Two Men Walk into a Bar (a pre-prohibition mixology quiz)


The year is 1895.  Two men walk into a bar anywhere in the U.S.A.  Man ‘A’ orders a Whiskey Sour.  Man ‘B’ orders a Manhattan Cocktail.  Both men finish their own drinks and neither has anything else.  They pay the bill and leave.  Which man has consumed more alcohol?  I will give this one bit of additional information – though it could not affect the answer if two different bottles of whiskey were used, let us stipulate that both drinks were made with whiskey from the same bottle.  Feel free to leave your answer as a comment here, or to send it to me via e-mail.

7 thoughts on “Two Men Walk into a Bar (a pre-prohibition mixology quiz)

  1. Is this a trick question? Both men would have had 2 oz of alcohol, but the guy who had the cocktail would have had a tiny amount of extra alcohol from the bitters.

    1. Hey Michael, that would be the answer if the question were worded so as to ask who had the most total liquor (the vermouth and bitters can count as liquor since they both contain distilled alcohol). But the question wasn’t about the total volume of liquor…. Which man has consumed more alcohol/ethanol?

  2. Ah, then they’ve had ALMOST the same amount of alcohol, but the “Whiskey-Sour-Man” has had more (at least 0.8 oz). Even at 3:1 whiskey:vermouth, “Manhattan-Cocktail-Man” has only had about 0.68 oz alcohol plus the bitters. At 1:1 whiskey:vermouth, it would be about 0.56 oz plus the bitters. (I hope I’m not wrong again. That was too much math…)

  3. Hey Michael! You actually did the math! I am impressed! Yes, in 1895 any American bar would’ve made a Whiskey Sour with 2 fl-oz. of whiskey (probably about 50% alcohol) and the Manhattan Cocktail with 1 fl-oz. of whiskey and 1 fl-oz. of sweet vermouth (about 18% alcohol). So, even without doing the math, one can see that the Whiskey Sour had more alcohol. Very good, Michael!

  4. I’m a little late to this one, but the recipe for the “Manhattan Cocktail” published in Harry Johnson’s 1888 “New & Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual” lists the Manhattan as follows:

    1 dash gomme syrup
    1 dash orange bitters
    1 dash Curacao
    2oz whisky
    2oz vermouth

    It wasn’t until the Savoy cocktail book of 1930 that the manhattan became historically known as being just 1/2 sweet vermouth and 1/2 rye whiskey (Harry Craddock actually listed 4 different recipes for the manhattan in the book, but only 1 stuck.

    If they made it this way, the 2oz of whisky put in a whisky sour didn’t have nearly as much alcohol as this manhattan.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I love being challenged on my scholarship. It gives me impetus for checking and sharpening my pre-prohibition point of view.

      Looking at the book itself, I find that the recipe for the Manhattan Cocktail from Harry Johnson is not as you have submitted. I would be interested to see an image of the actual page of the book you quoted from. I suspect that modern unfamiliarity with the wine-glass as a unit of measure has caused some confusion. See the definitions below for clarity.

      The Banquet Book by Cuyler Reynolds published in 1902 gives: “Wineglass – the contents are equivalent to two ounces.”

      The Oxford English Dictionary (both the 1928 and the current edition) gives: “Hence ‘wineglassful, the contents of a full wine-glass; the amount that a wine-glass will hold, usually reckoned as 2 fluid ounces.”

      I am going to quote a good number of pre-prohibition recipes for the Manhattan Cocktail. I will give them in chronological order, and you can find Harry Johnson’s from 1888 below. Please note that the majority consensus from these sources is that the Manhattan Cocktail was made with 1 fl-oz. each of whiskey and vermouth. Harry Johnson’s recipe from 1888 actually calls for 1 fl-oz. of whiskey and 1 fl-oz. of vermouth, since the actual text specifies half a wine-glass of each.

      O.H. Byron – The Modern Bartenders’ Guide – 1884

      Manhattan Cocktail, No. 1
      (A small wine glass)
      1 pony French vermouth.
      ½ pony whisky.
      3 or 4 dashes Angostura bitters.
      3 dashes gum syrup.

      Manhattan Cocktail, No. 2
      2 dashes Curaçoa.
      2 “ Angostura bitters
      ½ wine glass whisky.
      ½ “ Italian vermouth .

      Fine ice; stir well and strain into a cocktail glass.

      [As can be seen, there is twice as much vermouth as whisky in Byron’s Manhattan Cocktail, No.1. That would be 1 pony, or 1 fl-oz., of vermouth and ½ pony, or ½ fl-oz., of whisky. His Manhattan Cocktail, no. 2 has equal parts (“ means ditto the word from the line above) whisky and vermouth. Note: Byron mis-spells Curaçao, as was common at that time.]

      Dick & Fitzgerald – Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide – 1887

      Manhattan Cocktail
      (use small bar glass)
      Take 2 dashes of Curaçao or Maraschino
      1 pony of rye whiskey.
      1 wine-glass of vermouth.
      3 dashes of Boker’s bitters
      2 small lumps of ice.
      Shake up well, and strain into a claret glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If the customer prefers it very sweet use also two dashes of gun syrup.

      [As can be seen, the 1887 book posthumously ascribed to Jerry Thomas gives its Manhattan Cocktail recipe with twice as much vermouth as whiskey – as did Byron’s Manhattan Cocktail, No. 1 from 1884. Note: Dick & Fitzgeral mis-spell Curaçao, as was common at that time.]

      Harry Johnson – New And Improved (Illustrated) Bartender’s Manual – 1888

      61. MANHATTAN COCKTAIL
      (Use a large bar glass.)
      Fill the glass up with ice:
      2 or 3 dashes of Gum Syrup;
      1 or 2 dashes Bitters; (Boker’s genuine only);
      1 dash of Curaçoa (or absinthe if required);
      ½ wine glass of Whiskey;
      ½ wine glass of Vermouth;
      stir up well, strain into a fancy cocktail glass, squeeze a piece of lemon peel on the top, and serve;
      leave if for the customer to decide whether to use Absinthe of not. This drink is very popular at the present day.

      [As can be seen, there are equal parts of whiskey and vermouth in Johnson’s Manhattan Cocktail. Harry Johnson’s recipe contains 1 fl-oz. of whiskey and 1 fl-oz. of vermouth. Note: Johnson mis-spells Curaçao, as was common at that time.]

      William Boothby – American Bartender – 1891

      MANHATTAN COCKTAIL
      Into a small mixing glass place one-quarter teaspoonful of sugar, two teaspoonfuls of water, three drops of Angostura, one half-jiggerful of whiskey, and one half-jiggerful of vermouth; stir, strain into a small bar glass, twist lemon peel and throw in and serve with ice water on the side.

      [As can bee seen, there are equal parts (half jiggerful, or 1 fl-oz.) of whiskey and vermouth in Boothby’s Manhattan Cocktail from 1891. Note: Boothby mis-spells teaspoonsful.]

      George Kappeler – Modern American Drinks – 1895

      Manhattan Cocktail
      Fill mixing glass half-full fine ice, add two dashes gum syrup, two dashes Peyschaud or Angostura bitters, one half-jigger Italian vermouth, one half-jigger whiskey. Mix, strain into cocktail glass. Add a piece of lemon peel or a cherry.

      [As can be seen, there are equal parts of whiskey and vermouth in Kappeler’s Manhattan Cocktail. In the beginning of the recipes in his book Kappeler defines “A jigger is a measure used for measuring liquors when mixing drinks; it holds two ounces.” He also states that “A pony holds half a jigger.” Note: Kappeler mis-spells Peychaud’s.]

      William Boothby – The World’s Drinks and How To Mix Them – 1908

      MANHATTAN COCKTAIL
      Into a small mixing glass place two dashes of Orange bitters, two drops of Angostura bitters, half a jiggerful of Italian vermouth and half a jiggerful of Bourbon whiskey; stir thoroughly, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, twist and squeeze a piece of lemon peel over the top and serve.

      [As can bee seen, there are equal parts (half jiggerful, or 1 fl-oz.) of whiskey and vermouth in Boothby’s Manhattan Cocktail from 1908. Note: Boothby has changed his recipe for this drink since 1891, and is the oldest source I know of that explicitly uses Bourbon whiskey in the Manhattan Cocktail. Boothby capitalized “Orange” in orange bitters.]

      A.S. Crockett – The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book – 1935
      (this book was published by Crockett, but from the book of recipes compiled in the Waldorf Bar between 1893 and 1919.)

      MANHATTAN
      Dash of Orange Bitters
      One-half Italian Vermouth
      One-half Rye Whiskey (stir)
      Serve with Maraschino Cherry

      MANHATTAN No. 2
      Two dashes Orange Bitters
      Two pinches Sugar
      One-half Italian Vermouth
      One-half Irish Whiskey

      [As can be seen, the Waldorf Bar recipes for the Manhattan Cocktail both contain equal parts whiskey and vermouth. The Manhattan No. 2 in this source had its own pre-prohibition name: the Rory O’More Cocktail – and that is what I feel it should be called.]

      I think that the above collection of recipes establish that the standard, normal proportions between whiskey and vermouth in a pre-prohibition Manhattan Cocktail was equal parts of 1 fl-oz. each.

      Now, to be fair, William Schmidt published a recipe for the Manhattan Cocktail in 1892 that specified “⅔ drink of whiskey” and “⅓ drink of vino vermouth.” This would mean 1-⅓ fl-oz. of whiskey and ⅔ fl-oz. of vermouth – since the jiggerful was considered the appropriate amount of total liquor per drink of any type. Schmidt’s 2:1 Manhattan Cocktail is the earliest recipe that uses more whiskey than vermouth – unlike all other books from his era. But Schmidt’s Manhattan Cocktail still has less alcohol than his Whiskey Sour, because his Whiskey Sour contains a full drink of whiskey (2 fl-oz.).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s