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The French Martini isn’t really French. It’s not really a Martini, either, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The cocktail is French in the way that French toast is French, the way the Paris hotel in Las Vegas is French. It is, in a word, not.
Admittedly this doesn’t matter very much—that it was once among the most popular cocktails in America is true whether it originated in Marseilles or Mississippi—but it’s always good to know what you’re dealing with. It’s a compelling name. A French Martini? How sophisticated can a thing get? There was a time when the phrase French Martini hit the ear like “caviar truffles” or “diamond pearls,” and indeed, there were several different cocktails trading by that name as early as the 1970s until Chambord, vodka, and pineapple juice stepped in and took over the whole show.
Chambord is a raspberry and blackberry liqueur invented by an American named Norton “Sky” Cooper in or around the early 1980s, inspired, he claimed, by a 17th century French recipe for a berry liqueur that was a favorite of Louis XIV himself, and which, as with Bénédictine, it appears there’s no law against just saying stuff like that and hoping no one asks any follow-up questions. Cooper was from Philadelphia but loved France. His father had bought the liqueur maker Charles Jacquin et Cie, Inc. after Prohibition, and he was no stranger to the marketing magic the French culture had over Americans. He set up a factory in the Loire Valley (not far from the majestic Château de Chambord, from which he took the name) so that it could be “made in France,” and it’s still made there today of raspberries and blackberries, spiked with honey, Cognac, citrus, and vanilla.
The French Martini follows a similar logic. It’s unclear when it was invented or by whom, but it shows up in New York City in 1996, and starts a craze. Until then, the word “Martini” almost exclusively referred to a spirit-forward mixture of gin or vodka, possibly with vermouth. The previous “French Martinis” were subtle tweaks on the classic mold, while this one, the one that would become famous, obliterated it. It’s vodka, pineapple juice, and Chambord, not a Martini by any stretch of the imagination, but kept the name anyway, and the V-shaped glass for good measure. In his Craft of the Cocktail, Dale DeGroff calls it “one of the sparks that got the cocktail-as-Martini craze started.”
Revisit the French Martini 25 years later, and the biggest surprise is not just that it’s still delicious, but how versatile of a template the recipe is. You can put Chambord in there, of course, and it’s juicy and fleshy and sumptuous with vanilla, but the combination of vodka and pineapple juice can do a lot more. You can use creme de cassis, for a sharper, more adult French Martini, or you can go rogue and put Aperol in there, or Campari, or Benedictine, or Cynar. Or Chartreuse, for that matter, or ginger, or falernum. You can do almost anything. The worst thing it’ll be is insufficiently complex (vodka, tasting like nothing at all, sometimes has this problem). The fact that it’s about as French as French Stewart is immaterial. It’s delicious. Isn’t that what matters?
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake good and hard for about eight to 10 seconds. Strain up into a conical glass (if it can have a zig-zag stem, all the better), and garnish with a piece of pineapple, or a raspberry and/or blackberry on a pick, or both, or neither.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Vodka: Not to sound dismissive, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest what brand of vodka you use for this drink. Use your favorite—it’ll be perfect. The only thing I’ll add is that if you want to keep with the “let’s make it French to suggest refinement even though there’s no French culture of producing this thing at all,” you can use Grey Goose.
Berry Liqueur: I have been very unkind to Chambord in the past, and I wish to recant. Well, a little anyway. Chambord is 16.5 percent alcohol, which is certainly enough alcohol to stop it from rotting, but not quite enough to fortify it against the ravages of time and oxidation. While a crusty old bottle of Chambord that’s been open for years is a relatively unpleasant experience, the fresh Chambord purchased for testing this recipe was lovely—juicy, ripe, and luxuriously sweet. It makes a very tasty French Martini (up the measure to 0.75 oz. if using Chambord), and this is the version that took the world by storm 27 years ago.
That said, I have to say personally I preferred Creme de Cassis, which is an (actually) French liqueur made from the small tart cassis berries, and which gives depth and acidity as well as tart contrast to the pineapple juice in the build. But as mentioned, I also liked Creme de Mure, and Aperol, and Benedictine. Use whatever you’d like.
Pineapple Juice: Some cocktails, like a Piña Colada, have so much going on that canned pineapple can convincingly hide behind the other ingredients. This is not one of those cocktails. The difference between a good French Martini and a bad French Martini is that the good ones use fresh pineapple juice.
Acidity: Pineapples have some variance in sweetness and acidity, so it’s possible you’ll need an extra pop of citrus, and possible you won’t. I’ll say a good squeeze of lime or lemon was enough when it was needed. You don’t need much, just a touch, just to stop the finish from being too cloying.