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The difference between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan: These two classic cocktails, explained

The differences between the old fashioned and manhattan

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It’s okay if you don’t know the intricate differences between classic whiskey-based cocktails. Unless you’re an avid home bartender or professional mixologist, no one will fault you for not knowing how to make a Sazerac, Boulevardier, Mint Julep, or any other whiskey-based drink. Also, don’t worry if you don’t know the differences between the two most well-known whiskey cocktails: the classic Old Fashioned and beloved Manhattan.

This is because these two drinks, on the surface, seem very similar. Both are made with whiskey and have some of the same ingredients, but they are surprisingly different in flavor and appearance.

Old Fashioned
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What’s in each drink?

When it comes to iconic drinks, the only cocktail that even comes close to the popularity of the classic Old Fashioned is the Manhattan. A favorite of bartenders and drinkers alike, the Old Fashioned is made simply with bourbon or rye whiskey, a sugar cube, Angostura bitters, and water. That’s it. The Manhattan, on the other hand, is made with rye, Canadian or bourbon whiskey, sweet red vermouth, and Angostura bitters.

On the surface, the drinks seem very similar. They’re very boozy, whiskey-driven drinks without a lot of ingredients to get in the way. But, while seemingly subtle, the differences are enormous.

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How are they different?

Both drinks are made with whiskey. While you can make the Old Fashioned with rye whiskey to give it a peppery kick, many drinkers prefer the drink’s base to be the sweet corn flavor of bourbon. The Manhattan is most often made with rye whiskey, giving it a spicier flavor profile.

Another difference between the two is the ingredient designed to be a sweetener. The Old Fashioned leans into the sweetness of the bourbon with muddled sugar (or simple syrup if you go that route). The Manhattan gets its extra sweetness from the use of sweet red vermouth. This adds a spiced, herbal, rich flavor to the drink.

Also, these two drinks are served in very different glasses. The Old Fashioned is served in the classic Old Fashioned glass, and the Manhattan is served in a Martini, Cocktail, or Coupe glass.

Old Fashioned
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How are they the same?

Even with potentially different whiskeys, these drinks are similar because both have a whiskey base. This means that barrel-aged flavors like caramel, vanilla, oak, and spices will be found in both. Also, while both drinks have different sweeteners, they both have a critical ingredient in common. They both use bitters, specifically Angostura bitters.

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What are bitters?

The one thing that brings both of these classic cocktails together is the use of a few dashes of Angostura bitters. If you’ve ever taken a look at the cocktail menu at your favorite bar and you’ve spent time looking at the ingredients in the mixed drinks, you’ve likely seen the term “bitters.” There’s also a chance that even though you see the word often, you might not even know what bitters are. That’s okay. We’re here to help.

In the most basic terms, cocktail bitters are highly concentrated tinctures featuring various flavors, herbs, roots, botanicals, and spices. Many bartenders referred to cocktail bitters as the salt and pepper of the mixology world. These flavor-packed ingredients are used in small amounts to round out the flavor profile. Oh yeah, they also contain alcohol as well. And not just a little alcohol; they typically have between 35-45% ABV.

Angostura Bitters
House of Angostura

Why Angostura bitters?

As we mentioned before, cocktail bitters are the one ingredient (besides whiskey) that ties these two iconic drinks together. If you want to get into specifics (and we do), the bitters used in this cocktail (except for when bartenders put their own spin on it by using other bitters and ingredients) are Angostura bitters.
Made by the House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago, Angostura bitters don’t contain any Angostura bark. These bitters got their name because they were originally produced in the town of Angostura in Venezuela.

Although the official recipe is secret, these bitters are made with various herbs, spices, botanicals, and gentian. While often used as an ingredient in cocktails (like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan), if you were to taste Angostura bitters on their own, you’d find them to be spicy and bitters with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices.

Alcohol bottles
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Picking the suitable spirit base

The most fun thing about home bartending is that you can put your spin on your favorite cocktail. While the official recipe for the Old Fashioned calls for bourbon or rye, you can make it with anything you want. Single malt Scotch whisky makes for a unique Old Fashioned, as does mezcal, dark rum, or añejo tequila.

Whiskey purists will say that you can’t make a Manhattan with anything but a rye whiskey, but if you have Canadian whisky, Irish whiskey, or any other whiskey on hand, give it a try.

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
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