Manhattan vs Old Fashioned Cocktails: What’s the Difference?

  • By: BT Staff
  • Date: January 20, 2024
  • Time to read: 9 min.

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

What are the main differences between old fashion and Manhattan?

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 peel twist, while Manhattans are garnished with a brandied cocktail 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 Bourbon or Rye Whisky, though Manhattens tend to use Rye more often. 

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 subtle sweetness of the whiskey used to make them, with none of the other flavours vying for dominance in the taste department. You’re still getting two ounces of premium whisky.

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

What Are the Similarities?

Of course, the most basic similarity between these two classic whiskey cocktails is 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 has Rye in it, but it’s legally limited to a very specific ratio. 

Though we listed brandied cherries for Manhattans and an orange peel 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 bitters. 

However, Angostura is not the end all be all, and neither cocktail sticks exclusively to the same ingredients next 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?

Regarding sweets, Old Fashioned cocktails stick with syrup if a sugar cube isn’t available. Sweet Vermouth is the sweet of choice for Manhattans. It is 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 first time Old Fashioned cocktails were mentioned in the history books was in the Balance and Columbian Repository, 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. 

History of the Old Fashioned Cocktail

We had to wait until 1881 for the 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 in Louisville – at least, according to one version of the story.

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

Manhattans weren’t far behind them, however, although no one is 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 named “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 traditionally 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 typically 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 newfangled things people come with and try to label a Manhattan vs Old Fashioned. 

Classic Old Fashioned Cocktail

Mixing a Classic Old Fashioned

The ratio of both cocktails is exactly the same regarding the whisky. Rye or Bourbon, it’s always two ounces. 

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

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

Classic Manhattan

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

  • 2 ounces of Rye (Bourbon if you’re out of Rye)
  • 1 ounce of Sweet Vermouth
  • Two or three dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 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 or coupe glass
  • Use a brandied cocktail cherry or lemon twist for garnish. 

Which One Tastes Better?

You 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. 

What Does a Manhattan Taste Like?

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

A Manhattan cocktail tastes like a sophisticated blend of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The whiskey, typically rye, brings warmth and spiciness, while the sweet vermouth adds sweetness and herbal complexity to this boozy drink.

The bitters help to balance and bind the flavours together. The resulting taste is a smooth, rich, and well-rounded cocktail with a pleasant balance between sweetness and bitterness.

What Does an Old Fashioned Taste Like?

If you like something a little stronger, with more of the bold, potent flavour of Bourbon, an Old Fashioned is a way to go.

An Old Fashioned tastes like a well-balanced blend of bold flavours of whiskey’s natural flavours, enhanced by sugar’s sweetness and the depth bitters provide. It has a slightly sweet and smooth profile, with the whiskey’s characteristics (such as vanilla, caramel, or oak notes) shining through. The choice of whiskey influences the overall taste, with bourbon offering a sweeter experience and rye bringing a spicier touch.

According to most whisky aficionados,  either of these drinks can easily be ruined with the slightest change in the amount or volume of ingredients, so follow the instructions to a T. 

Modern Variations

Of course, these two cocktails have many modern variations. Let’s look at some.

What Are Some Common Manhattan Variations?

There are several common Manhattan cocktail variations, each with its unique twist on the same classic cocktail recipe:

  • Perfect Manhattan: Made with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, this variation creates a slightly less sweet, more balanced flavour profile.
  • Dry Manhattan: Uses dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth, resulting in a drier, less sweet cocktail.
  • Rob Roy: A Scotch whisky-based version of the Manhattan, typically using a blended Scotch. The choice of Scotch can add smoky or fruity notes to the drink.
  • Black Manhattan: Replaces the sweet vermouth with an amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur, which adds bitterness and a complex herbal character.
  • Brandy Manhattan: Swaps the whiskey for brandy, creating a smoother, fruitier, and more elegant cocktail.
  • Cuban Manhattan: A variation of the Perfect Manhattan using dark rum instead of whiskey, giving the cocktail a tropical, caramel-like flavour.

These variations showcase the versatility of the Manhattan cocktail and provide different flavour experiences for enthusiasts to explore.

What Are Some Common Old Fashioned Variations?

There are several common Old Fashioned and cocktail recipes and variations, each putting a unique twist on the classic recipe.

  • Rum Old Fashioned: Swaps the whiskey for aged rum, adding a tropical, caramel-like flavour and smoothness to the drink.
  • Brandy Old Fashioned: Replaces the whiskey with brandy, creating a fruitier, more elegant cocktail.
  • Tequila Old Fashioned: Uses reposado or añejo tequila instead of whiskey, bringing a distinct agave flavour and warmth to the drink.
  • Oaxaca Old Fashioned: A combination of reposado tequila and mezcal, adding a smoky element to the traditional Old Fashioned.
  • Gin Old Fashioned: Substitutes gin for whiskey, offering a more botanical and aromatic experience with the gin’s herbaceous and citrus notes.
  • Maple Old Fashioned: Replaces the sugar with maple syrup, adding a rich, earthy sweetness and a hint of maple flavour. Why not use some Canadian whiskey too?

These variations demonstrate the adaptability of the Old Fashioned cocktail, allowing enthusiasts to explore different flavour profiles and combinations.

FAQs About Manhattan and Old Fashioned Cocktail

These are some common questions about these two classic whiskey cocktails.

Does an Old Fashioned or Manhattan Include a Cherry?

Yes, the Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails traditionally include a brandied cherry garnish.

Is There a Best Whisky for an Old Fashioned

There isn’t a single “best” whiskey for an Old Fashioned cocktail, as personal preference plays a significant role in the final cocktail. However, some popular options include the following:

  • Bourbon: Known for its sweeter, smoother flavour profile, bourbons like Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, and Woodford Reserve are often used in Old Fashioneds.
  • Rye whiskey: Rye adds a spicier, more robust character to the cocktail. Common choices are Rittenhouse, Bulleit Rye, and Old Overholt

Why You Should Not Shake a Manhattan

You should not shake a Manhattan cocktail because shaking can introduce too much air and small ice chips into the drink, leading to over-dilution and a cloudy appearance (also known as bruising) or developing an undesirable frothy texture.

Can You Make a Manhattan or Old Fashioned With Soda Water?

Adding soda water to a Manhattan or Old Fashioned cocktail is not part of the traditional recipes, but you can modify the drinks to suit your taste preferences.

While adding a small splash is more common in an Old Fashioned, in both cases, it will create a lighter, more refreshing version of the cocktails but might also dilute the flavours and alter their original taste profiles.

Are Manhattan and Old Fashioned Drinks the Same?

Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails are not the same. Both feature whiskey and bitters but have different ingredients, preparations, and taste profiles. Manhattan uses rye whiskey and sweet vermouth and is stirred, while Old Fashioned uses bourbon or rye and sugar, and is built directly in the mixing glass. An Old Fashioned has a sweeter and less complex taste than a Manhattan.

Are Manhattans Served Differently From Old Fashioneds?

Manhattans and Old Fashioneds are served differently.

  • Manhattans are stirred, strained, and served in a cocktail glass or coupe with a cherry garnish.
  • Old Fashioneds are built in a rocks glass with an orange peel slice and maraschino cherry garnish.

What Kind of Glass Should You Use for an Old Fashioned Cocktail?

An Old Fashioned cocktail should be served in a short tumbler, also known as a rocks glass or an Old Fashioned glass. This glass is characterized by its short, wide, and sturdy design, which is ideal for muddling ingredients, holding ice, and enjoying the cocktail’s aroma and flavours.

What Glass Should You Use for a Manhattan Cocktail?

A Manhattan cocktail should be served in a chilled stemmed glass or chilled coupe glass (not a martini glass, though). Both of these glasses feature rounded bowls and stems, which help keep the drink chilled by preventing the warmth of the hand from transferring to the beverage. These glasses’ elegant design also enhances the Manhattan cocktail’s visual presentation and drinking experience.

All Things Considered

These cocktails have been around for 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.