Why the Manhattan Cocktail is a Metaphor for Great Strategy

The precise origination of the Manhattan cocktail is unclear. Was it created at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the early 1870s at a political banquet or invented at a noted bar on Broadway? The commonality among every story? It was invented in Manhattan and used American whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters.

The universal truth of the Manhattan is that it’s a delicious classic cocktail that has stood the test of time for more than 100 years.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could say the same thing about our business strategy?

Let’s talk about what the Manhattan teaches us about strategy.

Readily accessible ingredients

The Manhattan is made from American whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. Ingredients found at almost any bar, large or small, in America.

Good strategy is similar. The more you rely on exotic ingredients for success, the less likely you are to be successful.

Easy to make

The Manhattan is an easy ratio (2 parts whiskey to 1 part vermouth and a dash or two of bitters). You simply add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker, stir and strain into a glass. Basic techniques that require no skill or practice.

Good strategy relies on the clear execution of some key steps. Every new thing you have to learn, every complicated procedure that has to be implemented increases the likelihood of making a mistake.

Hard to wreck

I’ve had Manhattans on the rocks, up and in all types of glasses. A little too much or too little whiskey or vermouth and it’s still a solid drink.

Highly precise business strategy where everything has to work exactly right creates a great deal of risk. You want to give yourself some room for play, mistakes or frankly just trying something different.

Easy to teach

I’ve taught people from high school kids (appropriately supervised of course) to bartenders in other countries to trade show staff how to make a Manhattan in under 5 seconds.

Good strategy is something that’s easy to explain and teach so that others on your team can run with the ball successfully.


There are dozens of variations of the Manhattan. Change the ratios (I prefer 3 to 1 whiskey to vermouth). Use scotch instead of American whiskey and it’s a Rob Roy. Use brandy and it’s a Brandy Manhattan (and you’re probably from Minnesota or Wisconsin).

The point? You should be able to alter your strategy to adapt to changing circumstances without strategically altering the basic focus of what you’re trying to do.


At home, I make two Manhattans at the same time. I simply double the amounts and use the same ratio. Now my second drink is ready and I don’t have to repeat the procedure. At a party, if two or four people want me to make a Manhattan, I simply increase the amounts.

Good strategy is similar. You should be able to scale it up or down based on market feedback and your level of success. For example, if everything is going great at the chapter level, how do you make it a national program quickly and easily?

The final point? When you drink a Manhattan, you’re proud of your choice. You hold in your hand a 100+ year old classic cocktail made from American whiskey not some crappy generic white wine.

When all is said and done, you should be proud of your strategy and excited to share it with staff, volunteer leaders and members. If not, go back to the drawing board and check the ingredients and how you’ve put them together.

So when you review your strategies in the future, simply ask yourself, “Does it pass the Manhattan Test”?

Here is the traditional recipe for the classic Manhattan cocktail.

Traditional Manhattan

2 parts solid quality American rye or bourbon

1 part sweet vermouth (high quality vermouth is a better investment than expensive whiskey)

1 – 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Put all ingredients into a cocktail shaker then stir (Yes STIR, don’t shake) until chilled

Strain into a glass either up or over rocks

Here’s a riff I’ve made at association events when the basic ingredients are lacking.

Dean’s Convention Manhattan

You’ll eventually need two glasses, one with just whiskey and one with ice.

  1. Ask for 1 standard glass (glass 1) of whatever whiskey they serve at the reception (Jack Daniels is common). No ice.
  2. Have the server put a little of the fake cherry juice from the garnish buffet (just a bit to sweeten) into the whiskey in glass 1. Figure a teaspoon.
  3. Ask for a second glass with just ice, about ½ full.
  4. Pour the whiskey/cherry juice from glass 1 over the ice in glass 2 and stir for a 10 count with a cocktail straw.
  5. Using your finger or the straw, hold the ice in glass 2 back while pouring the sweetened whiskey into glass 1. By straining you make sure the drink doesn’t get diluted as you wander around networking.
  6. For the bitters, I add a tiny part of my failed dreams.

Learning to make and enjoy good cocktails provides us with many lessons.

Perhaps the most important lesson, though, is simply to take time out of each day to enjoy life.

Next month we’ll get more serious as we talk about why we can’t get our volunteer leaders or executive team to use data to make better decisions. This will be based on one of our white papers and my recent talk titled Insights to Action presented at September’s Higher Logic Users Group Conference.

Until next time my friends, cheers from my seat at the bar.