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Every cocktail has a story. In celebration of Bourbon Heritage Month, we talked to drinks historian Elizabeth Pearce to better understand how the Manhattan became one of the most popular cocktails in the world. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t invented by Winston Churchill’s mother. 

Elizabeth Pearce


Q: How do you make your Manhattan cocktail?

Pearce: I usually don’t make it. I order it — with rye and Carpano vermouth.  And I like it up.

Q: Why not bourbon?

Pearce: Bourbon is probably an older recipe. I just like mine with whiskey.

Q: So who invented the first Manhattan?

Pearce: There’s no definitive answer. But I can tell you where it didn’t come from. Phil Greene’s book “The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail” debunks a couple of theories. Despite rumors, Winston Churchill’s mother did not invent the Manhattan. There’s also a New Orleans connection. Col. Joe Walker of New Orleans was rumored to have invented it, but it’s unlikely.

Q: So where did it most likely come from?

Pearce: The earliest mention of the Manhattan is from an 1882 upstate New York newspaper. Different social clubs in New York were serving a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters. The drink was named after the different clubs like the Turf Club cocktail, Jockey Club cocktail and, ultimately, the Manhattan Club cocktail.

Q: Is there an agreed-upon Manhattan recipe?

Pearce: The general consensus is whiskey, vermouth, bitters and garnished with a lemon twist. But there were so many variations of vermouth and bitters that there isn’t a true original recipe. 

Q: What made it so popular?

Pearce: The introduction of vermouth. Most of the original cocktails consisted of a spirit, bitters, sugar and ice. But when more European people began immigrating to the United States, they brought what they liked to drink. By the 1880s, bartenders started using vermouth to modify traditional cocktails. And people seemed to really like mixing vermouth with whiskey.

Q: Our Manhattan recipe calls for an orange twist garnish. Are you team orange twist or team cherry?

Pearce: Oh, I like a cherry because they’re fancy. But earlier Manhattan cocktails were more likely to use an orange or lemon — probably because you would’ve had more citrus at your bar. 

Q: If you had to describe the Manhattan in three words, what three would you choose?
Pearce: Brown. Bittered. Stirred.

Q: Do you have any secret Manhattan tips?  

Pearce: I like what’s called an Upside-down Manhattan. Instead of the classic one-to-one ratio of whiskey and vermouth, it calls for a two-to-one ratio of vermouth to whiskey. 

Q: Yeah, the Manhattan is pretty much all alcohol.

Pearce: Right. Also, why not explore other mixers? Why not put a dash of curacao in there? That brings a lot of flavor without bringing a lot of alcohol to an already boozy drink. 

Q: Finally, why has the Manhattan remained so popular all these years?

Pearce: First, it’s really good. Second, it’s simple. All you need is a few ingredients. So when Prohibition happened, you had a lot of cocktail parties popping up. The simpler cocktails were easier to make when you had people over. And that hasn’t changed. Did I mention that it’s really good? 


Discover even more about cocktails like the Manhattan at Elizabeth Pearce’s monthly tasting at the Sazerac House. You can also check out her cocktail tours of New Orleans and subscribe to her Drink & Learn podcast. 


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