Typically when we look at the cocktail origins we look for the first listing in cocktail recipe books and we look for first reference anywhere else we can find it.
First Printed Recipes
Earliest written recipes for the Manhattan are in three books from 1884. The more well-known is:
Byron, O. H. (1884). The modern bartenders’ guide: Or Fancy drinks and how to mix them. Containing … directions for mixing all kinds of cocktails … juleps … punches, lemonades, and pousse cafes, together with complete directions and receipts for making all kinds of domestic brandies, beers, wines, cordials, extracts and syrups. New York: Excelsior Publishing House.
The second one is: Winter, George. (1884). How to mix drinks: Bar keepers’ handbook. [New York].
The third one is: (1884) Scientific bar-keeping; a collection of recipes used by leading bar-keepers in making standard and new fancy mixed drinks, and reliable directions for preserving native and foreign wines, ales, beer and liquors
With two recipes showing up in books on the same year, it’s unlikely that it is the same year of its invention so we expected to find references to the drink earlier than 1884.
Cocktail lore tells us that the Manhattan came to be in 1874 at the Manhattan Club. The Manhattan Club was a club for politicians and politically-interested people in the Democratic party established in 1865. We found no evidence to corroborate the date or place of origin and some of the claims don’t work out given the dates and circumstances.
The earliest reference we did find was in Palmer house company. (1883). Palmer house, Chicago: The Palmer house company, Potter Palmer. Willis Howe, managing partner. Chicago: W.J. Jefferson, steam printing house. It is listed on the menu, but we aren’t compelled to believe this is the point of origin either
We heard references to an article from 1882, which would be the earliest mention, but we couldn’t locate that particular article.
So all together we were unable to pinpoint the history of the Manhattan. It is certainly possible given the timeline that it does come out of the Manhattan Club in the 1870s, but we can’t find any documentation that specifically makes this claim. But it is also conspicuously absent from earlier cocktail recipe books. The best we can say is that it is extremely likely it originated in New York with a strong possibility that the bartender serving the Manhattan Club is the original creator.