cocktails will be stirred, not shaken. Because both contain spirits, sugar, and bitters, there’s no need to shake the cocktail to integrate the elements.
Manhattans and Old Fashioneds Often Have the Same Garnish
In terms of garnish, you’ll see either orange peels, cherries, or a combination of the two on both of the cocktails. Now that I think about it, no wonder people get confused about the difference between the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.
So really, the main difference is in the sweetening element, the ratios used, and how it’s typically served. If you’d like a much more in-depth article about each. I have two articles: How to Make the Perfect Old Fashioned and How to Make a Classic Manhattan.
As always, the devil is in the details. Here are the differences:
Which Came First, the Manhattan or the Old Fashioned?
The Old Fashioned is the original cocktail, some say. Its earliest iterations were known as the Whiskey Cocktail and the cocktail was recorded first in 1862 in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide. It consisted of whiskey, sugar (gum syrup), bitters, and ice.
The Manhattan came about later – in the mid-1870s as vermouth was gaining popularity in the states. Bartenders always want to try something new. In this case, the new hot thing was vermouth, and the earliest Manhattans were an even ratio between whiskey and vermouth.
In this case of Manhattan vs Old Fashioned, the Old Fashioned wins for sheer history of it since we know it was around for many years before Jerry Thomas wrote it down.
Are Manhattans Served Differently from Old Fashioneds?
Typically, yes. While some people do order their Manhattans on the rocks, typically a Manhattan will be served in a chilled up glass, either a coupe glass or a martini glass. Old Fashioneds are always served on the rocks, although whether that’s many cubes or one large-format ice cube changes from place to place and by preference.
How are the Cocktail Recipes Different for Manhattan vs Old Fashioned
You may be asking yourself, is a Manhattan sweeter than an Old Fashioned? On the whole, an Old Fashioned will taste sweeter than a Manhattan and it all has to do with ratios of spirit to sweet element.
An Old Fashioned uses a ratio (depending on preferences) of 2 oz bourbon to 1/2 oz simple syrup (or 1/4 rich simple syrup) and a few dashes of bitters. It’s booze forward, with only a small amount of liquid added via syrup. If you choose to add your sugar via muddling the bitters and sugar, you’re adding even less. Here’s a classic Old Fashioned cocktail recipe.
Classic Old Fashioned
- 2 oz whiskey (bourbon or rye is traditionally used)
- 1/2 oz simple syrup (I prefer demerara or brown sugar simple syrup
- 2-3 dashes bitters (traditionally Angostura or other aromatic bitters)
- Add whiskey, simple and bitters to a mixing glass.
- Fill with ice and stir for 30 seconds.
- Strain into a rocks glass with one large cube
- Garnish with an orange peel and/or cocktail cherry
A Manhattan uses a bit more of its secondary ingredient. For a Manhattan, the ratio I use is 2 oz whiskey to 1 oz vermouth, but in truth, it’s flexible. Some prefer 2 oz whiskey to 1/2 oz vermouth or even 2.5 oz whiskey to 1/2 oz vermouth. Here’s a base Manhattan cocktail recipe:
- 2 oz whiskey (bourbon or rye is traditionally used)
- 1 oz sweet vermouth (reduce if the Manhattan is too sweet)
- 2-3 dashes bitters (traditionally Angostura or other aromatic bitters are used)
- Garnish: orange peel and/or cocktail cherry
- Add whiskey, bitters and vermouth to a mixing glass.
- Fill with ice and stir for 20-30 seconds.
- Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
- Garnish with an orange peel and/or cocktail cherry.
Even though the Manhattan has a larger ratio of the sweet element to spirit, vermouth is not as sweet as simple syrup and is far more complex with the botanicals added to it for flavor. This when you compare the two of them, the Old Fashioned will taste sweeter, especially once it dilutes slightly.
What’s the Flavor Difference between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned
Both cocktails are considered spirit-forward, meaning the driving flavor profile will be from the main spirit used to make them. In this case, it will be whiskey.
Both use bitters, so the primary difference of the two comes from that third element, either sugar as in the case of the Old Fashioned or vermouth as in the case of the Manhattan.
While sweet vermouth, the red vermouth typically used in Manhattan cocktails, is very sweet, it’s highly aromatic with infused botanicals. Since it has a wine base it’s also slightly sour. Because there’s no extra dilution of a Manhattan since it’s not served on the rocks, it also doesn’t soften or sweeten the way an Old Fashioned can over time.
In addition, since it’s served on the rocks, the Old Fashioned continues to dilute and change as the ice melts.
What’s Better, the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan?
As always, that’s a matter of preference. On the whole, the Old Fashioned is sweeter, and since it’s on the rocks, it gets a bit sweeter and more diluted as you sip on it and the ice melts. It’s still a spirit-forward, boozy cocktail, but for some people with a sweet tooth, it’s a more approachable whiskey cocktail.
The Manhattan consists of layers of flavors and is a stronger, slightly more boozy drink. The whiskey in the cocktail still has the starring role, but the interaction of its flavors with both the bitters and the aromatized sweet vermouth makes it a cocktail that’s more complex and intriguing. If you prefer more complex, bitter, or intricate drinks, a Manhattan will be a better selection.
That said, both can be made horribly wrong. Using the wrong ratios, bitters, and bourbons that don’t go together or improperly stored vermouth lessens the beauty of a well-crafted whiskey cocktail. If you’ve only tried one, ask your favorite whiskey drinker their favorite place for a Manhattan.
The Recipe Difference between the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned Isn’t Huge
But the flavor differences are massive. While the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan may seem similar on the surface and have many of the same components, they are very different drinks with profoundly different flavor profiles. The best way to learn the difference between these two is to order one of each at the best whiskey bar in your city. Just tell the bartender it’s for science.
Read on for my favorite tweaks on both the Classic Manhattan and the Perfect Old Fashioned.
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You probably already have these, but you may need them, too:
Classic Manhattan Recipe
- 2 oz 100 proof bourbon I use Early Times Bottled in Bond or Johnny Drum
- 1 oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino sweet vermouth
- 16 drops Bohemian Bitters aromatic bitters
- 8 drops spiced cherry bitters
- 8 drops orange bitters
- Garnish: orange peel and optional cherry
- Combine vermouth, bourbon and bitters in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until well-chilled and strain into a chilled coupe. Express the oils from an orange peel over the cocktail and garnish with the peel. Add a cherry if you like.