The Manhattan is a classic cocktail for a reason — with its simple mix of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, it’s a strong and elegant drink that’s perfect for pretty much any occasion. While rye is the standard whiskey to use, there are quite a few imbibers who prefer bourbon in their Manhattan. There’s certainly nothing wrong with mixing bourbon into the classic, though it will give the cocktail a touch of sweetness, while rye provides a beautiful savory touch. Either way, in order to mix a well-balanced drink, you have to choose the right spirit for the job. So we chatted with 13 bartenders to get their picks for the best bourbon for a Manhattan. Take it from us — you can’t go wrong with one of these bottles the next time you stir up the classic. (And while you’re at it, check out our list of the best bourbons for an Old Fashioned, too.)
“If I am picking a bourbon to go into a Manhattan, I am probably going with Four Roses Single Barrel,” says Bill Whitlow, the owner of Rich’s Proper. “I like for the base spirit to shine through in a boozy cocktail like a Manhattan. Its light spice and oak are great notes, and the medium-rich body holds up well as an affordable base.”
“When I use bourbon in a Manhattan, I prefer Angel’s Envy,” says Christine Wiseman, beverage director of Bar Lab hospitality. “It is finished in Port casks, so it gives off some dark fruits and a bit of spice that you may find in a rye. I also like that it tastes a bit lighter, so it’s enjoyable in the Bar Bedford lobby with the windows and doors open.”
“Michter’s Bourbon works really well in a Manhattan because the rich, dark cherry and sorghum notes contrast the herbaceous notes of sweet vermouth,” says Randi Densford, the beverage director of Barn8 Farm Restaurant & Bourbon Bar. “I also think it works well because of its proof. This allows the vermouth to blend with the bourbon for a perfect cocktail.”
Sommelier and mixologist Mercedes Cowper of Round Robin Bar at Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C. agrees. “The bourbon I would suggest is Michter’s Bourbon because of its wintergreen bite (from the rye mash), mellow citrus and baking spice flavors like vanilla, toffee and toasted almonds — which hold up its flavor profile amid the sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters of the cocktail,” she says.
“While I find myself constantly trying new things rather than sticking to a particular favorite, Michter’s Bourbon has long been a safe play for a bourbon Manhattan,” Albert’s Bar manager Rocco DiLillio consents. “It plays well with most vermouths and bitters while still maintaining a classic bourbon profile.”
“Manhattans are such a versatile and classic cocktail,” says James Henry, bartender at The Brown Hotel. “When it comes to choosing a bourbon-based Manhattan, I prefer a rye-based bourbon such as Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond. It’s 100 proof, robust and smooth — ideal for a spirit-forward cocktail.”
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“Mention a Manhattan in any bar, and the first ingredient the bartender will reach for is rye whiskey,” says Maurice Taylor, bar supervisor at the Brenton Hotel. “Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon goes just as well. Full-bodied, rich in color and smooth, Elijah Craig provides a non-overly sweet taste that doesn’t mask the other ingredients.”
“Achieving the perfect balance in a Manhattan necessitates a profound comprehension of the ingredients involved,” says Jason Asher, founding partner and VP of beverage for Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment. “The vermouth’s style (and origin) plays a crucial role in determining the ideal base whiskey for your cocktail. Lately, my go-to choice has been high-rye American Bourbon when crafting a Manhattan. Brands like Basil Hayden Bourbon possess a high-rye mash bill that provides a robustness needed to complement a generous serving of sweet vermouth. Opting for high-rye bourbons eliminates some of the guesswork, as they contribute both fruity and spicy notes to the drink. This flexibility allows for a broader selection of vermouths to be incorporated, ensuring a harmonious and well-balanced final cocktail.”
“As a traditional Manhattan is made with rye, I never like a bourbon alternative to stray too far into the corn mash bill territory,” agrees Robert Struthers, beverage director at Gair. “Too much corn, and the drink ends up flabby and saccharine to my palate. To that end, the go-to bourbon that we reach for at Gair for Manhattans is Basil Hayden. Kentucky loves to keep its mash bills close to the vest, but the palate of Basil has the distinct white pepper characteristic of rye while still maintaining a quality bourbon’s exceptional roundness and vanilla-oak characteristics.”
“My grandfather taught me how to make a Manhattan with bourbon, and he favored Wild Turkey 101,” says Abigail Gullo, creative director at Loa Bar in the International House Hotel. “I like Willett Pot Still Reserve bourbon for the same reason — at 94 proof, the spirit stands up to the vermouth. Willett has beautiful notes of creamy vanilla and bright spicy citrus that play so nicely with the botanicals in a rich vermouth. And Willett has one of the coolest bottles on the shelf! Gramps would surely approve.”
“I am always going with Wild Turkey 101,” says Brenda Riepenhoff, head bartender of Thief LES. “The extra alcohol level helps it to really maintain its structure when used in a cocktail. I love when my bourbon brings me memories of the farm I grew up on when I take a sniff and can smell the dusty corn and other grains. Wild Turkey brings that!”
“To complement the cocktail created in and named after our great city, I prefer to reach for a local whiskey,” says Jonathan Badaracco, general manager of STATE Grill & Bar. “My bourbon of choice when making a Manhattan is Bright Lights, Big Bourbon by Hudson Whiskey NY. Made from New York corn, it has a smooth flavor. Plus, using New York whiskey truly makes any drink better, in my opinion.”
“I love to use a slightly higher-proof bourbon whiskey, 45% or more with a high-rye content in the mash bill, such as Woody Creek Bourbon from Colorado,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, author of The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails. “For my Manhattan, I prefer a whiskey that stands up to a big vermouth, such as Cinzano 1757. My Manhattan must be well stirred, icy cold and served straight up. The higher proof stands up to the dilution, while the higher rye content supplies the spice and complexity to balance the vermouth and bitters.”
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