If you’re looking for a strong drink with a slightly bitter, distinctly herbal aftertaste, you should try your hand at mixing a Manhattan!
The Manhattan cocktail was invented in 1894 at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, which is located in (you guessed it) Manhattan.
Originally, the cocktail was named the Rob Roy Manhattan, presumably after the Scottish folk hero.
However, it wasn’t the name of this cocktail that allowed it to stand the test of time.
The distinctive taste of the cocktail along with its high alcohol content makes it a firm favorite with lovers of strong drinks and strong flavors.
With that being said, before you go rushing off to follow the first Manhattan recipe you find online, you’ll need to make sure that you have the best quality ingredients to do this cocktail justice.
The most important ingredient is, of course, the whiskey. These days, more and more Manhattan lovers are choosing to use bourbon instead of the traditional rye whiskey (see also: Best Whiskey For A Manhattan).
Bourbon whiskey is set apart from other types of whiskey by its strict corn percentage and the aging process. All bourbons consist of at least 51% corn and are aged in oak-charred barrels.
This ensures that all bourbon (see also: Noah’s Mill Bourbon Review)whiskey is of high quality, but if you want a really good Manhattan, you’ll need to choose the very best.
We will be reviewing the best 5 bourbons (see also: Jefferson’s Bourbon Review)for Manhattans in today’s article and giving you helpful pointers through our buyer’s guide when it comes to choosing your favorite!
The 5 Best Bourbons for a Manhattan
We’ve tried and tested many bourbon whiskies on our quest to make the ideal Manhattan, and our experiments have shown that if you want a smooth, flavorful Manhattan, you should use Basil Hayden’s.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey has been aged in a lightly charred barrel. The more a manufacturer chars the barrel before aging, the more intense the bourbon’s flavor tends to be.
Because these barrels have only been lightly charred, Basil Hayden’s whiskey has a smooth, light flavor that is ideal for beginners and experienced bourbon (see also: Best Bourbon For Beginners)drinkers alike.
You can also tell the quality of Basil Hayden’s bourbon from the number of awards that this beverage has won since its introduction in 1992.
Having won the Double Gold award in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2020, as well as the Silver Medal in the International Spirits Challenge (2020), Basil Hayden bourbon is among the best of the best.
This bourbon comes in 2 bottle sizes: 750 ml and 375 ml.
Whether the Manhattan is your go-to cocktail and you’re looking for a bourbon to use in the long-term or you just want to try this bourbon on for size, the different bottle sizes allow you to buy in a way that suits you.
With that being said, it should be noted that Basil Hayden’s bourbon only has a 40% alcohol content, which is the very minimum required for a whiskey to be classed as a bourbon.
While the comparatively low alcohol content ensures a smoothness that won’t interfere with the flavor experience, this may not be the top choice for lovers of particularly strong bourbons.
- Light char barrel – Light, smooth flavor
- Award-winning – High quality
- 2 bottle sizes – 750 and 375 ml
- 40% ABV – Not the best choice for strong bourbon lovers
Up next, we also highly recommend the Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey.
With over 200 distinguishable flavor notes, this bourbon from Woodford Reserve has an intricate, layered flavor that will challenge the palates of even experienced whiskey drinkers.
In addition to the incredible combination of flavor notes, it’s worth noting that the Woodford Reserve bourbon was bottled at 90.4%, meaning that it’s 90.4 proof.
The high proof of this bourbon means that the flavor is rich and minimally diluted, so you’re getting a powerful flavor experience for your money.
Although the actual alcohol content (ABV) of Woodford Reserve’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is only half of the proof (45.2%), this is still a high enough percentage to ensure that this whiskey satisfies most buyers.
It’s more than 5% higher than the absolute minimum for bourbon, so while it definitely won’t be overpowering and some serious bourbon drinkers will prefer something stronger, you’ll feel the effects.
However, since this bourbon retails for a relatively high price point, it’s not a particularly good budget option, even considering that the price is for a 750 ml bottle.
Don’t worry, though – we’ve got a great budget pick to share with you next!
- 200 flavor notes – Rich and layered
- 45.2% ABV – Gentle but above minimum
- 90.4 proof – Minimal dilution
- High price point – Not the best value
Old Forester 86 is a very popular bourbon whiskey for Manhattans, not least because it’s very affordably priced.
There’s a common misconception surrounding alcohol that very expensive bottles are necessary if you want high quality, but Old Forester proves this notion wrong.
This bourbon delivers a bright, yet mellow flavor profile, with notes of vanilla, fruit, and honey layered over a distinct woodiness.
The flavor, overall, is soft and smooth, making this a great introductory bourbon and a worthy component of a Manhattan cocktail.
Bottled at 86%, the 86 proof of this Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey ensures optimal flavor and alcohol retention as well as a good level of sugar extraction from the barrel (which can be compromised if the proof is too high).
At just 43% ABV, however, it’s true that this bourbon may taste a little weak to bourbon enthusiasts who favor stronger blends.
With that being said, for the price, it’s still a great deal and a fantastic flavorful addition to your favorite Manhattan recipe.
- Mellow flavor profile – Smooth and soft
- 86 proof – Optimal extraction
- Modest price point – Budget-friendly
- 43% ABV – May not satisfy some enthusiasts
Angel’s Envy is a very sophisticated and equally delicious bourbon whiskey that we had the pleasure to sample for the purposes of this article.
While this whiskey promises to enhance any bourbon-based cocktail or beverage, we think it works especially well in a Manhattan.
With a corn content of 72%, this is a distinctly syrupy and sweet bourbon.
While this isn’t necessarily everyone’s preference when it comes to whiskey, the syrupy sweetness will pair well with the harsher-tasting ingredients in a Manhattan, such as the orange bitters.
Overall, the flavor profile of the Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey is equally smoky and sweet, making for a balanced taste experience.
The richness and the balance of the flavor are further enhanced by the fact that this bourbon has been finished in a port barrel, allowing it to absorb the subtle, fruity notes.
At 43.3% ABV, this is definitely not the strongest bourbon out there, so lovers of strong bourbon might not be as intrigued by this bottle. However, this ABV makes for a great sipping bourbon and classifies it as a subtle choice for a Manhattan.
- Smokey and sweet – Balanced flavor profile
- 72% corn – Sweet and syrupy
- Finished in port barrel – Rich flavor
- 43.3% ABV – Some buyers may prefer a higher percentage
- High price point – Not a budget purchase
Finally, we would like to recommend the Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey, especially if you’re a fan of black Manhattans(see also: Black Manhattan Recipe).
A black Manhattan, for reference, is a Manhattan that uses Averna instead of Vermouth(see also: Best Vermouth For Manhattan). It should be noted, however, that this bourbon will work beautifully in a regular Manhattan, too.
This is an excellent choice of bourbon for experienced bourbon drinkers, with a complex and interesting flavor profile consisting of apple, toffee, dark fruit, vanilla, mint, and oak notes alongside hints of espresso and cinnamon.
The warm, rich flavor will help you to make a Manhattan like you’ve never tasted before.
The downside of the complicated and spicy flavor profile is that it might be a little overwhelming for first-time bourbon drinkers.
The ABV of the Buffalo Trace bourbon is 45%, so it’s not on the stronger end of the bourbon scale, but there’s enough alcohol in there to make sure the kick isn’t lost in the mixing.
Buffalo Trace’s bourbon is a multi-award-winning bourbon, having secured 8 gold and silver awards in national and international competitions in 2019 alone! If you needed proof that this is a quality bourbon, you need look no further.
- Complex flavor profile – For experienced palates
- Multi-award-winning – Widely recognized
- 45% ABV – Versatile
- Noticeably spicy – May be overpowering for beginners
How To Choose The Best Bourbon For Manhattans
You have plenty of high-quality options to choose from when it comes to selecting a bourbon for your next Manhattan.
To make sure you’re making the best decision, you’ll need to take a few different factors into account.
We’ll be exploring these in this buyer’s guide, and hopefully, you’ll soon have made up your mind!
Alcohol Content (ABV)
A useful place to start when choosing a bourbon for Manhattan cocktails is to consider how strong you want the bourbon to be. We’re not talking strong in terms of flavor for the moment, but in terms of the alcohol content, or ABV.
Bourbon whiskey ranges from a minimum of 40% ABV to a maximum of 80%. As you can see by scanning through our product reviews, all of the bourbons we’ve recommended for Manhattans fall between 40% and 45.2%.
Now, if you’re someone who exclusively enjoys bourbons with ABV ratings of 50% and above, you may need to explore some other options. It might also seem odd that with such a wide ABV range to work with, we’ve only chosen bourbons at the lower end of the alcohol scale. However, there’s a reason for this.
A Manhattan is a notoriously strong cocktail. In addition to the whiskey, you’ll be adding Vermouth (or amaro, if you’re making a black Manhattan) as well as other potently-flavored ingredients such as bitters.
This means that using a stronger bourbon creates a risk of overloading your cocktail with strong flavors and alcohol, corrupting the taste experience.
If you’ve never tried either a bourbon or a Manhattan before, we recommend opting for a 40% bourbon.
By doing so, you’ll be better able to enjoy the flavor profile of your bourbon of choice without the interference of a higher alcohol content.
However, if you’re partial to a stronger bourbon, you can find bourbons rated at 45% and over on our list to add that distinctive kick to your cocktail.
Next, it’s time to think about the kinds of flavors you want to enjoy in your Manhattan – or other similar cocktails like the old fashioned.
There’s no right or wrong answer here, and you can find all sorts of bourbons with wildly different flavor profiles being recommended for Manhattans. It’s all about what you personally like.
If you’re not sure what kind of bourbon you prefer, we recommend starting with a less complicated flavor profile.
A beginner bourbon should be gentle and smooth, so we recommend prioritizing bourbons that have been aged in lightly charred barrels.
A heavier char is likely to produce a much stronger flavor, and this may be overpowering for beginners.
You can find plenty of bourbons on the market with mellow flavor profiles if this is the kind of taste experience you prefer. Look for woody notes like oak accompanied by soft botanicals and vanilla.
Sweetness can go a long way towards making a bourbon more palatable for beginners.
If you think this will be the case for you, look for a high corn percentage and a modest proof.
If the proof is too high, the sugars from the barrel may not be absorbed as much as they could be.
For those who prefer a more complex, powerful flavor profile, there are options in our review section for you, too.
Spicy notes like cinnamon are popular, especially for black Manhattans, and mint, espresso, and toffee notes can all help to make a bourbon taste bolder and more interesting.
If you really want enhanced quality and a rich flavor, look for bourbons that have been finished in port barrels. The strong, sweet fruitiness of the port will take your bourbon to the next level.
Not all high-quality, delicious bourbons come with a sky-high price tag, so don’t feel pressured into spending more than you can afford!
It’s not unusual for a bottle of bourbon to cost upwards of $40, but you can also find award-winning bottles for a more reasonable $30, or even lower!
Be sure to check the size of the bottle before you buy it as well. Not only will the bottle size help you to determine whether the price is good value for money, but checking out different bottle sizes will allow you to buy in the quantities that seem most practical for you.
For example, if you rarely drink whiskey or Manhattans, a smaller bottle for a lower price may be the best option for you, whereas more frequent bourbon drinkers may wish to take advantage of the better value of larger bottles.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should A Manhattan Use Bourbon Or Rye Whiskey?
Traditionally, a Manhattan is made using rye whiskey. However, more recently, more people have been choosing to incorporate bourbon into the cocktail for a sweeter, mellower flavor.
Where rye whiskey is generally quite spicy, this spiciness (while often still detectable) is toned down in most bourbons, which means that it’s often considered more palatable alongside the other potent ingredients of the traditional Manhattan.
What Can I Use In A Manhattan Instead Of Bourbon?
Originally, the Manhattan was designed to be mixed with rye or Canadian whiskey (like Crown Royal), so these are two obvious substitutions for bourbon in a Manhattan.
Is A Manhattan Sweet?
No, a Manhattan is not usually considered to be a sweet cocktail.
In general, because of the whiskey, vermouth, and the bitters in the cocktail, it delivers a slightly bitter, herbal flavor profile.
With that being said, there are ways of making a Manhattan sweeter.
For one thing, using bourbon instead of the traditional rye or Canadian whiskey will help to minimize the spiciness in favor of sweetness.
Your choice of bitters will also affect how sweet or sour your Manhattan turns out. If you want a sweeter Manhattan, look for slightly mellower bitters.
Making a Manhattan with bourbon (as opposed to the usual rye whiskey) is a great way to make this strong, slightly bitter cocktail sweeter and more enjoyable.
There are so many excellent bourbons on the market to choose from, and what may be the best choice for one person may not be for another.
The important thing is to choose a bourbon with an ABV that suits your alcohol preferences and a flavor profile that pleases your palate.
From spicy cinnamon and dark fruit notes to subtle vanilla and oak, there’s something in our top 5 especially for you!