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What is a Manhattan?

When Scotch is used in place of rye whiskey, the drink becomes a Rob Roy.
A jigger is used to measure alcohol to make a Manhattan.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2014
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The Manhattan is considered one of the oldest and most classic cocktails, and was first made in the 19th century. There are differing accounts on who can be credited with the drink’s invention, and exactly when the drink first appeared. The drink was certainly popularized by the 1870s when it was served at a banquet given by the mother of Winston Churchill, Lady Randolph Churchill.

The banquet did take place at the Manhattan Club, and it did prompt many to order or serve the drink thereafter. Yet there is evidence the drink may have been created before Lady Churchill’s banquet, and that recipes for the drink may date back to the 1860s. The name does suggest origin in New York City.

There are several variations to the basic Manhattan, but the standard recipe as proposed by the International Bar Association (IBA) is the following:

Traditionally the drink components are stirred over ice, not shaken, and then poured, minus the ice into a standard cocktail glass, where it receives its cherry garnish.

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The drink has numerous variations. People can substitute different types of whiskey for rye whiskey. When Scotch is used the drink becomes a Rob Roy. Bartenders may also differ on what types of vermouth to use, and also choose different bitters. If you order the drink “dry,” you’ll receive a Manhattan that uses dry rather than sweet vermouth, and a “perfect” style of the drink uses equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. Changing the base alcohol can still produce a similar drink, but these will each have distinctive names.

For instance, a Brandy Manhattan would use brandy rather than rye whisky, and a Cuban version uses rum with both dry and sweet vermouth. Other drinks that are similar in construction include Womanhattans, which uses grenadine rather than vermouth. The David Byrne makes use of Irish whiskey instead of rye whiskey and is served with a twist rather than garnished with a cherry. Sake Manhattans are an unusual variation on the basic drink, and substitute sake for vermouth.

The drink has remained popular for over a century, but it got a special boost in popularity when it became the drink of choice on the HBO show Sex and the City. The four main characters of the show frequently ordered Manhattans and the drink became synonymous with style, luxury, great shoes, and girl power. Similarly, when the characters began drinking cosmopolitans, these too became more popular throughout the US.

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