Manhattan vs Old Fashioned Cocktail - The Difference between the classics

By Timo Torner / Last updated on March 20, 2023

The Old Fashioned and the Manhattan Cocktail go back to the very beginnings of the era of mixology. Both drinks contain Whiskey and bitters and therefore look similar and are often mixed up. But actually, they are two very different things.
Manhattan vs Old Fashioned cocktail

Both invented in the 1800s, the Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails are two of the most iconic Whiskey cocktails. 

Their names may sound very different, but the Manhattan and Old Fashioned get mixed up quite often because they have a lot in common:

Their recipes are straightforward and traditional. Both are based on Whiskey, contain bitters, and are stirred drinks. 

And those who don't confuse the two often start debating which one is better.

So let's see how the Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails are different and how they compare.

Which was first - Manhattan or Old Fashioned?

Although both cocktails are classics and quite old, the Old Fashioned is the clear winner on this one. 

Its origin dates back to 1806 when it got the nondescript name "cocktail". 

This "cocktail" consisted of spirit, water, cocktail bitters (find the best ones here), and sugar cube - the traditional Old Fashioned recipe.

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".

Manhattan and Old Fashioned recipes

Old Fashioned

Bourbon Old Fashioned Cocktail
  • 2 oz Whiskey, Bourbon, or Rye
  • 1 pcs Sugar cube
  • three dashes of Angostura bitters
  • one splash of Soda water


Manhattan Rye Whiskey Cocktail
  • 2 oz Rye Whiskey
  • 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
  • two dashes of Angostura Bitter

Differences between the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned

Let's take a closer look at the differences between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, starting with their components. 

Recipe and Preparation

They both are based on Whiskey, but the classic Old Fashioned recipe asks for Bourbon (sometimes substituted with Rye), whereas a Manhattan is made with Rye Whiskey.

Both drinks include cocktail bitters, more specifically Angostura bitters. An Old Fashioned usually contains a bit more of the bitters, three instead of two dashes, but otherwise, this part is similar.

Old fashioned cocktail with garnish

The main difference in the recipes is the sweetener part. A classic Old Fashioned is muddled in an Old Fashioned glass. 

For this, a sugar cube is drenched in Angostura bitters and then muddled with the help of a splash of soda water. 

The Manhattan cocktails recipe, on the other hand, requires sweet Vermouth. It not only sweetens the drink but also adds complexity to it.

Different serving

The ingredients are not the only difference. The Old Fashioned traditionally is created in the glass, usually in an Old Fashioned glass

It's prepared, as described above, by muddling the sugar cube in the glass. Only then an ice cube and the Whiskey are added.

The Manhattan cocktail is put together in a mixing glass. 

Therefore all ingredients, also the ice cubes, are added to a mixing glass. Then the drink is stirred and strained into a cocktail glass.

The taste difference between Manhattan and Old Fashioned

When comparing the taste of an Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktail, the Old Fashioned is much sweeter. 

Also, using raw sugar as a sweetener, balanced only by Angostura bitters, enhances the taste of the base Whiskey. Therefore it's crucial to use a quality Whiskey as the base for your drink.

Manhattan Cocktail History

When tasting the Manhattan, you get a more subtle sweetness. And the sweet Vermouth also creates some depth of flavor. 

There are notes of dark red fruit and herbs alongside the dominant Whiskey flavor. 

That, to me, has more of a cocktail feeling, while the Old Fashioned is more a way to enhance the taste of a Bourbon Whiskey.

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 is a cocktail with relatively few twists and riffs compared to the Old Fashioned. 

In most cases, you will find recipes that only change minor parts. 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.

Black Manhattan cocktail with Maraschino cherry

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.

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 primary 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.

Oaxaca Old Fashioned cocktail

And 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. 

Mezcal Old Fashioned

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.

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