Manhattan vs Old Fashioned Cocktail – What’s the Difference?

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These cocktails are both boozy, timeless, and contain similar ingredients. If you are confused what the main difference is between Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails, you are not alone. Read on to learn more about these drinks and what makes them unique!

Manhattan Cocktail Overview

This drink dominated the East Coast and has been a staple in the New York Bar Scene for 140 years. It is elegant, and demands to be prepared with only the finest ingredients. Top shelf whiskey and Italian vermouth should be used when making a Manhattan. Don’t forget to include your favourite bitters, and serve this cocktail in a sky-high stemmed cocktail glass.

The Manhattan is the perfect happy hour cocktail, especially after a hard day of work. The intensity of the cocktail softens any edge you may have picked up during your day. This cocktail is served with a playful red maraschino cherry. It is a whimsical addition to a very sophisticated cocktail.

When I think of a Manhattan cocktail, I think of the end of the day at the financial district in New York City. I can picture everyone leaving work, loosening their ties and letting down their hair, and sneaking off to the bar to enjoy a stiff drink and probably get into some trouble!

Old Fashioned Overview

The Old Fashioned Cocktail as we know it is significantly younger than the Manhattan cocktail. It really grew in popularity in the 1960s, but historians believe variations of this drink have been created since the early 1800s.

When you think of an Old Fashioned, you think of the South. Where whiskey and bourbon distilleries first popped up in America. The simple cocktail calls for few ingredients, but tastes best when a more sophisticated bourbon is used.

The Old Fashioned has hints of citrus, sweetness, and is served on the rocks. This is a stiff drink that warms you up form the inside.

I would argue that the old fashioned may not be as elegant as the Manhattan, but it serves a similar purpose. It is a great cocktail to lean on when you need a smooth and strong drink after a hard day. It may not be as sophisticated as the Manhattan, but the Old Fashioned holds its own.

Manhattan vs Old Fashioned: Our Comparison

Let’s break down the components of the cocktail, and compare them side by side. Either of these drinks will make you a happy patron at any bar. But understanding their differences can help you pick the exact drink you need for the right occasion.

Flavor

The Manhattan Cocktail is playfully bitter, a little bit herbal due to the bitters, and strong. Italian vermouth tends to be sweet, and will add a subtle sweetness to the cocktail. Unless you know its there, most people miss the sweet vermouth entirely. This cocktail is often more bitter than the Old Fashioned, but it provides a sophisticated palette and is always a reliable go-to during happy hour. 

An Old Fashioned is sweet, mildly citrusy, and pleasantly intense. The velvety bourbon flavours coat your tongue, and the muddled sugar brings out the sweeter notes that are naturally found in whiskey. The citrus elements from the bitters brighten the entire cocktail. A slice of orange rind is often used to garnish this beverage.

All types of fruit rind can be used in strong beverages. Serious cocktail enthusiasts prefer using the rind because it captures the essence of the fruit, but leaves the overly sweet pulp behind. The natural oils found in all citrus fruit rind will enhance the bitterness of the cocktail the longer the rind is left in the drink. Try to refresh the fruit rind if you make yourself a second cocktail. This will prevent any unwanted bitterness from negatively altering your future drinks.

Types of whiskey used

A true Manhattan cocktail uses rye. Rye Whiskey is made using a different type of grain mash than regular whiskey. The benefits of using rye is the added peppery flavour in your whiskey. It creates an excellent kick, and gives an element of spice to the whiskey. Rye whiskey is considered to have the most intense flavours of all the whiskeys on the market.

Some Manhattan cocktails will be made with bourbon instead of rye. Bourbon originated in Kentucky, and features corn mash as the primary ingredient. Using corn produces a mild end product, that is gentler than traditional whiskeys. If you are not wild about the flavour of whiskey, substituting bourbon is a great option to ease into this alcohol.

Old Fashioned demands a smooth whiskey. Whiskey infused with tones of vanilla or caramel are the ideal choice for this cocktail. The sweet notes of this drink work well with the overall flavour profile of the drink.

Ice

A key difference between these two drinks is that an old fashioned is served on the rocks, and the Manhattan cocktail is served straight up. This means it is shaken with ice in a shaker, but it is strained, and served to patrons without any ice.

The temperature of the whiskey will significantly influence your experience of the alcohol. Typically, whiskey on ice is tempered, and the overall intensity of the alcohol is decreased. The ice will melt, and the water will dilute the whiskey. It will further tone down the intensity of the alcohol which may appeal to some people.

The presence, or lack of, also accounts for the different glasses used for these drinks. A Manhattan cocktail is served in a glass with a long stem and a wide vessel. Whenever a glass has a long stem, it is because you are supposed to keep your hands off the primary vessel. If you hold your glass by the vessel, the heat from your hands will warm up your drink faster, which is undesirable for some recipes. (Such as the Manhattan).

An Old Fashioned cocktail is served in a short and wide tumbler. These types of glasses fit your entire hand, but you’re not likely to over-warm this beverage because of the giant clear ice cube that is classically served in this drink. A glass without a stem is typically an indication that the beverage is informal, like drinking beer straight from the bottle. It is a tangible sign that the vibe is relaxed, and  its okay to get a little messy when having this drink!

Which Cocktail Is More Popular?

Both of these beverages are extremely popular in the USA. Depending on which part of the country you are in, you may see people favouring one drink more than the other. Like I mentioned earlier, the East Coast loves their Manhattans, and the South remains loyal to the Old Fashioned.

Both of these cocktails are recognized internationally, which is pretty cool. These recipes originated in America, but now they are available in any bar across the globe. No data is available on which drink is the most popular of the two options, but my money would be on the Manhattan. It has been featured in movies, books, and has sky rocketed to be an iconic beverage.

How to Make a Manhattan

To make a Manhattan cocktail you need to shake the following ingredients in a tumbler with ice: sweet Italian vermouth, bourbon or rye whiskey, and bitters. Only add a few drops of bitters to your cocktail. Remember, you can always add more if you need, but you can never take them away once they’ve been incorporated!

Ingredients

  • Ice for stirring
  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz Italian Vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 brandied cherry OR 1 cocktail cherry, to garnish

Instructions

  1. Fill a large mixing glass with ice, bourbon, vermouth and the bitters. Stir for 30 seconds, or longer if you preferred a very chilled beverage.
  2. Strain the mixture into a martini style glass. Garnish with the cherry, and enjoy!

How to Make an Old Fashioned

An old fashioned needs a few extra supplies, but it is a very simple cocktail to make. Use a muddle to properly blend sugar cubs and bitters together. Add the ice, and pour the whiskey over the drink. You can give a quick stir, and don’t forget to garnish with a slice of orange rind.

Ingredients

  • 2 sugar cubes or 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitter
  • 1 dash orange bitter
  • 1 slice of fresh orange to garnish
  • 1 large ice cube
  • 1.5oz of bourbon or rye

Instructions

  1. Soak the sugar cubes or sugar in the bitters. Muddle the mixture at the bottom of a glass.
  2. Add the ice cube
  3. Pour the alcohol over the ice. Garnish with fresh orange. Enjoy!

Manhattan vs Old Fashioned: Final Thoughts

We hope this helps to clear up any confusion you might have had between Manhattan vs Old Fashioned cocktails. At the end of the day, both are staples that utilize many of the same ingredients, so it can be easy to mix up the two.

No matter which one you end up with though, you’re in for an excellent drink!