Nearly 20 years after the 1990s ended, ephemera of the decade has emerged from the loam like flannel-clad cicadas. Bucket hats, Friends and international trade wars are back—and so are novelty Martinis.
This American drinking micromoment, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was powered by dessert vodkas and saccharine fruit liqueurs, deployed to populate a kaleidoscopic parade of fill-in-the-blank-tinis, led by its grand marshal, the Appletini.
Though it’s often bundled with the Gotham-born Cosmopolitan, this combination of vodka and DeKuyper Apple Pucker was a product of the West Coast. The defunct Hollywood bar Lola’s—“the Tigris and Euphrates of apple Martini culture,” according to a 2000 New York Times feature—is believed to be the inventor of the clubby classic, distinguishable by its sour candy sweetness and traffic signal–green hue.
It’s easy to turn up one’s nose at such a dated offering in the midst of an era that values liquid erudition on both sides of the bar, but writing off the Appletini entirely does a disservice to a mixture that clearly spoke to a large number of people. “Why wouldn’t it be popular?” asks Paul Taylor, head of bar concepts for the Washington, D.C.–based Drink Company, whose holdings include Columbia Room, Reverie and the pop-up concept PUB. “Martinis are good. Apple, [people] know and like that flavor. It’s pretty easy to see why that drink was successful.”
But that doesn’t mean Taylor is stocking his backbars with fifths of Slimer-colored Pucker. Instead, at Columbia Room, he’s included a high-minded rendition of the Appletini on his “So Bad It’s Good” tasting menu that reimagines derided drinks of the era, like the Midori Sour and Long Island Iced Tea. Stirring together clarified apple juice, calvados, Cognac and a manzanilla sherry aromatized in-house, the drink would fit in at just about any modern cocktail bar. In a clever nod to the OG blueprint, however, Taylor tints his Appletini with spirulina, and adds a cheeky flourish by manipulating cinnamon and jalapeño essential oils into an Atomic Fireball–like “cherry” sphere, dyed red by beets.
He’s not the only bartender currently inspired by the ’tini template, either. In Charleston, South Carolina, Gin Joint owner James Bolt also gets his share of Appletini requests. “I certainly see the appeal and believe there’s a time and place for every drink,” he says. His Through the Woods puts a craft spin on the formula: Apple whiskey and hard cider syrup provide the fruit-note, without the pucker, while Pineau des Charentes, oloroso sherry and cardamom bitters play up the autumnal flavors. Elsewhere, Taylor’s Columbia Room colleague Tom Martinez prepares a coconut-infused gin for the base of The New New Steady, an upmarket coconut Martini that leans more savory than sweet thanks to the addition of olive bitters.
Chicago bartender Kristina Magro, for her part, looks to the iconic Lycheetini for inspiration in her Suit and Tie, which complements a gin—rather than vodka—base with lychee liqueur, manzanilla sherry and a dash of absinthe. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Paul MacDonald builds his Pomegranate Martini outward from pomegranate molasses, which contributes “a beautiful, silky texture.” To balance the fruit’s inherent acidity, he adds “a lot of dark, bitter flavor” by way of American brandy, oloroso sherry and bracing Italian amaro.
Hewing more closely to the dessert-like nature of the original ’tini craze, back on the West Coast, Los Angeles bartender Justin Campbell’s The Benevolent reads like an Espresso Martini by way of Mexico. Tequila, egg white and mole bitters blend with the expected cold-brew coffee, as well as Averna amaro.
“These cocktails came into existence for a reason,” explains Taylor, of the drinks’ inevitable return. “Maybe they just need some retooling to be appreciated today.”