They are two of the best known classic whiskey cocktails, and it’s safe to say that you can order them at pretty much any bar. The Manhattan and the Old Fashioned are both delicious cocktails made with whiskey – so what’s the difference anyway, and how should you know which one to order the next time you stop by your neighborhood cocktail bar?
Disclaimer: Old Fashioneds are one cocktail that are made very differently by different people. The following article is based on the “traditional” recipe of the Old Fashioned, but may not be what you get if you order one at your local watering hole.
TL;DR: The Manhattan vs The Old Fashioned:
Want a quick recap? Here’s a very high level overview of the differences between these two iconic and classic whiskey cocktails:
The Manhattan is:
- Made with whiskey (usually bourbon), Sweet Vermouth & Angostura bitters (no syrup).
- Typically served “up” (in a stemmed cocktail or martini glass) and garnished with a cocktail cherry.
- A strong cocktail with slight bitterness and some herbal undertones from the bitters and vermouth. Seasoned drinkers may pick up underlying sweetness from the Sweet Vermouth & whiskey.
- Choose a Manhattan if you’re looking for something multi-dimensional with very little sweetness.
The Old Fashioned is:
- Made with Whiskey (often Bourbon or Rye), bitters, and sugar.
- Typically served in an “Old Fashioned” glass (think: rocks glass without ice) and garnished with a slice/peel of orange and / or cherry.
- Another strong cocktail that’s definitely on the sweeter side. A seasoned drinker will also pick up slight herbal and bitter undertones from the bitters.
- Choose the Old Fashioned if you’re looking for something a little on the sweeter side.
What’s in the Glass
While the Manhattan and Old Fashioned share 2/3 of their ingredients, the final cocktails are quite different. Here’s why:
Manhattans are made with Bourbon whiskey, Sweet Vermouth and Angostura Bitters.
Old Fashioneds are made with Bourbon or Rye whiskey, Angostura Bitters and sugar (or simple syrup.)
The key difference between the two is the sweetener – and it makes all the difference! The Manhattan uses Sweet Vermouth and the Old Fashioned uses plain sugar.
Sweet Vermouth is a type of aromatized fortified wine. In plain English: It’s wine that’s had alcohol added and been infused with other flavors. (Typically herbs and botanicals that add flavor, aroma, and usually some bitterness.) It’s also not terribly sweet (despite its name).
How Does the Taste Compare?
The result of using Sweet Vermouth instead of syrup or sugar in the Manhattan cocktail does two things: first, it keeps the drink fairly dry. Experienced drinkers will certainly notice the sweetness from the Sweet Vermouth, but folks who are used to a Whiskey Sour or Mojito may find this a much drier option.
Secondly, the vermouth adds a lot of additional flavor. Manhattan drinkers will often tell you the reason they love this cocktail is for its complexity. That layered flavor comes (at least in part) from the infused botanicals in the vermouth.
Old Fashioneds, on the other hand, are traditionally made with a simple sugar cube muddled with bitters in the bottom of the glass. It’s sweet, yes, but the sugar brings very little else to the cocktail. As such I’d argue the Old Fashioned is not anywhere near as complex of a cocktail – but that’s not a bad thing. I think it lets the flavor of the whiskey shine through nicely. Sugar is also much sweeter than Sweet Vermouth, so the final cocktail tastes sweeter than a Manhattan as well.
Glass & Garnish
Glass: Sitting next to each other, these two cocktails look pretty different! That’s because the Manhattan is traditionally served “up” in a Martini, Cocktail or Coupe glass and the Old Fashioned is typically served in an Old Fashioned glass. (No surprise there.) If you’re not familiar, and Old Fashioned glass is very similar to a rocks glass.
Garnish: As for garnish, the Manhattan is pretty consistent: you’ll usually receive your cocktail with one or three cocktail cherries for garnish. (Not two: that’s bad form.) Garnish on the Old Fashioned varies quite a bit – from the “fruit salad” approach (several cherries + a large wedge of orange) to the more traditional (and simpler) piece of orange rind. In short: if there’s citrus, it’s probably not a Manhattan.
What about ice? Neither of these cocktails are traditionally served with ice. That’s because they are both “spirit forward” drinks and designed to taste fairly strong. Adding ice would water down that strength.
How to Make Them:
If you’ve read this far then you’ve probably made up your mind about which cocktail you’d like to enjoy this evening. If you’re at home and looking for a recipe, look no farther!
The Manhattan Recipe
- 2 oz Bourbon
- 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and add ice.
- Stir to chill.
- Strain and serve “up.” Garnish with a brandied cherry.
The Old Fashioned Recipe
- 2 oz Whiskey (typically Rye or Bourbon)
- 1/2 oz Simple Syrup
- 2 dashes Bitters
- 1 twist Orange Peel
- 1 each Maraschino (Brandied) Cherry (Optional)
- Combine syrup and bitters in a mixing glass and stir to combine
- Add whiskey, then ice. Stir.
- Strain into an old fashioned glass or bucket with fresh ice
- Garnish with an orange peel and (if preferred) a Maraschino Cherry.