We Asked 7 Bartenders What Makes the Perfect Manhattan

The Perfect Manhattan. Photo credit: Peter Frank Edwards.
The Perfect Manhattan. Photo credit: Peter Frank Edwards.

Ask a bartender for a “perfect Manhattan” and you’ll get a cocktail with whiskey, bitters, and both sweet and dry vermouth. But ask a bartender for the perfect Manhattan and you’ve opened up a mixological Pandora’s box.

The martini has its reputation as a rabbit-hole cocktail—molecules of vermouth and olive-vs-twist can spark debates worthy of the UN General Assembly. But the Manhattan, sharing a lofty position in the pantheon of classic cocktails, also has infinite variations on the basic whiskey-vermouth-bitters combo, and every enthusiast has a particular set of rules that go into making what they consider the Platonic ideal of a Manhattan.

We talked with seven veteran drink-slingers, and got more than just their thoughts on what makes a perfect Manhattan (and we scored the recipes, as well). They’re all delicious in their own way—it’s up to you to pick your favorite.

Lucinda Sterling (Middle Branch, New York City):

My perfect Manhattan has a high rye content with notable spice notes. Although a stirred Manhattan has a complex and delicate beauty, a shaken Manhattan can be consumed most expeditiously.

2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz. Martini & Rossi Reserva
2 heavy dashes Angostura bitters

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with lemon peel.

Abigail Gullo (Compere Lapin, New Orleans):

My favorite historical cocktail is the Manhattan. This is the first drink I learned how to make. My grandpa taught me when I was 7. It is my personal quest to find out more of about the origins and popularity of my favorite cocktail, The Manhattan and the city where my family bloomed.

The bitters are in the Punt e mes and this makes a darker, deeper richer Manhattan. I call it The Longshoreman, because of its similarities to a Red Hook, which is based on the Brooklyn, which, in turn, was based on the Manhattan.

2 oz Willet Rye
1/2 oz. Averna
1/2 oz. Punt e Mes

Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange disk

Dane Durand (Proof on Main, Louisville):

Angostura is my preferred bitters because it is seminal and classic. There are a handful of sweet vermouths that I like in Manhattans, but none as rich as the Carpano Antica Formula. It has tons of dry fruit flavor (raisin, fig, prune) baking spice and a hint of orange peel. Michter’s rye is my ideal base because of its balance. It has some rye spice but a little corn in the mash keeps it from being astringent. They toast their barrels, allowing for more caramel and vanilla flavors sooner without aging all of the organoleptic flavor out. The orange expression ties all of the flavors together.I like to be heavy handed with the bitters and rye because the vermouth is very rich and the whiskey is only 90 proof—also: booze.

I like to be heavy handed with the bitters and rye because the vermouth is very rich and the whiskey is only 90 proof—also: booze.

While the drink will be cold after 10-15 seconds of stirring, a few seconds longer will add a little more dilution, and dial the balance in just right. I express from 3 inches, wipe and discard because I want some orange on the nose but don’t want to run over the other rich aromas. I drink Manhattans up because I don’t want it to continue to dilute while I’m drinking it. I prefer a coupe because it’s sexy, less likely to spill than a martini glass and a better vessel for smelling.

4 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
2 1/2 oz Michters rye

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe. Express an orange peel from 3 inches away, wipe the rim and stem of the glass with the expressed side of the peel and discard.

Jody Buchan (Kin, Edinburgh):

2 oz. Sazerac Rye
3/4 oz. Lustau Rojo Vermut
Barspoon Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
3 or 4 dashes Angostura bitters

For me, I want a big, punchy rye and a vermouth that can assist it. Always a good few dashes of bitters too!

Garnished with a cherry if I’ve got them in the fridge. If I don’t have cherries, I’ll go with a simple orange twist. Whilst I feel that the cherry notes only add to the drink, the syrup would be far too sweet. I substituted Luxardo Maraschino as a result.

Andrew Volk (Little Giant & Alpine Hunt + Fish, Portland, ME):

Certainly the classicist in me screams rye all day, but I actually prefer a high-rye mash billed bourbon, like Four Roses Small Batch. It still has the spiciness and backbone of a rye, while bringing a bit more texture and sweetness from the corn in the bourbon.

Because I’m grabbing a bourbon, I would grab a drier, more herbal sweet vermouth, like Dolin Rouge. The herbal notes will shine with the sweetness from the bourbon and it won’t be overpoweringly sweet like an Antica Formula might (which is delicious, if one-note, with rye Manhattans).

Bitters? Duh. Keep it simple. Angostura.

Garnish? I’m an orange peel expressed over the top and ditched kind of guy. I like cherries when done well, but so many bars still aren’t paying enough attention to their garnish game.

Proportions? I’m solidly in the 2:1 camp, particularly with the above choices. There is plenty of alcohol in the 50 percent ABV Four Roses Small Batch to give the drink heft and a higher proportion of vermouth (compared to 3:1 or 4:1) brings a more complex set of flavors to the drink.

2 oz. Four Roses Small Batch
1 oz. Dolin Rouge
2 heavy dashes Angostura bitters

Stir with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish by expressing the oil from an orange peel over the glass. Discard the peel.

Justin Lavenue (Roosevelt Room, Austin):

Your Manhattan’s chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, so only the highest quality of American whiskey, vermouth, and bitters will do. Angostura makes a great Manhattan. Vermouth oxidizes quickly, and every time an oxidized vermouth is used in an otherwise perfectly-crafted Manhattan, an angel clips its wings. Don’t be the one to de-wing an angel; refrigerate your vermouth. Most importantly, you need a high-proof American whiskey to stand up to, and shine through, the two other bold ingredients in the drink.

You need to take care in blending the ingredients correctly, rounding off the harsh edges of the alcohol without over-diluting — the drink ain’t called the Hudson River. Use large, fresh ice cubes, and a chilled (preferably frozen) glass. Stir the drink for no more than 20 seconds, then strain it into the chilled glass. This will ensure that the drink is served at its optimum temperature and dilution level, and will keep it cold for you to enjoy longer…. that is, if you have willpower to not down it in one go.

You need to take care in blending the ingredients correctly, rounding off the harsh edges of the alcohol without over-diluting — the drink ain’t called the Hudson River.

Adding a imperceptible level of salt to a dish or drink will greatly enhance all of the flavors/textures within it. So, add a couple of drops of salt tincture (made by dissolving one part of fine grain salt into ten parts water) if you really want to treat to your taste buds right. Lastly, garnish with a brandied cherry, such as Luxardo’s Maraschino or Fabri’s Amarena, and/or a touch of lemon oils. Both pair wonderfully with the flavors in an American whiskey (especially a rye), as well as the nut and fruit notes in the vermouth.

2 oz. Willet 4-yr Cask Strength Rye
1/2 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1/2 oz. Carpano Punt e Mes
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 drops Salt tincture (1:10)

Build ingredients in a Mixing glass. Crack two large ice cubes and drop into the glass, then fill 3/4 full with ice. Insert a bar spoon and stir well for 15-20 seconds. Strain into a Nick & Nora/Coupe/Cocktail glass of your choosing (preferably one that has been pre-frozen in a freezer or chilled before mixing began with ice). Garnish with a brandied Cherry (and a light expression of Lemon oils if you wish).

Tommy Tardie (Flatiron Room & Fine And Rare, New York City)

A traditional Manhattan is made with rye whiskey, so the perfect Manhattan must have a good rye as its foundation. Some great ones include Hudson Manhattan Rye, Michter’s, Woodford and Four Roses. That said, with the recent innovations within the cocktail industry, it’s an exciting time to put a spin on this traditional drink. My team at Fine & Rare created the Manhattan Boulevard, which adds a frozen Campari ice ball to a classic bourbon Manhattan, melting over time to create a Boulevardier. Through this the Manhattan becomes an experience, turning a classic cocktail moment unforgettable.

Pour 1 part Campari and 4 parts water into ice molds and freeze over night
Combine in a mixing pitcher:
1 1/2 oz. Bourbon
3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir and strain over Campari ice cubes. Garnish with orange twist and serve.