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Rye vs Bourbon in a Manhattan

What is the difference rye vs bourbon in a manhattan? I've never had rye hence the question. Thanks

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  1. Well, it depends on the rye and the bourbon, but generally, rye is less sweet and more spicy than bourbon. In my experience, the spiciness of the rye plays a bit differently with vermouth than the sweetness of bourbon.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sku

      I suspect that sku is being polite. Rye (or at least high-rye bourbon) make a much better -- and more historically authentic -- drink, for the reasons he stated. I bet once you have one, you won't want to go back. Now that American straight rye is widely available again, revel in Manhattan the way it was intended.

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    2. I opine this is one of those things you have to test drive for yourself .... and if you like a Manhattan made with bourbon, then you may be pleasantly happy with the Rye.

      1. To me a rye manhattan and a bourbon manhattan are different drinks, with different characters. With the rye you will get a spicy sip which benefits from a bolder vermouth (like Punt e Mes) or a more sherry-like one (like the Spanish Vermut Lacuesta). For a bourbon manhattan with smoothness and wood, I go for sweet vermouths like Carpano Antica or Vya (when I have deep pockets) or good ole' Martini & Rossi (when my pockets are less deep). The subtle blend of the base liquors and different rossos are all kinds of fun to play with, and that's even before you get into what bitters to use.

        1 Reply
        1. re: marais

          I was just thinking of sending a query re: Manhattans because I want to explore this seeming resurgence in a semi-eclectic drink. So, what is your bourbon and rye recommendation?

        2. I definitely go more for the slightly spicy character of rye over bourbon. But an exquisite bourbon can make one heck of a Manhattan.

          Personally I think Carpano Antica is too big and sweet with that huge vanilla hit for a Manhattan. I like Cocchi Torino, Dolin, Punt e Mes, better. A few years ago I was really into the Carpano, but tastes change.

          The other night I went to Saxon & Parole in Manhattan, and had their 'draught' Manhattan., and it was so good I had three. Made with W.L. Weller 12yr, Cocchi Torino vermouth, Jon’s Leather bitters

          2 Replies
          1. re: JMF

            That Cocchi Torino is pretty darn sweet, too. I agree with you about Carpano Antica. I think a Perfect Manhattan works well with it because it has less vanilla and sugar. I think the world needs the dry vermouth sister to Punt e Mes. If only we knew someone who made infused things for a living. ;)

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            1. re: JMF

              Totally agree re: Carpano Antico, just way too big for a Manhattan. Overwhelms the drink.

              I bought a bottle and never finished it cause the only way I really liked it was straight.

            2. It turns out, if not obvious from this post, I've thought a LOT about this. So first things first, what I am saying below is generalized as there can always be environmental factors that change the game in one way or another. And to dovetail on that point, I want to state clearly that I have had non-shaken rocks "Manhattan's" out of a styrofoam cup made with Early Times, Cinzano Red, no bitters and an impossibly sweet bright red cherry that simply must cause some sort of long-term health problem if eaten in any quantity (Diabeties? Inordinate love of fruitcake?). And I enjoyed them. To be clear, I would not drink them ANYWHERE else than at someone elses tailgate party outside a college football game where it was too cold to feel my face let alone taste anything, but in that situation they hit the spot. I think this speaks to certain magical combinations that even when done with marginal--or even missing--ingredients turn out to be serviceable. For another example, See: Margarita. But this isn't about just making serviceable drinks in extreme situations.

              Given that nearly any combination of American Whisky (and probably Canadian too, less so Irish and it takes a deft hand to fiddle with Scotch--the other whiskies are too esoteric to address in this context), vermouth and/or bitters with some cherry based garnish of your choice is likely to taste okay given the prevailing circumstances and the talent of the person making the beverage, how do you choose your ingredients? Since the original question was Rye vs. Bourbon, with all else being equal, I chose Rye. Why?

              I'd choose Rye in the hands of a Master Mixologist, but I'd also choose Rye in the hands of an aspirational home bartender when given a choice. I just think Rye is a little more forgiving. But before talking about Rye, I'll talk about why often Bourbon isn't as easy to work with. In many cases, the ingredients on hand are not the first choice, top-of-the-line, boutique version. Bourbon can be "sweet." Caramel, apricot, peach, vanilla etc. are often invoked in describing Bourbon. Put a "sweet" vermouth on top of that along with a ridiculous cherry and you've got sweet on sweet on sweet. Sometimes only that dash or four of bitters, if you get them, saves this from being a cloying sweet libation. Do the same thing to a Rye and the results aren't going to win you any bartending awards but things immediately get better. Then, if you want to throw down the duckets for great vermouth, good bitters and some hand-crafted cherries...things will only get better.

              As noted by SKU above, Rye generally has more "spicey" components and fewer "sweet" components in realtion to Bourbon. Of course, how old the Rye or Bourbon might be alters this greatly and we could all spend the next year debating Mash Bills vs. Ageing vs. Barrel Charring vs....a whole lot of things. I think that since red vermouth has a naturally sweet profile regardless of brand, some more than others, Rye allows for a wider birth in terms of the other ingredients and making a great cocktail.

              Laslty, I think EvergreenDan made a great point in mentioning that originally, this cocktail was made with Rye. Bourbon, while maybe having some longevity on its side, is not the way the drink was first crafted. The enduring nature of the Manhattan has a lot to do with things other than Rye vs. Bourbon, but when possible I think it is useful to make the drink the way it was originally made. Sometimes, it will blow your face off, in a good way.

              7 Replies
              1. re: ellaystingray

                Great post. Good info and very fun to read. Have you played with the Perfect Manhattan? It's a different way to address the sweet-on-sweet aspect. Plus it was my grandfather's drink, even though I barely remember him. Some eat to remember; I like to drink to remember.

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                1. re: EvergreenDan

                  My two cents on the "Perfect" Manhattan: I've tried making them many times, and have wound up with some pretty decent drinks. But I've never managed to create a truly GREAT Perfect Manhattan. I think this is due to the sour element that dry vermouths bring to the mix.

                  A Manhattan -- in my opinion at least -- should be silky smooth, and all about the depth of whiskey and spice flavor carried along by the undercurrent of sweetness. Add sourness into that equation and you've now added new sensations to the mix. Instead of being a smooth sipper the drink turns very slightly sour, which totally changes the vibe--from big and deep to more pointed, and punchy*. I just don't think it works.

                  (* wow, it is amazingly difficult to come up with proper adjectives to describe these things. Huge respect to people who successfully do this for a living!)

                  1. re: davis_sq_pro

                    I too find a slightly off note in a perfect manhattan -- I've sometimes wondered if this was because I'd let my dry vermouth go off, but I don't really enjoy them even from a newly-opened bottle. I recently picked up a bottle of the Martini "Rosato" vermouth, and have enjoyed making manhattans with it -- its a little like having a pre-mixed vermouth for making perfect manhattans, but the off note you mention is not so pronounced. Admittedly, I've been making these with 80-proof ryes and bourbons -- I'm not so sure how it would stand up to a 100-proof whiskey (or, god help us, Handy or Stagg -- when I make a manhattan with the Handy, I use Carpano Antica and let the titans battle it out in the glass).

                  2. re: EvergreenDan

                    I have. And I found similar results to Davis until I cheated and used Martini and Rossi Bianco, as opposed to just the standard dry/white. If you haven't played with this stuff it is fun and inexpensive and sort of finds this nexus between the "sweet' and "dry" versions of basic vermouths.

                    I honestly don't use it much for cocktails per se (though just talking about it makes me want to more), but love me a Bianco and soda with lime and a dash of Angostura on those mornings where I am not feeling so "fresh."

                    1. re: ellaystingray

                      I really like mine with a little bit of dry vermouth to reduce the sweetness.

                      I also know that I do a poor job in the care/feeding of my vermouth. What exactly do y'all do to keep a bottle for a while? Fridge? Vacuum top?

                      1. re: ted

                        fridge for a few months, and use with 6-8 weeks.

                        1. re: ted

                          The vac-u-vin + refrigeration seems very effective.

                  3. Sounds like my next Manhattan will be a rye Manhattan! Next question is do I order a specific rye or do I take my chances with whatever the house pours. Note: assume I'm ordering from a bartender and not a mixologist - meaning they will probably have a limited number and won't be top-top shelf. What's a good rye that a typical bar would have on hand?

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: BatMan

                      I would definitely ask by name. Otherwise you risk getting a Canadian whiskey, which a lot of people refer to as "rye" even though most of them don't have any rye in the mash bill. That said, I couldn't say which ryes are common at bars, since in my experience most bars either don't have it at all or have a pretty good selection... Feel out the bartender and see if he or she can make a recommendation. If not, stick with beer.

                      1. re: davis_sq_pro

                        Last night I ordered one at a restaurant without specifying the spirit. It was kind of fun to try and determine what the bartender used and I guessed rye. I had notified they had Old Overholt behind the bar when walking past (does everyone find themselves unconsciously scanning the bar and taking inventory when out?), but I knew it wasn't that from experience. I knew it wasn't Rittenhouse or wild turkey either. It wasn't particularly bold, but I was still thinking rye. I was stumped. Sure enough, I get the bill and it ended up being Canadian Club. I was mildly surprised that that was their default Manhattan whiskey, but it wasn't bad at all.

                      2. re: BatMan

                        You could also ask what their "well" rye was -- at least around me, it's often visibly Jim Beam Rye or Old Overholt, both of which are fine. There are much better ryes, but neither of them IMHO plumb the depths that cheap bourbon often does.

                        Also, if you are somewhere and they have Bulleit Bourbon, it's a high-rye Bourbon with a nice spice kick and makes an excellent Manhattan. (I'm not too fond of the Bulleit Rye, which I find is kind of bland.)

                        1. re: antimony

                          I think bulleit rye is nice as a sipper but don't use it as a mixer, not really enough spice to hold up. It is odd that their Bourbon actually seems a little spicier than the 95% rye.

                          My favorite mixing ryes are Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse 100.

                          1. re: antimony

                            And another point in regard to ordering out, I think it is NEVER a bad idea to engage the person making your drinks. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Then watch how long she or he takes to make your drinks vs. others in the bar. Fundamentally, people behind bars lilke to make people on the other side of the bar happy and if they know you are an enthusiast, at any level, you are almost always going to drink better.

                          2. re: BatMan

                            If you do not specify a rye around these parts, you often get Old Overholt. It's a solid rye but lacks character. It's a great value at $11 and is preferable in drinks where you want the other ingredients to shine (like a Brooklyn).

                            Ask to see what they have. Great options are Rittenhouse 100, Sazerac 6, Willet 110 -- but these are usually only ordered by cocktail bars and less by regular bars.

                            Also, figure out whether the bar's vermouth is out of date. Do not be shy about asking them to open a fresh bottle if you think it's past its prime. If they refuse, switch to beer. Same if they don't have bitters. Part of the wonder of the drink is how the sweet vermouth soothes the rough edges of the whiskey and how the bitters ties together the herbal elements in the vermouth and the spiciness of the rye's grain and barrel aged notes.


                          3. My brother got me into this mess. He's been a cocktail throwback for as long as I can remember and I couldn't stomach the sweet cloying drink he habitually ordered when we were all out dining together. Then on a whim, I ordered a Barreled Manhattan at Girl & the Goat and the heavens parted.

                            Soon I was on a quest for an in-home Manhattan that a died-in-the-wool Martini guy could enjoy. I tried Redemption Rye with Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth 2:1, Angostura bitters and W&S Maraschinos. They were good, very drinkable; the brittle spicy Rye cut through the sweetness of the M&R and balance was achieved, but not greatness. Then I tried the Masterson's Rye and it was very, very good, but not sustainable.

                            So then I upped the ante with Carpano Antica vermouth and suddenly it was too austere and not quaffable, more contemplative. I suspected too many bitter elements were at play and sought out another slightly sweeter whisky to fill the role of alcohol donor. I tried out various other Ryes, but they just didn't fit the bill.

                            High West BouRye performed quite admirably, but a shame to lose such a good whisky in the mix of a cocktail. I reserve that ingredient for special times. I sought out the HW Son of a BouRye, but no local availability. Finally, I settled on my current favorite recipe.

                            Fill a Double Old Fashioned glass w/ cracked ice
                            2 dashes of Angostura bitters over the ice
                            spear 2 Luxardo cherries and drizzle some syrup over the ice
                            fill with 3:2 Redemption High Rye Bourbon and Carpano Antica
                            stir well; rinse and repeat


                            1. For those of you who have it available in your market, I can also recommend the High West 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan. Maybe not quite as good as you can make at home yourself, but really convenient for taking as a host gift to a party. The best Manhattans I've ever had have been at local restaurants and bars that barrel their own. IMHO, you just can't get the same smoothness and depth of flavor at home as you can from the ones which are barreled for 90 days or more.