Manhattans pack a lot of punch into three ingredients. Sweet vermouth, rye, and Angostura bitters play off one another’s sweet, spicy, and bitter flavors. When made correctly, Manhattans are smooth and velvety.
Of course, we’ve all had our fair share of middling or messy Manhattans, too. The wrong whiskey or sweet vermouth can quickly turn your cocktail wildly boozy or candy-sweet.
We asked talented bar professionals across the country to weigh in on the dos and don’ts of making great Manhattans. Here are their five top tips.
What to do When Making Manhattans
1. Embrace rye.
Most of us have some sort of Tennessee whiskey or bourbon at home. It might be tempting to use whatever we have lying about in whatever we’re about to drink, but, when it comes to Manhattans, that’s not ideal.
A bourbon or whiskey Manhattan won’t taste terrible, of course. But rye is the original spirit for the drink, Don Lee, Co-Founder, Existing Conditions, NYC, says, and with good reason: “It’s more delicious.”
“Rye adds amazing body and spice to the drink, and offsets the sweetness of the vermouth,” Jonathan Shock, Bar Manager, Lady of the House, Detroit, agrees. He opts for Old Overholt Bonded or Rittenhouse ryes when he’s on a budget, but “Russell’s Reserve Rye or a WhistlePig would also be great choices if you’re looking to spend a bit more,” he says.
2. Use fresh vermouth.
“There is no one-size-fits-all vermouth,” Ashtin Berry, Matriarch, The Cook’s Club, New Orleans, says. She suggests avoiding Carpano Antica Formula, which can make Manhattans taste too sweet. Instead, try Cocchi Torino. It has “great body and flavor,” Shock says, “while still having the grace to share the stage with your whiskey.”
Because vermouth is made from wine, it expires more quickly than grain-based spirits. “Keep your vermouth corked and refrigerated after opening, and try to use within a month of first use,” Shock says.
If you don’t see yourself taking down a full bottle of vermouth in 30 days, look for 375-milliliter “half” bottles. You can also expand your repertoire and try other cocktails made with sweet vermouth, such as the Americano, Vieux Carre, Rob Roy, and Blood and Sand.
3. Put a cherry on top.
Luxardo cherries are the gold standard for cocktails. They came out on top in a blind tasting at VinePair HQ, and are beloved by bartenders for their texture and bright flavor. Add one after you’ve poured your drink into a chilled coupe, Martini glass, or whatever vessel you’re using.
You can also express an orange peel over the top of your finished drink, Shock says. Be sure to discard the peel once you’re done — putting it in the drink will overpower your cocktail’s flavors.
What to avoid When Making Manhattans
1. Small ice cubes do you no favors.
The Manhattan is traditionally served up in a chilled glass. If you love ice and don’t want to skip it here, you should by all means make the cocktail you want to drink. Just keep in mind that varying ice shapes and sizes will dilute your Manhattan differently. Use the largest cubes you have, and save crushed or cubed ice for your next Julep.
“Don’t serve it on small rocks,” Berry says. “I can get over serving it over a large rock, but anything else is gross.”
2. Don’t be afraid to season.
“I prefer a pinch of salt in my Manhattan,” Shock says. Lee agrees, saying that a small amount of salt won’t make the finished product taste saline, but will elevate all the flavors in your drink.
Sound weird? Think about how you cook. If you have a fresh summer tomato and eat it as is, it will taste great. But! If you crush a tiny bit of sea salt over that same cut tomato, it will pop. The salt highlights the juicy sweetness and balances the acid. The same principle applies to cocktails.
Just remember to use a light hand. It’s a lot easier to add salt than to take it away.