When it comes to classic whiskey cocktails, the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan are two of the most iconic and beloved drinks in the world. Both are made with a base of whiskey and bitters, and both are served in elegant glasses that showcase their rich flavors and aromas.
However, there are some key differences between the two drinks that make each unique. In this article we’ll explore the difference between the Manhattan cocktail and the Old Fashioned cocktail, from their ingredients and recipes to their flavor profiles and histories.
What is an Old Fashioned?
The Old Fashioned cocktail is one of the oldest and most classic whiskey cocktails, dating back to the early 1800s. It is typically made with a sugar cube and a few dashes of Angostura bitters (sometimes a splash of water) which are muddled together in an Old Fashioned glass to form a simple syrup. The glass is then filled with ice, and a shot of whiskey—usually bourbon or rye—is poured over the top. The drink is stirred until chilled and finished with a twist of orange peel and (sometimes) a cocktail cherry or brandied cherry.
What is a Manhattan Cocktail?
The Manhattan cocktail, on the other hand, is a slightly more complex drink that was first invented in the late 1800s in New York City. It is typically made with two parts whiskey—usually rye or bourbon—one part sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. (The Perfect Manhattan uses a combination of dry vermouth and sweet vermouth.) These ingredients are stirred together in a mixing glass with ice, then strained into a chilled coupe or Nick & Nora glass and garnished with a brandied cherry or two.
Which Cocktail is Older?
The Old Fashioned is oldest. It’s first published reference is noted to be in 1806 while the first appearance of the Manhattan in print happens in the early 1880s.
Are They Served Differently?
One of the key differences between the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan is the type of glass they are served in and whether they are served over ice or neat.
The Old Fashioned is traditionally served in an Old Fashioned glass, which is a short, squat glass with a wide rim that tapers towards the bottom. The cocktail is best served over a large single ice cube, but can also be served over multiple standard ice cubs.
This glass shape is important for showcasing the drink’s bold flavor profile and aroma, while also allowing plenty of room for ice and an orange peel.
The Manhattan, is typically served up in a stemmed glass such as a coupe or Nick & Nora glass. This shape is designed to showcase the drink’s elegant appearance and sophisticated flavor profile, which is slightly more delicate and nuanced than that of the Old Fashioned. The Manhattan is served neat (without ice) with a brandied cherry or two.
Difference in Flavor
Another key difference between the two drinks is their flavor profile. The Old Fashioned is a boozy, straightforward drink that emphasizes the bold, rich flavors of whiskey. The addition of sugar, bitters, and melted ice helps to balance out the harshness of the alcohol and create a smooth, easy-to-drink cocktail.
The Manhattan is a more complex and layered drink that balances the sweetness of the vermouth with the spicy, herbal notes of the bitters and the rich, bold flavors of the whiskey. The end result is a sophisticated, nuanced cocktail that is beloved by whiskey lovers.
How to Make an Old Fashioned
Start by placing a sugar cube (or 1 teaspoon sugar) in an Old Fashioned glass and adding a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Muddle the sugar and bitters together until they form a paste, then add 2 ounces of your favorite whiskey and stir until the sugar dissolves. Fill the glass with ice and stir until chilled. Garnish with a twist of orange peel and a cocktail cherry (if desired), and serve.
Alternatively, if you do not want to build the cocktail in the glass it will be served in, make the cocktail in a large cocktail mixing glass and strain over a large piece of ice in an Old Fashioned glass.
We should also note, that we have tested the Old Fashioned cocktail hundreds of times and have found that an Old Fashioned made with simple syrup is best. Below is the recipe for a classic Old Fashioned cocktail while you can find the Best Old Fashioned cocktail here.
How to Make a Manhattan
For a Manhattan, start by filling a mixing glass with ice and adding 2 ounces whiskey, 1 ounce sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir the ingredients together for about 30 seconds to chill and dilute the drink, then strain into a chilled coupe or Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry and/or lemon twist, if desired.
Is One Better Than the Other?
Neither cocktail is better than the other. It all comes down to preference. So the best one is the one you like! Try making both cocktails with the recipes below and let us know which one you like better.
Before we get into the nitty gritty—the most important thing to remember is the best whiskey for your cocktails is the one you like. In order to create a cocktail you will like you need to use ingredients you like!
Traditionalists will say a true Old Fashioned should be made with rye since bourbon wasn’t developed or being made until decades after prohibition. Regardless, use what you like. For reference, bourbon will make for a mellow and slightly sweeter Old Fashioned. Rye will be a little “hotter” due to being high in alcohol and will add some spice.
Use whichever you prefer, or do a mix of both for the best of both worlds.
When you order a “whiskey neat” it means you’re ordering a pour of whiskey and that’s it—no ice, no bitters, nothing but whiskey.
We’re particularly fond of our Bourbon Smash. It’s bright, tart and lightly herby.
Manhattan vs Old Fashioned
- 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes angostura bitters
- garnish, brandied cherry and orange or lemon twist, optional
- 1 sugar cube, or 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 dashes angostura bitters
- 2 ounces bourbon whiskey
- garnish, orange twist and brandied cherry, optional
- Add whiskey, vermouth, bitters to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir the ingredients together for about 30 seconds to chill and dilute the drink, then strain into a chilled coupe or Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry and/or lemon twist, if desired.
- Stir until chilled, about 30 seconds.
- Strain into a coupe or Nick & Nora glass and garnish as desired.
- Muddle sugar cube and bitters together in an Old Fashioned glass.
- Add bourbon and stir until sugar has dissolved.
- Add ice and stir to chill, about 15 seconds.
- Garnish as desired and serve.