The Manhattan: The History Behind The First Modern Cocktail

Arguably one of the most important cocktails of all time, to truly understand the significance of the Manhattan, we need to look back on the history of the island it was named after and its transformation throughout the 1800s.

In the middle of the 19th century, the island of Manhattan was quickly becoming one of the most significant and influential places in the world. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, marked a shift in power between New York City and New Orleans and began a transition in the way people and goods moved throughout the United States of America. [1] Within 15 years of the canal’s opening, more goods were moved through the New York City port than the ports of Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined. By the mid-1800s, New York had become the epicentre of America and was seen as a land of hope and prosperity.

Manhattan Cocktail History - Travelling on the Erie Canal by Henry Inman 1825Travelling on the Erie Canal 1825 // IMAGE: Henry Inman

In search of jobs and opportunity, twelve million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900. New York was at the heart of this immigration, with over 70% of immigrants entering the United States through New York City, earning the title ‘The Golden Door’. [2] A large majority of people arriving were European, predominantly English, German, Irish and Italian. In the 50 years between 1850 and 1900, the population of the state of New York more than doubled from 3 million to over 7 million. [3] There was now a new, multicultural, and diverse New York.

Manhattan Cocktail History - Group of immigrants by Wladyslaw T Benda 1890-1934Illustration of a group of immigrants in 1890 // IMAGE: Wladyslaw T. Benda

Although immigrants from all over Europe moved to New York, the unification of Italy in 1861 saw a significant increase in Italian immigration, especially from southern Italy, and by 1930, Italians made up 10% of the United States’ foreign-born population. [4] Census data recorded the rise in the number of New York residents born in Italy, from 417 in 1850 to 642,446 by 1930, many finding a new home in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy neighbourhood. [3] Italian immigration to New York had a significant cultural impact on the growth of the city, but none more important to cocktail history than the introduction of Vermouth.

Vermouth is an aromatised fortified wine, preserved with distilled spirit, sugar and various botanicals for complex, herbal flavour and a vastly improved shelf life. The process of preserving and flavouring wine is thousands of years old with evidence of these practices found in Jiahu, China, dating back to the Neolithic period (6200BC-5600BC). The first modern vermouth was created in Turin, Italy in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carparno and the drink quickly found widespread popularity in Europe. Although there is evidence to show that early American settlers were creating vermouth-like products for personal consumption there was no commercial-scale vermouth production in the United States until the 1890s. [5] Emilio Franchi showcased the first American-made vermouth at the World’s Colombian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. [6]

Manhattan Cocktail History - A History of the World's Columbian Exposition Held in Chicago 1893Exhibit of the United States Department of Agriculture at the World’s Colombian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 // IMAGE: A History of the World’s Columbian Exposition Held in Chicago

Very small quantities of commercially-made European vermouths started to appear in the United States as early as 1836, mainly sold through apothecary stores due to the belief that the drink had medicinal properties. In 1853, The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was held in New York City, the first World Fair held in America, and among the Animal and Agriculture stands there were four representatives from Italian companies showcasing their vermouth. One of these representatives was Giuseppe Carpano (the nephew of Antonio - the man who invented modern vermouth). While the increase in popularity of vermouth was not immediately obvious after this showcase, due to the growing cultural diversity of New York City and a desire for a more “modern drink than mere whiskey or beer”, vermouth would find its way into the hands of American bartenders in the 1860s.

With the rise of the population and increased wealth, grand hotels, social clubs and concert saloons also arrived in New York City. These establishments showcased a growing hospitality industry and the new creative approach to bartending of the time. [7] In 1862, Jerry Thomas wrote the first bartenders guide How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion which opened the profession to the masses, leading to the rise of celebrity bartenders. [8][9] The bars and saloons of New York City were at the forefront of this new golden age of bartending.

Manhattan Cocktail History - Jerry Thomas authored the first bartenders guide in 1862Jerry Thomas authored the first bartender's guide in 1862. His signature drink was the Blue Blazer, a cocktail he'd light on fire and pass back and forth between two glasses to create a blazing arch // IMAGE: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion

The Manhattan cocktail first appeared in print in 1882, when a newspaper in Olean, New York noted “It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters came into vogue. It went under various names: Manhattan cocktail, Turf Club cocktail, and Jockey Club cocktail.” Though the exact details surrounding the creation of the cocktail remain speculative to this day, there are a number of stories that lay claim to the origin of the iconic drink.

For a while, it was believed that the drink was invented at New York City’s Manhattan Club in 1874 for a party thrown by socialite Jennie Jerome, a Brooklyn native and mother of Winston Churchill, who was celebrating the election of Samuel J. Tilden as the state’s Governor. [10] This story was supported by an article published in 1945 by columnist Patrick Murphy which claimed the banquet dinner was preceded by a drink made of “American Whiskey, Italian Vermouth and Angostura Bitters." [11] Though the drink may have been served at the banquet, it is unlikely that this was its origin. It is also unlikely that Jennie Jerome was involved - Murphy’s article notes the banquet was held on 29 December 1874 and Jennie gave birth to her son on 30 November 1874 in England and was at his christening at Blenheim Palace on 27 December, two days before the dinner. [10]

A more likely story comes from the 1923 edition of Valentine’s Manual Of Old New York, in which bartender William F. Mulhall, who worked at New York City’s Hoffman House, is quoted as saying the Manhattan was invented in the 1860s by “a man named Black who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway”. He added that the Manhattan was “probably the most famous drink in the world in its time”. Cocktail historian David Wondrich’s original research turned up historical records of a George Black who owned a bar called the Manhattan Inn close enough to Houston Street to fit the story, although it was in the 1870s, not 1860s. [10]

Regardless of its origin, it is hard to dispute the importance of the Manhattan cocktail. The combination of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters not only represents the history unfolding in the United States at the time of its creation but also ushered in a new wave of classic cocktails. This led to the Manhattan being thought of as the first ‘modern cocktail’. While early recipes call for whiskey or American whiskey, the cocktail was traditionally made with rye whiskey as it was the most popular and accessible style at the time. The use of vermouth is not only a reflection of Italian immigration but also, arguably, the most significant advancement in cocktail creation since the introduction of accessible ice. The success of pairing vermouth and whiskey inspired the creation of the Martinez, a cocktail mixing gin with sweet vermouth and in turn led to the creation of a drink mixing gin with dry vermouth, the most ubiquitous cocktail in the world, the Martini.

Although the ingredients and ratios have varied slightly over time, the core of the Manhattan cocktail and its popularity has stayed consistent. The first written recipe for a Manhattan can be found in O.H. Byron’s 1884 book, The Modern Bartender’s Guide, which has two recipes - one calling for French vermouth and the other Italian. The same book also includes the first Martinez recipe below the Manhattan recipe, stating “Same as Manhattan, only you substitute gin for whisky”. [12] Two other references to the drink can be found in How To Mix Drinks by George Winters and Scientific Bar-Keeping published by E.N. Cook & Co, both also written in 1884. [13][14] Although early Manhattan recipes called for additional ingredients, such as gum syrup, absinthe and curacao, and some recipes even call for Canadian or Scotch whisky, over time the Manhattan has evolved into a drink made from 2 parts American whiskey (traditionally rye) and 1 part sweet vermouth with a few dashes of bitters (traditionally Angostura). In terms of garnish, the first reference to serving a Manhattan with a garnish can be found in the 1887 second edition of American and Other Drinks by Charlie Paul, where the recipe says to “put a small piece of lemon on top” and the first reference to a cherry garnish, which has since become the iconic garnish of the Manhattan, was mentioned in 1895 by George Kappeler in his book Modern American Drinks. [15][16]

Manhattan Cocktail History - The Modern Bartender's Guide by O. H. Byron 1884The first written recipe for a Manhattan in 1884 // IMAGE: The Modern Bartender's Guide by O. H. Byron

Modern Manhattans can be enjoyed in a number of ways - they can be served up in a coupette, on the rocks, with a citrus twist, a cherry, or both. The drink has also inspired a number of riffs, many named after the other boroughs of New York City, including the Bronx, a drink resembling a Martinez with the addition of orange juice and orange bitters and first appearing in
The World’s Drinks and How to Drink Them by William Boothby in 1908, and the Brooklyn, a Manhattan riff with the addition of amer picon and maraschino liqueur that first appeared in Jack’s Manual by Jacob Grohusko in 1908. [17][18] Modern classic iterations of Manhattan riffs include the Red Hook, a riff on the Brooklyn created in 2003 by Vincenzo Errico at Milk & Honey in Manhattan; the Little Italy, a Manhattan riff created in 2005 by Audrey Saunders for the opening of Pegu Club in Manhattan; and the Greenpoint, another Brooklyn riff, created by Michael McIlroy in 2006 at Milk & Honey.

The impact of the growing influence of New York City in the 1800s, the immigration that introduced new cultures and ideas, as well as the pinnacle of American bartending during the first golden age of cocktails, are all captured in the first sip of a Manhattan. No drink is more symbolic of class and sophistication and its influence on modern bartending is unparalleled.

MAIN IMAGE: Immigrants walking across the pier at Ellis Island, NY, 1909-1932 // PHOTO: Library of Congress

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[1] Erie Canal, NY

[2] Immigration to the United States, 1851-1900

[3] New York Migration History, 1850-2018

[4] The Great Italian Arrival

[5] Ford, A (2015) VERMOUTH: The Revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture, Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont

[6] Johnson, R (1897) A History of the World’s Columbian Exposition Held in Chicago in 1893, D Appleton & Company, New York

[7] Difford's Guide A Brief History of Cocktails

[8] The Golden Age Of Cocktails

[9] The Golden Age Of Cocktails

[10] Wondrich, D (2015) Imbibe! Updated and Revised Edition: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to Professor Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, Penguin Randomhouse, New York

[11] BUCKEYE TAVERN, "Patrick Murphy's The Barman's Corner," 15 March 1945, pg. 6, col. 2

[12] Byron, O.H (1884) The Modern Bartenders' Guide, or Fancy Drinks and How To Mix Them, Excelsior Publishing House, New York

[13] Winters, G (1884) How To Mix Drinks: Bar Keepers' Handbook, New York 

[14] Gibson, J.W (1884) Scientific Bar-Keeping, E.N. Cook & Co, Buffalo, NY

[15] Paul, C (1887) American and Other Drinks, McCorquodale & Co, London 

[16] Kappeler, G (1895) Modern American Drinks, The Meriam Company, New York

[17] Boothby, W (1908) The World’s Drinks and How to Drink Them, Pacific Buffet, San Francisco 

[18] Grohusko, J.A (1908) Jack’s Manual, Edward V. Brokaw & Bros, New York