It seems slightly unnecessary to pit two classic cocktails against each other. It kind of feels like asking Meryl Streep and Sally Field to fight it out in the boxing ring. They’ve both earned their place in our collective national esteem.
But understanding the differences — and several similarities — between these two classic cocktails will not only help you appreciate them more, it’ll give you a sense for how deliciously incestuous cocktail history actually is. (We’ll rethink the phrase “deliciously incestuous” before we use it again.)
Not that we’re all out ordering Manhattans and Martinis at happy hour. Honestly, whatever helps us forget that three-hour staff meeting will do just fine. But these are the drinks that’ll always be there, two recipes that have survived a century and then some to save us when the only other options on a bar’s cocktail menu are drinks made with Sprite, Sour Mix, or “raspberry” spelled with two Zs. Whichever classic cocktail we love (and why not love both?), they deserve a bit of our time.
Basic, Classic, Recipes
We’ll get into the muddled history (pun alert) in a sec, but if we’re looking at the classic recipes that have survived to this day, the Martini and the Manhattan are surprisingly simple, and enduringly balanced, cocktails. The Manhattan — we’re pretty sure it came first (*see below) — is a mixture of 2 ½ ounces of rye whiskey, 1 ounce sweet vermouth (which isn’t as terrifying an ingredient as you think), and Angostura bitters. The Martini gets even simpler, with two ingredients: 2 ¾ ounces gin, and ¾ ounce dry vermouth.
The recipes actually look pretty similar: 2+ ounces of a base spirit with almost proportional, lower amounts of vermouth. But that’s where the genius simplicity of the classics comes in. Both drinks showcase the base spirits — rye whiskey and gin— with complementary, but entirely different, versions of vermouth to bring out the base spirits’ qualities: darker, spicier sweet vermouth to mingle into the spice of the rye, more herbaceous dry vermouth to bring out the botanicals and juniper of the gin. You end up with two drinks that are extremely similar structurally but taste entirely distinct. Both super, super delish, though.
As we mentioned, the Martini and the Manhattan are cocktails that showcase a centerpiece booze, with different styles of vermouth to bring out the respective qualities of that booze. This is kind of why both the Manhattan and the Martini are good cocktails for a spirits drinker; you won’t have to dig into a pile of ingredients to find the character of the base spirit. There’s no Red Bull or Sour Apple Pucker to battle through. These are cocktails at their conceptually purest: spirit plus other stuff that brings out the character of the spirit.
Which is why, whatever people tell you, the Martini made classically is a gin drink (no offense, vodka, but there’s not a lot of character to bring out). In fact, Bond be damned, it’s a stirred gin drink, with a citrus twist. We’re fine with a few adulterations — what salt lover doesn’t gulp down a briny Dirty Martini every once in a while? But if we’re asked to make a stand in the gin vs. vodka martini debate, there’s no contest. It’s all gin, all day.
The Manhattan also has its variations — there’s a common variation made with brandy — but at its heart it’s a rye whiskey cocktail. (Rye has been historically easy to grow in New York State.) As long as the bartender doesn’t go too heavy on the sweet vermouth, the Manhattan is a perfect rye drinker’s cocktail — and a good cocktail for bourbon drinkers who don’t mind a bit of rye spice in the mash bill (basically the stuff, besides the 51% corn, that gets fermented into bourbon).
Muddled Origin Stories
Cocktails don’t generally have simple histories, and not just because we tend to lose our ability to recall facts clearly the more we drink. Cocktails evolve over time, acquiring regional differences and variations from bar to bar. The Martini and the Manhattan are no exceptions. The Manhattan, for instance, may have been invented at a party in the 1870s, thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother at The Manhattan Club. Legend has it that one guest, a Dr. Iain Marshall, threw his Hippocratic Oath to the wind and spent the night mixing up the cocktail for party guests. The drink took the name of the club, and a cocktail icon was born. Another story has a mysterious man named “Mr. Black” creating the drink at “a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway” sometime in the 1860s. First mention of the drink isn’t until the late 19th century, so we’re not sure if we can raise a glass to Mr. Black just yet.
The Martini also has a few origin stories, all of them murky, and at least a couple centered around a gold miner in the 1860s who walked into a bar in Martinez, California and ordered something special to celebrate his recent payload (or, alternately, a drink to drown his gold-less sorrows). Whatever emotional function it served, the drink was made with gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and bitters, and was presumably called “The Martinez Special,” whence “Martini”? One story says that after a few drinks our gold miner lost the ability to pronounce the “z,” and another says he ordered the same drink later in San Francisco, where it was presumably, for some weird reason, re-dubbed the Martini. Don’t worry, it gets more confusing. There’s another story that attributes the Martini to the bar at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, and another that, not unreasonably, pins the birth of the Martini on the rise of Martini & Rossi vermouth.
Here’s where the conflicting Martini origin stories get cleared up. There’s a drink called the Martinez, first in print in 1884 in O.H. Byron’s Modern Bartender’s Guide. If you look at the ingredients in the drink, you’ll find what appears to be a cocktail genetic link between the Martini and the Manhattan. Just because things are always confusing in cocktail history, cocktail historian Jared Brown says Byron’s book “gave two recipes [for the Martinez], not one.” Since we’re not taking a cocktail history test, we’re gonna keep things simple and look at the Martinez in its consensus incarnation: Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, bitters. (Sounds like what that lucky/unlucky gold miner ordered, right?).
The Manhattan actually came first, and this fact is easy to trust, since Byron’s book says the Martinez recipe is a “Manhattan substituting gin for whiskey.” And from the Martinez, probably, maybe, slightly indirectly, we get the Martini. And they’ll all hang out at the classic cocktail family reunion otherwise known as any decent bar after 5pm.
Hooray! Let’s celebrate with a drink!