I have not been a fan of very sweet drinks, but the Manhattan cocktail is a favorite of mine– Andrew W.K.
The self-styled philosopher and king of the alternative party scene, Andrew W.K. isn’t alone.
The Manhattan, the world-famous cocktail has been a favorite tipple of choice for generations since it was first created in the club that it was named to honor, The Manhattan Club, in New York in eighteen seventy.
According to legend, it was made at a party that was being thrown to support the then Presidential Candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, who despite winning the popular vote, still lost the election.
While the veracity of the story is hard to prove, even though Tilden became a footnote in the archives of history, the Manhattan lives on, and is, if anything, more popular than it has ever been.
In more than a century a half, the cocktail traditionally made with whiskey, vermouth, and Angostura bitters has undergone its own evolution.
The conventional methodology used to make a good Manhattan subscribes to the idea that the heat and spice from the American rye whiskey (it’s an American cocktail, so it uses American rye whiskey as its primary alcohol ingredient) it uses is the perfect partner for the Vermouth as the former helps to balance and dampen the sweetness of the latter.
Much as we have a soft spot for convention, and very rarely tend to deviate from the preferred way of doing things, especially when it comes to mixing cocktails, as we’ve already mentioned, one hundred and fifty years is a long time, and during the Manhattan’s long and turbulent lifetime, a lot has changed.
And in the case of the Manhattan, one of the most significant transformations that it has undergone is the way that its fundamental ingredients have been altered to accommodate the ever-changing tastes of society.
The Manhattan Evolution
Even though change is a necessary engine that allows the world to move forward, there are some things that will always be sacred. And Manhattan was always at the top of our list of things that were fine just the way they were and have always been.
At least that was what we used to think until we tried a Blonde Manhattan in which the whiskey is replaced with moonshine and a Black Manhattan that took Vermouth out of the equation and used the Italian liqueur, Averna in its place.
Both were and are excellent, and an ideal way to savor and enjoy a Manhattan while watching the sun slowly set.
The fact that we could, and did enjoy a Manhattan without one of its key ingredients made us think that maybe there was another way to create the perfect Manhattan.
And it was that idea that led us to try our favorite cocktail with bourbon rather than whiskey and made us realize that as well as there being more than one way to skin a cat, there’s also more than one way to mix a great Manhattan.
That discovery, that bourbon is better than whiskey in a Manhattan is what prompted us, following a little experimentation, to compile this list of the ten best bourbons that you can use to make the quintessential and nearly flawless Manhattan.
Making It Black – Buffalo Trace
Just because you’re doing things a little differently, it doesn’t mean that you have to completely abandon tradition altogether.
Buffalo Trace has been making their oak infused, vanilla rich Kentucky bourbon the same way for more than two hundred years, and its complex tasting notes that make it linger long on the palette lend it a rare intricate flavor that makes it a perfect companion, for the sweeter Averna used in a Black Manhattan.
Like a lot of Kentucky bourbons, it has a slightly more powerful kick than rye whiskey, so when you’re mixing and drinking a Black Manhattan, you’ll want to go a little easier as Buffalo Trace weighs in with an ABV (alcohol by volume) of forty-five percent, which means it is easy to drift away with any cocktail that uses it as one of its main ingredients.
It tastes incredible, but the Manhattans you’ll make with it, much like the bourbon itself, are meant to be sipped slowly.
Tipping The Scale – Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon
Some bourbons become legendary for all the wrong reasons, but thankfully Woodford Reserve isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s our choice of bourbon for those rare moments when expense doesn’t matter, but the taste does.
It’s a delicate, deep bourbon, that’s imbued with a caramel sweetness that sets in as the initial heat begins to dissipates, but thanks to the sweetness being balanced by an intense cocoa and cinnamon flavor, it makes it the ideal counterweight for a Manhattan’s secondary ingredient, Vermouth.
Again, it’s a Kentucky style bourbon that was born from the Appalachian desire to push the alcohol content as high as possible without losing any flavor, so Woodford tops the ABV charts at forty-five point two percent, which means that it’s another bourbon that shouldn’t be taken lightly when you’re mixing a Manhattan with it.
But the way it tastes when it’s swirling around in your glass with the bitters and the Vermouth, that’s nigh on impossible to beat and needs to be sampled by every Manhattan fan at least once in their lifetime.
Finding Balance – Basil Hayden’s Small Batch Bourbon
Making a Manhattan is like trying to find a way to navigate the increasingly fraught and difficult paths that life insists on sending us down.
Unless we find a way to achieve that perfect balance between all the things that are continually pulling us in a multitude of different directions, we’ll never find the ideal path that we need to be on.
Manhattan’s work on the same principle as life does, it’s all about balance, and Basil Hayden’s Small Batch Bourbon is an easy way to create that equilibrium in your cocktail glass when it’s mixed with bitters and Vermouth.
It might seem like we’re unduly fixated on Kentucky bourbons, and while that might be true, the peppery heat and instant, comfortable vanilla flavor of Basil’s small-batch bourbon make it a drink to be savored in its own right as well as in a cocktail.
Strangely, for a Kentucky bourbon, the ABV is slightly lower in this incredible spirit but nonetheless, as a way of finding that perfect balance in a Manhattan, Basil Hayden’s is absolutely second to none.
The Whiskey Touch – Belle Meade Reserve
It isn’t easy to leave the comfort of your wheelhouse and try new things, and more often than not, doing things the way they’ve always been done can be reassuring and soothing, especially given how crazy the world and life can be.
And in those circumstances, Belle Meade is here to help, as it’s a bourbon that much like the American whiskey that’s usually used to make a Manhattan, thrives on its rye content
In fact, this Tennessee bourbon is so high on rye, that it has a simply astonishing ABV that pushes alcohol content-o-meter all the way up to fifty-two percent. It’s a spice-laden bourbon that cuts through the Vermouth like a knife through butter and makes a clean, easily drinkable Manhattan that’s as powerful as it is flavorful.
It isn’t a drink to be taken lightly or ignored and while its vanilla finish can be slightly deceptive, it’s a bourbon that’ll creep up on you quickly, but at the same time, is an ideal way to make the transition from whiskey laden to bourbon-based Manhattans.
The Artisanal Manhattan – Kings County Craft Bourbon
New York is probably the last place in the world that you’d expect a jaw-dropping bourbon that’s capable of taking your Manhattan to the next level to come from, but Kings County is one of the most surprising and wonderful bourbons that we’ve crossed paths with.
And as it’s distilled in the same state that the Manhattan was created in, it seems somehow fitting and apt that it’s also a great base for the cocktail.
This vanilla and cherry-laden bourbon that has a hint of cinnamon on the aftertaste is clean and sharp enough to curb the wilder excesses of the Anghastora and Vermouth and doesn’t detract from the overall taste of a good Manhattan.
Made by artisanal, craft distillers it adds an astonishing depth to the flavor of a Manhattan and with an ABV of forty-five percent isn’t the wild and untamed monster that it might have been if it had been made by less skilled craftsmen.
The Old Fashioned Way – Bookers Reserve Bourbon
For a cocktail with the sort of detailed and substantial history that a Manhattan has, in order to ensure that the drink reaches its full potential, it deserves to be made with a bourbon that has a similar eye for detail and love of the past.
Booker’s Reserve is another Kentucky bourbon, but it isn’t just any Kentucky bourbon, this is one of those spirits that only appears once in every lifetime.
Built around an oak-heavy vanilla flavor, its peppery heat doesn’t waste any time in taming the sweet Vermouth and holding back the bitters in a Manhattan and helps to deliver a cocktail that’s filled with flavor and meant to be enjoyed.
And as far as the ABV is concerned, it varies from batch to batch of this bourbon, as all that Booker’s care about is flavor.
The Finishing Touch – Angel’s Envy
Again, it might seem like we’re steering the list toward Kentucky, but that’s only because the state has an untarnished and well-deserved reputation for distilling some of the finest bourbons in the United States, and Angel’s Envy won’t tarnish or blemish that record any time soon. If anything, they’ll only enhance it.
All of their bourbons are left to mature in Port and Sherry barrels, which enhances the flavor of the bourbon without pushing its ABV into the stratospheric realms that a lot of similarly crafted bourbons are laden with.
The subtle fruit and butterscotch flavors, combined with the dark heat make it an ideal base spirit for a Manhattan and ensure that any cocktail made with it doesn’t lose any of its original taste.
Be careful with it though, as too much of this good thing could easily make you a bourbon rather than a cocktail devotee.
Taking It Easy – Four Roses Bourbon
When you’re looking for a long, pleasant, and incredibly mellow way to enjoy a Manhattan, the only bourbon that you should think about throwing in the glass is Four Roses, from Kentucky.
They believe in doing things slightly differently, so instead of the usual toffee, caramel, and vanilla flavors that a lot of Kentucky bourbons are imbued with, this forty percent ABV bourbon has an almost floral quality that’s highly reminiscent of honey.
Its latent heat smoothes the Vermouth, while its intricate flavors enhance all of the underlying taste in a great Manhattan, and bring everything in the cocktail to the forefront, without sacrificing any of its underlying zest and spiciness.
Four Roses is one of Kentucky’s best kept secrets, and after you’ve sampled it in a Manhattan you’ll understand why the Applachian state doesn’t want to share it.
The Bourbon Drinkers Bourbon – Maker’s Mark
If you want to try a Manhattan from the perspective of a bourbon drinker rather than a whiskey drinker, then the only way to really do it is with this forty-five-proof favorite of bourbon drinkers the world over.
Distilled in Kentucky, Maker’s Mark is softer on the pallet as it uses wheat rather than wye, which lends it a citrus heat, that pares down the sweetness of the Vermouth and fortifies the bitters, which in turn creates a highly drinkable Manhattan that once tasted, will never be forgotten.
Some things in life are worth waiting for, and Maker’s Mark is definitely one of them.
Aging Well – Old Forester 86 Proof
Old Forester started distilling their bourbon in the same year that the Manhattan was created, eighteen seventy and they’ve stuck to the same recipe ever since.
Heavy on the vanilla and spice, it’s an incredibly affordable bourbon that doesn’t swap flavor for-profit and tastes good in absolutely everything that it’s added to, including our cocktail of choice, the Manhattan.
It’s an entry-level bourbon that’ll transform your cocktail into a highly balanced work of alcohol-infused art that deserves to be served to royalty.
This page may contain affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, we'll earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you.