How the Bamboo Became a Flex

The seemingly simple sherry classic has been transformed into a measure of bartender prowess.

On paper, a Bamboo is just a 50/50 Martini made with dry sherry in place of gin. Though simple in construction, the resultant flavor profile is lively, savory and sneaky-complex at an elegant proof—lean, but not particularly mean. Fluctuating proportions, occasional hits of sugar and bitters and varying garnishes notwithstanding, it’s also a cocktail that has mostly maintained its factory settings since emerging in the late 19th century.

Time-jump to 2020, though, and you’ll find the Bamboo fills a new, perhaps unexpected, role among a certain ilk: The demure old drink now doubles as a launching pad for bartenders who wish to dunk on their friends. The recipe has been galaxy-brained into a creative, inspiring and often-absurd declaration, a secret password of sorts that can tell one pro all they need to know about another.

“It can serve as a fun litmus test,” says Karen Fu, who tends bar at République in Los Angeles. “Within each ingredient is a specific range to play—producer, style, ratio, garnish. So it could be perceived more as a flex, deep dive or reach, to test how nerdy a bartender is.”

The Bamboo doesn’t have a particularly sexy origin story, but it does have an impressive collection of stamps in its passport. The drink is commonly attributed to German-born Louis Eppinger, who came up through the 1880s in a succession of cities in the American West, most notably San Francisco. In 1890, according to research by cocktail historian David Wondrich, he was recruited to run the show at Yokohama’s Grand Hotel, which had come under the part-ownership of some well-to-do American naval officers then stationed in Japan. For those following along on Google Maps: A Teutonic barman left California and popularized a drink comprising French and Spanish ingredients in the Land of the Rising Sun. If the Bamboo were a world traveler, it’d still be globe-trotting on those frequent flyer miles today.

The drink was popular throughout America prior to Prohibition, but it eventually slipped into obscurity. Like many other long-forgotten classics, though, the Bamboo began its gradual return to in-the-know prominence once the craft cocktail renaissance began taking hold in the early 2000s. It was around this time that American bartenders first began getting their hands on high-quality imported expressions of both European vermouth and sherry, sparking conversation around the long-lost cocktailing traditions of these low-ABV, big-flavor products. “They have robust profiles that require getting used to, but once your palate is tempered, [they’re] a bartender’s favorite friends,” says Drew Pompa, beverage director of the Top Young Hospitality group in Detroit. “And then you start going down the rabbit hole.”

The Bamboo, by dint of its makeup, is the ideal proving-ground cocktail for such exploration and experimentation. “The framework we hang our ingredients on lends itself to improvisation on the theme,” says Phoebe Esmon, bar director of The Imperial Life in Asheville. The same can be said about bigger-name classics like the Martini or Manhattan, of course, but the Bamboo’s combination of two low-proof ingredients, with a huge spectrum within each, tests not just a bartender’s acuity as a taster, but their skill at layering and combining subtle or seemingly incongruous flavors.

All of this has made the Bamboo an ideal “bartender’s handshake,” the type of drink one pro will prepare for another, serving as a greeting and artist’s statement in one. “[It’s] always a good challenge to experiment with variation, under the pressure of time, with a fellow peer,” says Fu, who emphasizes that she is beholden to her guests, and not any existing recipes or personal affectations.

Fu showed off her formidable skills in PUNCH’s recent Bamboo blind taste testher entry featured eight ingredients: amontillado, palo cortado and fino sherries, both dry and blanc vermouths, and dashes of orange and Angostura bitters (historic recipes typically call for one or the other), with a touch of specialty sugar cane syrup. “The intricacies of sherry and dry vermouth are not so much in the limelight,” says Fu, who came up with the complex build as a way to showcase some of her favorite producers.

Pompa, who’s noticed more and more industry folks calling for Bamboos in recent years, takes a similar approach, mixing and matching producers and styles to test the flexibility of the formula. “Maybe I’ll use manzanilla instead of fino [sherry], blanc vermouth instead of dry vermouth, [or] celery bitters instead of orange and Ango,” he says.

Naturally, with a drink that has found this kind of in-crowd cred, that formula gets stretched beyond its normal boundaries. Take Bar Pisellino head bartender Stacey Swenson’s Bamboo Highball, which tops the drink’s key components with tonic, or There There Co.’s Morgan Schick’s Kobra, which replaces vermouth with white port. “You can’t call it a Bamboo anymore if it’s not dry vermouth and dry sherry,” admits Schick. But to count as an “inspired by” variation, one can work with sherry- and vermouth-adjacent products (Madeira and rancio; chinato and quinquina) “and have it still lay claim to the Bamboo branch of the family tree.”

Regardless of how many liberties a bartender might take, the Bamboo’s presence on a cocktail list, in any form and by any name, now functions as something of a knowing wink from the bar to its industry clientele. “I am always excited if I see on a list,” says Schick. “It does hint at something in the sensibilities of the bar.”

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Tagged: Bamboo, sherry