Why Bourbon Doesn't Make The Best Manhattan, According To A Whiskey Expert

A Manhattan is a simple, boozy cocktail that combines two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, and a couple dashes of Angostura bitters. It is garnished with a brandied cherry and traditionally served in a coupe glass. Because this libation is so streamlined, the key variation in taste comes from opting for rye or bourbon. The best spirit for the job seems to be up for debate, but for Chris Blatner, Executive Bourbon Steward and creator of @‌urbanbourbonist on Instagram, there is a clear winner.

In Blatner's view, rye whiskey clearly makes the best Manhattan because it "offers the best flavor and balance to go along with sweet vermouth." Rye tends to highlight notes of warm spices and pepper, and a dry rye whiskey does an excellent job of lending balance to the sweet vermouth. On the other hand, bourbon just tends to be too sweet. A Manhattan already has plenty of sugar from the sweet vermouth, so bourbon can tip it totally out of balance. However, Blatner does admit that a bourbon Manhattan could be the "perfect dessert drink" for those who like cocktails on the sweeter side.

What is the difference between rye and bourbon?

The vast difference between whiskey and whisky has a lot to do with where the spirits are made, but both rye and bourbon are American styles of whiskey. Bourbon must come from the United States. Rye can technically be made in other countries — though the style is still associated with the States. Both require aging in new charred oak barrels, but the key differences are in the mash. Bourbon has to have at least 51 percent corn among its mix of fermented cereal grains, and rye must contain 51 percent or more rye grain.

Though the flavor profiles of both can vary significantly, rye whiskey tends to have a heavily spiced, peppery, and earthy flavor with background notes of vanilla and caramel. Bourbon often delivers more of a sweet and caramelized flavor with hints of chocolate, maple, honey, dark fruits, and subtle spice. If you tend to like bourbons but still want some balance in your Manhattan, Chris Blatner suggests seeking one out that has at least 36 percent rye in the mash.

What is the best rye whiskey for a Manhattan?

Chris Blatner's favorite whiskey for a Manhattan is the Pinhook Flagship Rye. Blatner explained to Food Republic, "It changes in flavor profile from year to year but maintains a throughline of some flavors like clove, black pepper, anise/licorice, and cinnamon that work well in a Manhattan." Made in Frankfort, Kentucky, the grain mash has a blend of 60 percent rye and 20 percent each of corn and malted barley. A bottle will run you close to $43, but Blatner has some budget-friendly suggestions too.

He also really likes Old Overholt Bonded or Wild Turkey 101, which will both cost somewhere between $20 and $27 a bottle. Just because these options are more economical doesn't mean that they won't taste great. "They are all-time classics that can also go head-to-head with many of their higher priced counterparts," Blatner notes.

As with any spirit, what tastes great in a Manhattan will come down to your own personal preferences. It can be intimidating to order whiskey at a bar like you know what you're doing, so do not be afraid to ask for guidance from the bartender or shopkeeper. Telling them what flavors and qualities you have enjoyed in the past can help them get you on the right track.