Words by: Simon Difford
The French Martini is one of a few contemporary classic cocktails that is known worldwide and enjoyed by a wide cross section of consumers – not just cocktail aficionados. And despite what you may have heard, the drink was not invented by Chambord as part of some mass marketing campaign. Although it would be hard to deny that the French Martini has done a lot for the black raspberry liqueur.
A simple combination of three ingredients: pineapple, vodka and black raspberry liqueur, but as with other simple drinks, several formulations prevail, the most popular being:
3:2:1 with 3 parts pineapple juice, 2 parts vodka and 1 part raspberry liqueur
1:1:2 with equal parts vodka and raspberry liqueur, and two parts pineapple juice
4:1:3 our favoured recipe heavy on vodka and light on the liqueur
Obviously named for its use of French raspberry liqueur and the fact that it is served in a V-shaped glass, the French Martini was invented in the late 1980s in New York at one of restauranteur Keith McNally's bars. Although it does not actually contain vermouth and is a touch on the fruity sweet side (depending on how much liqueur you add), during the late 1980s and 90s cocktail renaissance, pretty much any drink served in a V-shaped glass was named Martini.
By 1996 the French Martini was on the menu at McNally's renowned Balthazar in SoHo, New York. In London the drink was made at the Met Bar, then the favoured hangout of the glitterati and a bar which championed fruity vodka based cocktails christened 'fresh fruit Martinis'. Dick Bradsell, then Europe's most influential bartender, made me my first French Martini at London's Quo Vadis in November 1997.
Only months earlier I'd launched CLASS magazine and in the December issue's editor's letter I wrote, "My favourite Martini of the moment has to be the French Martini, a drink that looks set to be the hit cocktail of 1998. The French Martini resembles a Sex on the Beach, but without the sex - i.e. no peach schnapps or melon liqueur."
I had a newly established magazine to fund and knew that both the UK distributors of Chambord and Absolut were looking for a cocktail to promote their products. I introduced the two and designed a full-page advertisement which ran for the first time in that December issue, and ran in every issue for months after.
page 18 from CLASS magazine December 1997
Many modern day bartenders started their careers making dozens of French Martinis every night so it's understandable that it's not a drink that's revered by many bartenders. However, the French Martini has its virtues and by adjusting the proportions of the ingredients can be tailored to suit almost every palate.
The cocktail is based on one of the simplest recipes; base, modifier and juice. Modifiers like vermouth, or in this case a liqueur, burst onto the scene during Prohibition in America when homemade spirits needed to be masked. Having been so well embraced they never declined after liquor became more refined and once again legal.
Pineapple is a crucial part of the French Martini's flavour, not to mention giving the drink texture; frothy without being heavy. Ally Martin from London's Talented Mr Fox, alongside UK Chambord ambassador Frank McGivern, ran a seminar during London Cocktail Week 2014 on this cocktail, during which Ally went into specifics on the art of pineapple juice.
The problem with juicing fresh pineapples, Ally says, is the fruit tends to be picked quite young from the tree before being shipped over, meaning it's often best to buy 'not from concentrate' packaged juice rather than juice fresh fruit.
Pineapples have different levels of acidity throughout their flesh, the bottom flesh is sweeter, as is the stuff closest to the core. When juicing for a French Martini you're better off using more acidic flesh to create complexity and to balance with the raspberry liqueur as well as add body.
In the seminar at London Cocktail Week Frank and Ally recreated this iconic serve by tampering with either the base, vodka; the modifier, Chambord; or the pineapple juice.
As Frank asked of his audience "If the French Martini was made today what would be in it?"
Ally came up with three serves to update the drink.
His first was a fairly replicable twist using a base of tequila with deep fried pineapple juice, Chambord, Kamm & Sons and a dash of salted gomme to round off the drink.
French Martini 2.0
25ml Reposado tequila
15ml deep fried pineapple juice
10ml lime juice
5ml Kamm & Sons
10 salted sugar syrup (1:1 syrup with 5% salt)
The second serve played on shrubs and vinegar in cocktails, seeing Ally create a pineapple ketchup. Ketchups were incredibly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries when they acted as both preservatives and added flavour. As homemade ketchups tend towards a watery texture Ally then reduced the mixture to achieve the right thickness. This was added to a base of Bacardi 8-year-old rum, a dash of lemon juice and amontillado sherry, served as a cobbler over crushed ice.
French Martini 2.1
30ml Bacardi 8-year-old rum
10ml pineapple juice
15ml pineapple ketchup
5ml amontillado sherry
5ml lemon juice
Lastly Ally distilled Chambord down in a rotavap, effectively creating a colourless Chambord vodka which he combined with a pineapple white soy vermouth. This was stirred down and presented ice cold as a martini.
French Martini 2.2
50ml Chambord vodka
7.5ml burnt pineapple and soy vermouth
At the end of the distillation Ally was left with a Chambord concentrate; basically a sticky non-alcoholic Chambord syrup. Instead of throwing this out he combined this with pineapple juice and citric acid to create a cleansing mocktail.
Non-alcoholic French Martini
10ml Chambord concentrate (concentrate of non volatiles)
100ml pineapple soda
Which all goes to show that even the most basic, iconic cocktails need updating every once in a while. But at the heart of this scientific exploration of a drink, is a great formula to begin with. And one that won't be disappearing off menus any time soon.