Manhattan vs Old Fashioned Compared- What’s the Difference?

  • By: BT Staff
  • Date: December 10, 2022
  • Time to read: 6 min.

Whiskey cocktails are a dime a dozen, but two of the most popular versions are the Manhattan and Old Fashioned. These are considered to be classic cocktails, and the mix has been around for a long time. 

The primary difference is in the mix. An Old Fashioned cocktail includes Bourbon, a simple sugar cube, and Angostura Bitters. A Manhattan is usually Rye (though it can be Bourbon), with Sweet Vermouth and Angostura Bitters. 

As you can see, both are fairly similar. An Old Fashioned is typically poured over a single cube (on the rocks as they say) and garnished with an orange twist, while Manhattans are garnished with a brandied cherry. 

Is a Manhatten Stronger than an Old Fashioned?

It’s often difficult to say because it boils down to the proof of the Bourbon or Rye Whiskey in the mix. Both drinks contain either Bourbon or Rye Whisky, though Manhattens tend to use Rye more often than Bourbon. 

Traditionally, in a Classic Manhatten, there is more sweet than spirit, which means that an Old Fashioned is probably a little bit stronger in most cases. Knock back four or five of either, and it won’t matter much one way or the other. 

Both cocktails are led by the whiskey used to make them, with none of the other flavours vying for dominance in the taste department. At the end of the day, you’re still getting 2 ounces of premium whisky.

Premium? Well certainly. It’s not a real Manhattan or Old Fashioned unless you’re pulling you’re Bourbon or Rye off the part of the shelf that requires a large stepladder to reach. 

What are the Similarities?

Of course, the most basic similarity between the two is the fact that they both use whisky, the primary component of both cocktails. For those unfamiliar with drinking whisky, there is a huge difference between sipping Bourbon and sipping Rye in terms of taste. 

So it does matter when the Manhattan in question is using Rye, and an Old Fashioned is using Bourbon. Bourbon does have Rye in it, but it’s limited by law to a very specific ratio. 

Though we listed brandied cherries for Manhattans and an orange twist for Old Fashioned cocktails, both drinks often stick with the same garnish. 

Both cocktails utilize bitters to level the playing field. In this case, both tend to use Angostura. 

Angostura is not the end all be all, however, and neither cocktail sticks exclusively to it. Both cocktails also employ the use of sweets, though that’s where the similarities between the two come to an end.

What are the Differences?

When it comes to sweets, Old Fashioned cocktails stick with syrup if a sugar cube isn’t available. Sweet Vermouth is the sweet of choice for Manhattans. Its overpowering enough that it’s generally all that’s needed. 

Rye is the whisky that’s found in Manhattans more often, and Manhattans aren’t served over ice cubes. 

Did The Manhattan or the Old Fashioned Come First?

Unquestionably, the Old Fashioned cocktail came first. The very first time Old Fashioned cocktails were mentioned in the history books was in the Balance and Columbian Repository, a newspaper article dated 1806.

The author referenced a cocktail that essentially defines the Old Fashioned cocktail. There is no reference to any whisky, just spirits. But, since whisky is a spirit, the definition wasn’t that far off after all. 

We had to wait until 1881 for the actual term “Old Fashioned” to come along and join the history of the Old Fashioned Cocktail. As it happens, this one was mixed with Bourbon by a Kentucky Bartender at the Pendennis Club. 

From there, word (along with the all-important ingredients) spread all the way up to New York, namely the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. 

Manhattans weren’t far behind them, however, although no one is really certain of an exact date of inception. Most believe that the first Manhattan was probably mixed sometime in the mid-1800s. 

Some attribute the first Manhatten to a man by the name of “Black,” sometime in the 1860s. There is no precise date and no more to the name other than “Black.” 

How are They Served Differently?

Old Fashioned cocktails are typically served in low tumblers over a single ice cube, though the number of ice cubes can change without affecting the drink’s name. It boils down to personal preference. 

A Manhattan isn’t served over ice but is mixed with ice in a shaker before it’s poured out, suitably chilled. Once the mix is good and shaken up, a strainer is used to pour it into a cocktail glass, not a tumbler. 

The Recipe Differences

We’re talking classics here, not some of the newfangled things people come with and try to label a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. 

Classic Old Fashioned Cocktail

Mixing a Classic Old Fashioned

The ratio of both cocktails is exactly the same when it comes to the whisky. Rye or Bourbon, it’s always 2 ounces. 

  • 2 ounces of Bourbon (Rye if you’re out of Bourbon)
  • Simple Sugar Cube (syrup if there are no sugar cubes around)
  • Two or three dashes of Angostura
  • Pour the whisky and the Angostura into a mixing glass
  • Fill it with ice
  • Stir
  • Pour over a single ice cube in a low tumbler
  • Add an orange peel for garnish.

Some people also like to smoke the glass to add extra flavour; we’ve written about how to smoke a glass here.

Classic Manhattan

A lot of this remains the same until you get to the sweet part and how the ingredients are mixed together. 

  • 2 ounces of Rye (Bourbon if you’re out of Rye)
  • 1 ounce of Sweet Vermouth
  • Two or three dashes of Angostura
  • Take your mixing glass and add the whisky, Vermouth, and bitters
  • Fill with ice and shake or stir
  • Strain it into a chilled cocktail glass
  • Use a brandied cherry for garnish. 

Which One Tastes Better?

That comes down to personal preference. No one person’s taste buds are the same, after all. You definitely get a sweeter drink with a Manhattan than an Old Fashioned if sweet is your thing. In fact, with the Sweet Vermouth, it’s easy to go overboard and ruin the cocktail by making it too sweet if you aren’t careful. 

A Manhattan is also more complex than an Old Fashioned. That term is thrown around a lot in whisky-drinking circles, but it just means there are more flavour and aroma subtleties in Manhattan. 

If you like something a little stronger, with more of the bold, potent flavour of Bourbon, an Old Fashioned is a way to go. The way that both drinks are made, including the similarity in ingredients, is drastically separated by the use of the Sweet Vermouth. 

According to most whisky aficionados,  either of these drinks can easily be ruined with just the slightest change in the amount or volume of ingredients. It doesn’t take much one way or the other so whenever you want to put together the classic version or either, follow the instructions to a T. 

All Things Considered

Both of these cocktails have been around for well over a century, almost two. Through all of that time, they have remained two of the most popular cocktails, especially if you enjoy Bourbon or Rye whisky. 

Though both are very similar, in many ways, the result is very different once they’re mixed and served.