As a cocktail enthusiast, you’re probably bombarded by new and innovative ways to enjoy spirits and mixed drinks.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a fresh approach to cocktails in the name of flavor, but sometimes the best solution to your thirst is the simplest solution.
The old fashioned and the Manhattan are simple mixed drinks because of their ingredients, but make no mistake: they require a very knowledgeable and steady hand to make.
They are often the mark of sophistication, but they can be enjoyed by all. Yet both the old fashioned and the Manhattan are often mistaken for one another because of their simplicity, at least by those who haven’t picked up on their unique differences.
Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned: What’s the Difference?
Even though these two mixed drinks are staples in speakeasies and bars around the world, their differences should remedy any attempt to use them interchangeably.
Among their differences, the Manhattan and old fashioned contrast from one another due to their unresolved histories, specific recipes, serving methods, and dynamic tastes.
Old Fashioned vs. Manhattan: History
The old fashioned has a rather muddled history, though most cocktail historians place its creation in the 19th century. Early accounts mark it in 1806 with a mention in The Balance and Columbian Repository in New York that labeled the recipe a “bittered sling.”
Another origin story takes place in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 with James E. Pepper, a bartender who brought this tasty mixed drink to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
The Manhattan, coincidentally, also has New York roots given its namesake. It too has been traced to the 19th century at the historic Hoffman House by a bartender named Black.
Others have pointed to its creation to a very famous hotel in Manhattan named, you guessed it, the Waldorf-Astoria. There’s even speculation that it was formed by Dr. Iain Marshall in 1870 at the Manhattan Club.
Perhaps because of their similar histories, people confuse the Manhattan and the old fashioned, but what helps separate them is their recipes. More specifically, they differ in how they tackle the issue of sweetness.
Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned: Recipe
For the cocktail of the Big Apple, a proper Manhattan sticks to a basic but profound recipe.
Two ounces of either rye or Canadian whiskey are used as the base, which guarantees a full body of flavors that show up throughout.
Three-fourths to an ounce of sweet vermouth to the base does two things: adds the necessary sweetness to the drink while giving the mixture a nice dark and rosy color that captures the eye. A good sweet vermouth won’t be overpowering, but it can be a necessary component.
Angostura bitters, a staple among bartenders and cocktail aficionados, are added to the mix with a few dashes. Using this in your cocktail introduces a contrast between the orange sweetness and a new bitterness.
There is a variation of the Manhattan that may appeal to those looking for an extra “oomph” to their drink: the Perfect Manhattan.
This take on the New York cocktail splits the sweetener by using both sweet vermouth and dry vermouth. The result is a cocktail that has more of a tart taste with herby notes and a dry finish.
The old fashioned relies on two ounces of rye or bourbon as the spirit of choice, with enough variety between these liquors to really impact the flavor (we’ll get to that later).
It too uses Angostura bitters to pair with the natural sweetness of the whiskey. Unlike the Manhattan, which uses vermouth to accompany the base, the old fashioned uses a plethora of ways to create additional sweetness.
The traditional or “old” way is to muddle brown demerara sugar cubes doused with a few dashes of bitters and water. A more modern approach is to use simple syrup instead to bypass the need for muddling, which can help if you’re in a pinch and forgot to pick up sugar cubes from the store.
The TV show and 60’s period piece Mad Men offers yet another take on the popular cocktail.
In the season three episode “My Old Kentucky Home,” Don Draper, the main character and perpetual old fashioned drinker, makes himself and hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton this cocktail. However, Don deviates from the recipe by adding soda water to bourbon, stirring the mix, and adding it to glasses with muddled sugar and fruit.
Although this may leave cocktail fans scratching their heads, the muddled fruit method has been adopted by other bars and pubs looking for another way to sweeten the drink and stray away from simplicity.
Old Fashioned vs. Manhattan: How They’re Served
Both of these cocktails are stirred, so it’s understandable that someone may initially confuse the two if they ignored the first half of the recipe. With that said, their serving methods differ quite a bit.
As a classic cocktail, the old fashioned is served in a rocks glass to allow the ice to cover just enough surface area to chill the glass without diluting the spirit.
As more bars tap into this historic cocktail, some have resorted to serving it in non-traditional glasses like a highball glass or a martini glass. Old fashioned purists may scoff at the idea of taking such an iconic drink and putting it into “any old glass.”
The Manhattan, on the other hand, sticks to sophistication by being poured into a martini glass, though a rocks glass is also used if you’re looking to add ice.
The two drinks also have different pouring methods.
The old fashioned is usually served in the glass it is constructed in, meaning the muddling, pouring, stirring, and garnishing all happen in the rocks glass.
Another variation is to use a mixing glass filled with ice to keep everything chilled, create the drink, then pour over a large ice cube. This could be a matter of quality control over convenience.
Comparatively, the Manhattan is made in a mixing glass and poured into a chilled coupe or martini glass straight up. This prevents the drink from being diluted in the mixing and serving process since it is a stirred drink, but some may prefer to have it on the rocks if they intend to enjoy it over time.
Finally, there’s some overlap between garnishes for both the old fashioned and the Manhattan.
Both have been known to use a Maraschino cherry to finish off the drink, but an old fashioned is also synonymous with an orange peel expressed over the drink to release its oils. The Manhattan, on the other hand, uses a lemon twist to add some nice color contrast between the bright yellow and the ruby drink.
Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned: Taste
Even though these two drinks are constructed with simple ingredients and garnishes, their flavors open up a world of possibilities full of experimentation.
The Manhattan’s use of rye adds a nice bit of spice along with earthy notes to start off the taste. A subtle sweetness comes in with the sweet vermouth mixed with the contrasting Angostura bitters. This drink is not the sweetest, nor should it be lest it takes away from the rye base, but the overall combination is balanced, smooth, and flavorful.
If you do want something with a bit more sweetness, you can swap the rye for whiskey without compromising the drink’s structure.
By contrast, the old fashioned is a very spirit-forward drink. You’ll get the bite of alcohol but not as impactful as a straight shot of your liquor. Depending on what spirit you choose, you’ll experience a medley of oak, vanilla, and other natural undertones.
The sweetness of the bourbon contrasts well with the Angostura bitters, complementing instead of competing with one another. It’s also boosted by the sweetness derived from the muddled sugar cube or the simple syrup depending on how it’s prepared.
You may also detect a hint of citrus pulled from the expressed oils from the orange twist if your bartender (or you) prepared it correctly. Compared to the Manhattan, this is a sweeter cocktail.
With that said, deviations from this preparation mean deviations from the flavor.
As mentioned earlier with the Mad Men example, adding club soda or seltzer water to the mix can add a generous mouth feel from the carbonation, but it may also mean reducing a few of those impactful flavors. This ultimately becomes a question of compromising taste for quantity.
On the other hand, some people prefer muddled fruit to sugar or simple syrup, which adds a new dynamic to the flavor.
Muddling cherries or oranges expresses much more of the citrus flavor that’s hinted at with the garnish and can really add to the experience. Some may feel that the sweetness should only come from a sugar cube or simple syrup, but at the end of the day, it’s your cocktail to experiment with.
One thing to note for both drinks is that a new trend of smoking cocktails has emerged, and both cocktails can benefit greatly from it.
The smoke goes well with the Manhattan’s spicy rye flavors, but it pairs perfectly with the sweet flavors from the old fashioned. In fact, many cocktail smokers are made specifically for the old fashioned, though the Manhattan can definitely increase its quality and price point with the supplemental smoke.
That’s the Difference Between a Manhattan and Old Fashioned
If you’re looking for a perfect mix of simplicity and sophistication, you can’t go wrong with either the Manhattan or the old fashioned.
Despite these drinks being similar in their ingredients, their unique approaches to serving and taste experimentations make them must-haves for your personal or professional menu.
If you’re ready to introduce these drinks to your patrons or guests, check out this Manhattan recipe or this approach to the old fashioned for cocktails that stir up the meaning of the word “simple.”