The Sweet Difference Between Old Fashioned And Manhattan Cocktails

You'd be hard-pressed to find two cocktails more classic than an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. They're sexy, sophisticated, and respectable — saying "I'm sophisticated, probably even more sophisticated than you," with just a glint of the glass. In fact, the Old Fashioned used to just be called a "whiskey cocktail" then was eventually shortened to "old fashioned whiskey cocktail" and finally "old fashioned." The Manhattan also has a cool historic name — "the perfect cocktail." They're perhaps the two most well-known whiskey drinks in the mixology repertoire, and they're both pretty basic — stirred, and not infused with any flavored syrups, shrubs, egg whites, or sour mixes. There is, however, one key difference that separates these cocktails: the way they're sweetened.

Old Fashioneds are sweetened either with a sugar cube or simple syrup. (Under no circumstances should you be stirring a spoonful of raw demerara sugar into your Old Fashioned, unless a gritty undissolved mouthfeel is your thing.) Manhattans, on the other hand, are sweetened with sweet vermouth, a type of fortified wine which, despite its namesake, really isn't all that sweet. Sweet vermouth is made from red grapes and infused with spices and herbs, adding earthy notes and depth — moodiness, even. If an Old Fashioned drinker wears a leather jacket, the Manhattan drinker wears leather loafers. Here's why this single ingredient makes such a difference.

Choose your fighter: Sugar or spice

The Old Fashioned cocktail is made from a base spirit of rye or bourbon, with Angostura bitters and either a muddled sugar cube or simple syrup. Conveniently for busy bartenders, the sugar cube is muddled with a little water right in the bottom of the glass, no shaker necessary. To finish, Old Fashioneds are garnished with an orange twist and served over a single large ice cube in a rocks glass. For a sweeter version, the Brandy Old Fashioned variation features a cherry-orange-sugar muddle.

Unlike the Old Fashioned, Manhattans are stirred with ice and then strained into the glass. A traditional Manhattan cocktail combines rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, and sweet vermouth. It's served in a Nick & Nora or coupe glass and garnished with a brandied or Luxardo cherry. (Seasoned bartenders might also hit the rim with an orange peel oil wash, then discard.)

Both are great drinks for showcasing a top-shelf whiskey if straight-up isn't your thing. Sugar is sugar, which more or less keeps Old Fashioneds pretty consistent. But, the type of sweet vermouth you select will make a pretty significant difference in the overall flavor profile of your Manhattan. If you prefer some spiced depth, Antica Torino Vermouth di Torino is a solid option with floral, aromatic flavor notes of wormwood, gentian, rhubarb, vanilla bean, rosemary, and a bitter finish. Or, Vermut Lustau makes a killer nutty, cherry, fortified sherry wine for foodies with a sweeter flair.