The Manhattan is easily the most famous of the cocktails named after New York’s five boroughs and by far the best. A carefully balanced mix of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters, with a cocktail cherry garnish, it is a timeless masterpiece.
As with many of the so-called “classics,” the Manhattan seems to inspire dogmatic debate among the cocktail cognoscenti — namely over whether rye or bourbon should be used. To them, we say: Use what you damn please. But if it’s historical accuracy you seek, reach for rye, no ifs, ands, or buts.
The problem with this debate is the detraction from a more pertinent discussion: which vermouth to choose. It’s easy to overlook this component of the cocktail, as vermouth is cheaper than whiskey; the options at most liquor stores are generally fewer; and given the fortified wine’s lower ABV content, it’s easy to dismiss vermouth as a supporting actor at best. The latter may be true to some degree, but for as long as the Academy Awards continue to dole out golden statues for the role, we will continue to argue the importance of choosing the right vermouth for your Manhattan.
In this case, the golden rule is that the bottle should be a sweet style of vermouth, made with red grapes, and infused with an array of spices. Beyond that, it’s a case of diving into the details.
The myriad styles, profiles, and countries of origin of sweet vermouth actually make the whiskey selection seem simple by comparison. This is why we took on the task of tasting more than two dozen bottles to highlight the best of the best.
Without further ado, here are the nine best sweet vermouths for your Manhattan, tasted and ranked.
9. Noilly Prat Rouge
Twenty-nine different herbs and spices sourced from around the world contribute expressive aromas to this French vermouth. When mixed in a Manhattan, the vermouth’s herbaceous character elevates the rye whiskey’s dill pickle aromas. This is a solid pick for mixing textbook versions of this timeless cocktail. Average price: $12.
8. Cinzano Vermouth Rosso
Serving the classic vermouth profile of rich fruit, dried herbs, and complex bitterness, Cinzano Rosso is a budget-friendly option that over-delivers for its price tag. (So midweek Manhattans are covered.) Stirred with rye and bitters, the vermouth kicks in some fruity character and boosts the body of the drink. Overall, it allows the rye to shine. Average price: $8.
7. Contratto Vermouth Rosso
Produced in Piedmont, Italy, this is a vibrant sweet vermouth with noticeable fruity and floral character. Those flavors and aromas make it an ideal candidate for Highballs made with mineral water or tonic, but then you’d be depriving yourself of a lean, expressive Manhattan that’s perfect for warm- weather cocktail hour. Average price: $27.
6. Vermouth Routin
Like a decadent winter dessert bottled as aromatic fortified wine, Vermouth Routin exudes notes of fruit cake, brown sugar, and baking spices. Slightly fuller-bodied than other sweet vermouths, it lends the Manhattan a plush, velvety texture. Meanwhile, its confectionery character riffs wonderfully against the spiced Angostura bitters. Average price: $21.
5. Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino
Before you pull out the jigger and ice, it’s clear this vermouth is going to make a killer Manhattan. Distinct vanilla aromas promise to complement those gained by the whiskey during maturation, while its bittersweet palate is sure to serve as the perfect match for Angostura. Those predictions are soon confirmed, though what is surprising is just how effective this vermouth is in allowing the rye whiskey to shine. When you’re pulling out that baller bottle and willing to mix it in cocktails, look no further than Cocchi. Average price: $20.
4. Antica Torino Vermouth di Torino
This is another stellar example of an incredibly floral and aromatic sweet vermouth. The palate starts sweet, but is soon kept in check by a complex bitter finish. While its aromas suggest it may be a step too far for such a delicately balanced cocktail, this vermouth delivers a Manhattan that is more perfumed than you ever imagined possible. This is as close as you will get to a summer version of a spirit-forward, stirred whiskey drink. Average price: $29.
3. Carpano Antica Formula
Carpano Antica’s excellence is almost abstract: It serves the archetypal sweet vermouth profile, but with extra layers and nuance — like drinking a great bottle of red wine that’s spent some time in a decanter. Just as it does when mixed in a Negroni, Carpano Antica hits all the notes you’d expect from a classic Manhattan but dials them up a notch. The result is a cocktail that delivers all that you crave, and then some. Average price: $33.
2. Punt e Mes
The name Punt e Mes translates to “point and a half,” and loosely refers to the vermouth’s composition: one part vermouth, half a part intensely bitter liqueur. The latter “part” really stands out. This vermouth is exceedingly bitter, with pronounced wormwood, herbs, and spice notes. Punt e Mes mixes a notably dark Manhattan that looks like an aged oloroso sherry. Despite this being a distinctly bitter vermouth, it integrates seamlessly with the Angostura bitters and the rye, providing an added layer of textural complexity in a cocktail that grabs your attention. If you want to tone things down, mix ½ ounce each of this and one of the other bottles on this list, in place of 1 full ounce of Punt e Mes. Average price: $23.
1. Vermut Lustau
Most producers promote their proprietary mix of herbs and spices when marketing their vermouths. However, this blend of nutty amontillado and luscious Pedro Ximénez sherries proves that a high-quality base wine is just as important. It seems a crime to mix it in a Manhattan until you taste the cocktail. Rich and decadent — even before the cherry enters the equation — the bite of rye is present, but it’s softened by the Lustau. In spite of the vermouth and Angostura, there’s no hint of bitterness here, nor does the cocktail stray too sweet. This combination is balance, exemplified. Average price: $21.
Published: November 27, 2020