Ever since the Espresso Martini staged its prodigious comeback a few years back, the neon-green Appletini has risen from the dead, followed by the blushing Lychee Martini and the ribald Pornstar Martini in its wake. It was only a matter of time before the coy French Martini, which is neither French nor an honest Martini, awoke from its beauty sleep, inspiring its own legion of riffs. After all, as “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff notes in The New Craft of the Cocktail, the French Martini is “one of the sparks that got the cocktail-as-Martini craze started.”
A straightforward build of vodka, pineapple juice and Chambord, the French Martini traces its origins to 1996 New York City when DeGroff himself put it on the menu at restaurateur Keith McNally’s Pravda. It wasn’t until it was added to the menu at McNally’s Balthazar in 1997, however, that the Big Apple darling really took off.
While nowhere near as ubiquitous as the Appletini, the French Martini graced the lips of some of the most discerning drinkers of the ’90s. In Difford’s Guide, Simon Difford recalls Dick Bradsell, “then Europe’s most influential bartender,” serving him his first in London in 1997. Rumor has it, the drink even won over the refined French palate. “I have it on some authority, from a rearrived ex-pat, that the drink was popular a few years ago in Paris, on the bar row of the Rue de Lappe,” New York Times writer William L. Hamilton divulged in his Sunday Styles column dedicated to the drink in 2003. Of course, the drink wasn’t universally beloved. “I remember getting orders for it, but I don’t remember it being super popular,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, an esteemed Portland-based bartender and author who worked in Eugene, Oregon, in the ’90s.
By the time the craft cocktail movement took hold in the mid-aughts, however, no ’tini stood a chance. Bartenders swiftly distanced themselves from the candy-like drinks of the era—Lemon Drops, Kamikazes, Midori Sours—favoring quality ingredients and “balance” as markers of a newfound seriousness.
But like many of its brethren, the French Martini—one of the last ’tinis to be resurrected—is now enjoying a second life. The way many bartenders see it, the drink has harmonious components; its main flaw is an absence of acidity. Nick Hartigan of Dreamland in Seattle addresses this imbalance by marrying the French Martini blueprint with that of the Breakfast Martini. “I wanted to put a juicy and crushable sour that can stand up to the onslaught of Bloody Marys and Mimosas during brunch,” he says of the drink, which is composed of gin, Chambord, lemon and local raspberry jam. In the Riad Star at Manhattan’s Chez Zou, meanwhile, pomegranate juice replaces the raspberry liqueur, Kashmiri chili-infused Everclear bestows heat, and aquafaba adds texture, resulting in a spicy spin on the French Martini. “On paper, I do love the flavors,” says bar manager Joey Smith of the traditional recipe. “But in its purest form, it’s kind of flabby.”
Elsewhere, bartenders hew more closely to the classic format. In Lorain, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, Speak of the Devil bolsters the classic components with lemon juice—for that extra acidity—and simple syrup. At Bar Rufus, the Rand Tower Hotel’s new lobby-level bistro conceived by prolific Twin Cities restaurateur Daniel del Prado, La Frenchie trades the Loire Valley liqueur for raspberry ferment. The French Martini that recently appeared on the menu at Houston’s Refuge, too, honored the original’s build. “We just wanted to make a really good one without being too serious about it,” says bartender Máté Hartai. Determined to preserve the spirit of the classic—something that could “be on a menu in 1995,” according to Hartai—he swapped out the Chambord for Black Forest raspberry liqueur and raspberry brandy, serving the ’tini in an oversized V-shaped glass.
Though it has yet to secure the juggernaut status of its ’tini siblings, the modern French Martini is ready to restore its reputation as a drink that does not have to be serious to be seriously delicious. “All the ’tinis have negative connotations in the nerd cocktail culture, which is sad,” says Hartai. “You forget that fun is actually supposed to be fun.”