If you're new to whiskey cocktails the Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails may look quite similar. Both are three-ingredient whiskey cocktails, were invented in the 1800s, and use Angostura bitters for added complexity. Also, both cocktails put the whiskey base in the limelight - whether that's rye or bourbon.
The main difference between the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned Cocktail is the sweetener. The latter is traditionally sweetened with a sugar cube or simple syrup, whereas the Manhattan uses sweet vermouth; -a sweet, fortified wine from Italy. That leads to a more complex flavor in the Manhattan cocktail with a more subtle sweet note.
Here is a vivid illustration showing where Manhattan and Old Fashioned differ besides.
Illustration: Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned
Fact check: Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned cocktail
To get a better overview of how the Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails compare, we created the nifty fact table below. As you can see, against popular belief, the Old Fashioned is a stiffer drink than the Manhattan, at least regarding alcohol by volume.
|Cocktail volume before stirring
|Cocktail volume after stirring
|3.83 ounces (after stirring)
|Alcohol per serving
|Cost per cocktail
|First mentioned in
|1862 (as we know it today)
So, the Old Fashioned is more affordable, less in volume, and older than the Manhattan cocktail. But now, let's go through these differences in detail.
Which is the taller drink?
The Manhattan is a taller drink than the Old Fashioned. It accounts for 3.8 ounces after stirring compared to 2.875 ounces. These numbers include about 25% dilution in both drinks.
Which one contains more alcohol?
In relation to volume, the Old Fashioned (27.8% ABV) is stronger than the Manhattan cocktail (25.6% ABV). However, looking at the total amount of alcohol in grams, a Manhattan cocktail contains significantly more alcohol per drink. One serving contains 22.8g of alcohol compared to 14,92g in an Old Fashioned.
Cost per cocktail
The cost of making a Manhattan cocktail at home is slightly higher than the cost of an Old Fashioned. The price for one Manhattan cocktail is roughly $2.70, plus the price of the Maraschino cherry garnish. An Old Fashioned, on the other hand, is only $2.30 plus the price for the orange peel garnish.
Which came first, the Manhattan or the Old Fashioned?
The Old Fashion is widely seen as the original cocktail, the pioneer of all cocktail recipes. Hence, it only makes sense that the Old Fashioned cocktail wins this category. Its origin dates back to 1806 when it got the nondescript name "cocktail".
The Manhattan cocktail presumably was invented in the mid-1800s. However, it wasn't until 1880 that it got mentioned in writing for the first time.
A bartender named William F. Mulhall claimed that the inventor of the Manhattan was a man named Black and that the drink was "probably the most famous in its time".
Similarities between Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails
Let's not forget about the similarities between these two iconic whiskey cocktails. Starting with the base which can be either bourbon or rye whiskey - whichever you like best.
Aromatic bitters balance the flavors in both drinks, add complexity, and blend the base spirit with the sweetener. Traditionally, Angostura bitters are part of both recipes. However, think about highlighting the unique flavors of a whiskey with matching bitters.
The two drinks contain a sweet ingredient to add sweetness to these otherwise dry drinks. But the ingredients are not the only thing the Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails have in common.
Stirred or Shaken
Both drinks are stirred and never shaken. As a rule of thumb, drinks that do not contain fresh ingredients, such as juices or fruit pulp, are stirred on ice. To properly stir a cocktail, put the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until the drink is chilled. This process takes between 18 - 25 seconds and will add about 25% of dilution to your drink.
The two drinks sometimes have the same garnish as the two things used to decorate both drinks are Maraschino cherries and orange peel. Traditionally, the Old Fashioned employs an orange peel as a garnish, and the Manhattan a Maraschino cherry. However, any combination of the two garnishes can be used to garnish the two whiskey cocktails.
Is an Old Fashioned served differently from a Manhattan?
Yes, they are. An Old Fashioned is served on the rocks in an Old Fashioned glass decorated with an orange peel. Even though some people order their Manhattan cocktail with ice, the drink is traditionally served straight-up in a chilled Coupe or Martini glass with a Maraschino cherry as a garnish.
How the recipes for Manhattan and Old Fashioned differ
The two recipes primarily differ in the sweetener. Manhattan employs sweet vermouth, and an Old Fashioned is sweetened with a sugar cube dissolved with a splash of soda water.
That makes the Old Fashioned recipe a bit sweeter than the Manhattan. On the other hand, the use of sweet vermouth brings a more complex flavor to the Manhattan cocktails and a subtle red wine note.
Let's look at the two recipes.
- 2 oz Whiskey, Bourbon, or Rye
- 1 pcs Sugar cube
- three dashes of Angostura bitters
- one splash of Soda water
- 2 oz Rye Whiskey
- 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
- two dashes of Angostura Bitter
The Manhattan cocktail uses larger amounts of its secondary ingredient, sweet vermouth. That makes it a larger drink and is why the total amount of alcohol in the cocktail is higher. The rich flavors in the fortified wine make for a more complex flavor profile with just enough sweetness to balance the boozy whiskey base.
When it comes to the Old Fashioned, the drink is sweetened with a sugar cube that's dissolved with the help of a muddler and a splash of soda.
Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned - The Difference in Flavor
Both cocktails are heavy on whiskey and are considered rather stiff drinks. And even though they share some similarities, the differences in flavor are massive.
The Old Fashioned recipe basically highlights the base spirit and enhances it by adding sweetness and aromatic flavors. When tasting the Manhattan, you get a more subtle sweetness. Plus, the sweet vermouth creates a depth of flavor that is way more complex. There are notes of dark red fruit, spices, and herbs alongside the dominant Whiskey flavor.
Creating riffs or variations
There are many ways to change the original recipes of both cocktails. For instance, replace ingredients, use different cocktail bitters or a split-base, or alter the sweet part.
So you won't get lost in the many options, here are the most common ways to create riffs and variations on classic Old Fashioned or Manhattan cocktails.
How to create Manhattan Riffs
The Manhattan cocktail brought forth relatively few twists and riffs compared to the Old Fashioned. In most cases, you will find recipes that only change minor things. So let me show you how you can tweak the recipe.
Change proportions: Without changing one single ingredient, you can create a totally different cocktail - just by changing the proportions of the ingredients.
For example, when you double the amount of Vermouth, you get a more complex, fruity, and sweet version. Or reduce Vermouth to set more focus on your Whiskey.
Play around, and you can create many variants with very different outcomes.
Exchange cocktail bitters: Cocktail bitters are trending. There are more and more different bitters on the market, so why not try something new.
Try orange or grapefruit bitters instead of Angostura. You will notice a difference for sure.
Use a different vermouth: Vermouth is essential in the Manhattan cocktail. By choosing your vermouth wisely, you can change the result significantly. My recommendation is either Carpano Antica Formula or Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino.
Change the base: Rye Whiskey is the traditional base spirit of the Manhattan cocktail, but be brave and try something new.
You can replace it with a good Bourbon or, if you feel experimental, use Cognac or a fine Rum.
How to create Old Fashioned Variations
The Old Fashioned is probably the cocktail with the most options for riffs. The fact that the simple three-ingredient cocktail primarily showcases the base alcohol makes it easy to invent amazing variations.
You could take a spirit you love and find bitters to match it. There are various delicious Old Fashioned riffs with Rum, Mezcal, or Gin as a base. Other components are also interchangeable. So here's some inspiration:
Replace Sweetener: The classic muddled sugar cube often gets replaced with simple syrup. But why not take it further and use some more special syrups?
Try Pineapple syrup for a Rum Old Fashioned, agave syrup for a Mezcal Old Fashioned. Or simply use honey to sweeten the cocktail and create a richer mouthfeel.
Change the base spirit: The easiest and most common way to create an Old Fashioned variation is to change the base element. You can also create a split-based version that is not consisting of one but of two spirits.
For example, you can use 1 part Mezcal and 1 part Tequila as your base. In the classic recipe, this converts to 1oz Tequila and 1oz Mezcal.
Change the bitters: In such a delicate cocktail, exchanging the cocktail bitters will have huge effects. Try chocolate or orange bitters for a start.
Of course, you can also change multiple components at the same time. However, if you're new to mixology, I recommend making one change at a time.
Like that, you can identify what exactly happens if you replace an ingredient and develop a feeling for the process. It helps to figure out what works and what doesn't. If you change everything at once, you might not be able to comprehend the impact of each component.
At first, the differences between the Manhattan and Old Fashioned look marginal. At second glance, however, it becomes clear that the two drinks differ significantly in taste. The reason for this is primarily the sweet vermouth that lends the Manhattan cocktail its full-bodied character.
In conclusion, I can only say that both cocktails have very different flavor profiles. And the best way to discover these differences is to try these drinks for yourself.