Deciding between a Manhattan vs Old Fashioned can be tough because these whiskey-based drinks are both classic and delicious. While these cocktails have whisky, bitters, and a sweetening agent in common, they are distinctly different drinks. 

This article takes you through the history, ingredients, and variations of both cocktails. Plus, we provide recipes so you can make your own at home. Don’t forget to check out the related recipes section for ideas on what to serve with your cocktails!  

What is a Manhattan cocktail?

The Manhattan is a timeless cocktail made by mixing American rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The use of rye gives the drink a spicy edge while the vermouth lends a subtle sweetness and the bitters take the edge off. 

The result is a simple yet delicious whiskey-forward cocktail with deep, if not mysterious, roots in old-time New York City. 

Manhattan cocktail history and origins

The Manhattan came about as an answer to the Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail in the mid-1870s, a time when Vermouth was incredibly popular. A drink of equal parts whiskey and vermouth was the seed from which the Manhattan cocktail was born. 

While there’s no consensus on how the cocktail as we know it today came to be, the earliest written record of the drink dates back to September 1882. The Sunday Morning Harold in Olean, New York referenced a drink with the ingredients of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters.

Today, the mystery of the exact origins of the Manhattan in old-time New York is part of its allure for many who enjoy the drink. For more tidbits on the history, head over to the Spirit of New York Distillery Co. blog.

What’s a Manhattan drink made of?

The exact recipe for a classic Manhattan is as follows:

  • 2 oz whiskey (traditionally rye)
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth 
  • 2-3 dashes of bitters 
  • Garnish: cocktail cherry, with optional orange peel

How do you make a Manhattan?

A Manhattan is actually quite easy to make. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Add the rye whiskey, vermouth, and bitters to a mixing glass (not a shaker).
  2. Fill the glass with ice and stir for about 30 seconds.
  3. Strain the drink into a chilled coupe glass or martini glass, sans ice.
  4. Garnish with a cocktail cherry and orange peel (if using).

What should a Manhattan taste like?

A Manhattan is a rye whiskey cocktail with a slight bitterness from the bitters and sweet undertones from the vermouth. The rye spices the drink, adding depth of flavor. A Manhattan is not as sweet as an Old Fashioned, which uses sugar or simple syrup. 

The use of vermouth gives the drink a complexity that the Od Fashioned doesn’t quite have. The whiskey is the star of the show, giving the Manhattan a boozier flavor than the Old Fashioned, and vermouth adds to the alcohol content. 

What are the different ways to order a Manhattan?

While the classic Manhattan is quite straightforward—rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters with a garnish—there are some acceptable requests you can make when ordering. For example, you can ask for bourbon instead of rye for s smoother flavor with less spice. 

You can also request orange bitters to add a slight fruitiness or sub the orange peel for lemon peel for a bit of zest. Rather than having it in a martini or coupe glass, you can ask for a lowball (or Old Fashioned) glass, in which you could get a single ice cube. 

Manhattan cocktail variations

In addition to the serving requests listed above, there are many distinct variations on the Manhattan cocktail. Here are some of the most popular Manhattan variations:

  • A Perfect Manhattan uses equal parts sweet and dry vermouth.
  • The Revolver is made with bourbon, coffee liqueur, orange bitters, and an orange peel garnish.
  • The Rob Roy uses Scotch whiskey in place of rye.
  • A Black Manhattan calls for Averna Amaro instead of sweet vermouth. 
  • The Brandy Manhattan uses brandy or Cognac, sweet red vermouth,  and the classic Angostura bitters.

Best Manhattan cocktail recipes

This Manhattan recipe from Food & Wine is a classic iteration of the drink with straightforward instructions, and the ratios are spot on. 

Looking to try a unique variation? Sonja and Alex of A Couple Cooks have a delightful recipe for The Brooklyn—a twist on the Manhattan using rye whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and Amer Picon.

What is an Old Fashioned?

An Old Fashioned is the original cocktail. It’s made with bourbon, bitters, and muddled sugar or simple syrup. This iconic drink is usually served in a tumbler named for the drink with ice and a garnish of orange peel and sometimes a brandied cherry. 

Origins: Where does Old Fashioned get its name?

The Old Fashioned is considered to be the original cocktail. A basic recipe of whiskey, bitters, sugar, and ice appeared in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide in 1862 as the “Whiskey Cocktail.”

The name “Old Fashioned” came about as bartenders started putting their own spin on the whiskey cocktail, changing ingredients and garnishes. Those who wanted the original iteration of the cocktail began ordering it as an “Old Fashioned.”

What is a classic Old Fashioned made of?

A traditional Old Fashioned recipe is as follows:

  • 1 sugar cube (or ¼ oz simple syrup) 
  • 1 teaspoon water or soda water (if muddling sugar)
  • 3 to 4 shakes of Angostura bitters 
  • 2 ounces bourbon 
  • Orange peel and 1 cherry (optional) for garnish

What kind of sugar is used in Old Fashioned cocktails?

Traditionally a white sugar cube is muddled in water and bitters to make an Old Fashioned. However, it is acceptable to use simple syrup for ease. 

How do you make an Old Fashioned?

The simple steps to make a classic Old Fashioned cocktail are as follows:

  1. Add the sugar, bitters, and water into a mixing glass and stir until the sugar is dissolved. 
  2. Fill the glass with ice before adding the bourbon and mixing until it’s chilled.
  3. Strain the drink into a tumbler with one large ice cube.
  4. Rub the orange peel along the rim of an Old Fashioned glass to express the oil and drop it into the drink to garnish. Add a cherry if using. 

How would you describe an Old Fashioned cocktail?

The Old Fashioned cocktail is a sweeter and less complex drink than a Manhattan, due to the use of sugar or simple syrup. The bitters give the drink a slight bitterness and a bit of spice to balance out the booze and sugar. An Old Fashioned doesn’t taste as whiskey-heavy as a Manhattan, making it a good option for those who don’t love a boozy taste. 

What are the different types of Old Fashioned?

When ordering an Old Fashioned, you can make some simple substitution requests, such as adding extra sugar or simple syrup to make a sweeter drink or replacing the sugar with honey. You can also ask for orange bitters and the orange peel to be muddled with the sugar for an extra pop of citrus. Or make it a smoked old fashioned, by smoking the glass with a smoking gun before adding drink ingredients. 

Old Fashioned Cocktail Variations

There are many delicious twists on this classic cocktail to try. Here are some of the most popular Old Fashioned variations:

  • Make a Brandy Old Fashioned with brandy, lemon-lime soda, club soda, and a maraschino cherry garnish.
  • A Blood Orange Old Fashioned uses orange bitters, a splash of blood orange juice, and a blood orange peel as the garnish.
  • The Oaxacan Old Fashioned mixes one and a half ounces of tequila and half an ounce of mezcal with agave nectar, and two dashes of Angostura bitters.
  • For a Rum Old Fashioned, swap the bourbon for rum and use orange bitters.
  • Make a Fruit Old Fashioned by adding muddled lemon, lime, orange, and/or cherry to the mix. Orange bitters work well in this one too. 

Best Old Fashioned cocktail recipes

For a classic and straightforward bourbon Old Fashioned, try this recipe from If you’d like to try a variation, we enjoy this Relaxed Rum Old Fashioned from Wine Enthusiast and this perfectly sweet and balanced Blood orange Old Fashioned by Home Cooked Harvest.

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Summary: What is the difference between Manhattan and Old Fashioned cocktails?

The Manhattan and Old Fashioned are two classic whiskey-based cocktails that can be easily modified to suit your tastes. Consider these key differences when deciding between Old Fashioned vs Manhattan.

  • Base Liquor: A Manhattan is typically made with rye whiskey, while an Old Fashioned is made with bourbon.
  • Flavor Profile: The Manhattan has a bit of spice from the rye and a depth of flavor from vermouth, while the Old Fashioned is a bit sweeter and smoother, thanks to the bourbon and sugar.
  • Sweetener: The Manhattan gets its sweetness from sweet vermouth, while an Old Fashioned is sweetened with a sugar cube or simple syrup.
  • Ice and Garnish: A Manhattan is traditionally garnished with a brandied cherry and no ice, but a classic Old Fashioned is served with ice and an orange peel.
  • Glass: An Old Fashioned cocktail glass is short with a wide rim and heavy base. The Manhattan is usually served in a martini-style glass or a chilled coupe.

If you’re ready to head out for dinner and drinks but are watching your waistline, visit our guide for 12 Weight Watcher-friendly restaurants. We give you tips on what to order for a lightened-up meal and what to avoid ordering to stay within your daily points. 

Or impress your friends with drinks and nibbles at home! Serve your cocktails of choice with appetizers, like these 10 Healthy Costco snacks perfect for a cocktail party. If a  dinner party is more your style, we’ve got you covered with 25 succulent steak and shrimp recipes

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: Is a Manhattan stronger than an Old Fashioned?

A: A Manhattan is typically a stronger and more boozy-tasting drink than an Old Fashioned due to the addition of vermouth and the absence of sugar. 

Q2: Does an Old Fashioned taste like a Manhattan?

A: An Old Fashioned tastes sweeter and less complex than a Manhattan. The rye whiskey and vermouth used in a Manhattan give it a greater depth of flavor and spice.

Q3: How is Manhattan similar to Old Fashioned?

A: Both are classic whiskey cocktails that use bitters and a sweetening ingredient for balance. They are both iconic cocktails dating back to the 1800s in New York. 

Q4: Which is better Manhattan or Old Fashioned?

A: If you prefer a stronger drink with a boozy flavor, go for the Manhattan. It has a more complex flavor profile. If you like a sweeter drink, try an Old Fashioned. Both drinks can be customized to your personal preference—see variations above.

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Old Fashioned vs Manhattan

By: Drizzlemeskinny
Old fashioned sitting next to Manhattan


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