Salvatore Calabrese got the idea for his most famous cocktail, the Breakfast Martini, at, well, breakfast.
One morning in 1996, Calabrese’s wife, Susan, was enjoying her customary marmalade on toast. Impatient with her restless husband for not pausing for breakfast, she insisted he sit down and have a slice himself.
“The bitter, tangy flavor of the orange marmalade played with my taste buds,” recalled Calabrese, a native of Italy and by then already a veteran of the London bartending scene. At the time, he was working at the Library Bar in The Lanesborough, a luxury hotel in the city’s upscale Belgravia neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. “After trying it on the toast, I took the marmalade to work with me to experiment with.”
He paired a barspoon of the bittersweet jam with one and two-thirds ounces of gin—in keeping with the English culinary theme. To this, he added a half-ounce each of Cointreau and lemon juice to lend the drink its sweet and fresh components, respectively. “I did try it with simple syrup, but it was too sticky and sweet,” he explains. “The Cointreau, being more punchy, instead added more complexity.” In a playful nod to the marmalade, he called the sour the Breakfast Martini.
Calabrese’s old friend and colleague, Peter Dorelli, formerly of the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel, was there when he was toying with the formula. “We had a few tastings and I thought it was delicious,” remembers Dorelli. “Apart from it tasting good, the name itself stands out and is one that everybody can relate to—the name creates a picture.”
It didn’t take long once Calabrese put the drink on the Library Bar menu for it to attract notice. “It was so unique and unusual that it sparked the customer’s interest” almost immediately, he says. “So much so that people were asking for it as soon as we opened the bar at 11 a.m.” (The Breakfast Martini, it seems, was indeed a breakfast Martini from the get-go.)
Part of the quick success of the Breakfast Martini—indeed, maybe all of it—can be attributed to Calabrese’s novel use of jam as an ingredient. Though he wasn’t the first bartender to do so (people have noted a similarity between the Breakfast Martini and the 1930 Marmalade Cocktail from The Savoy Cocktail Book), in the 1990s, nobody—not even Calabrese until that point—was working with preserves.
“At the time, for me, the Breakfast Martini was a revelation,” says publisher Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom, who began visiting the Library Bar in 1998. “It was so easy to drink with a hint of sweetness, yet elegant and approachable.” Boehm’s family, which owned Sterling Publishing Company, played a key role in popularizing the drink. In 1997, Sterling published Calabrese’s first book, Classic Cocktails, in which the Breakfast Martini was included.
To help launch the book in the United States, Calabrese picked as the venue the most high-profile cocktail bar in the country: the Rainbow Room in Manhattan, where Dale DeGroff, America’s most famous bartender, reigned supreme.
“It went down like a storm,” recalls Calabrese, “although Dale was skeptical at first when he knew I wanted to make a cocktail with marmalade.” One can hardly blame DeGroff—the cocktail was pre-batched in large amounts for the party and dissolving a sizable amount of marmalade in gin is no easy task. “He was not amused,” remembers Calabrese.
Attending the book launch was Gary Regan, then one of the most prominent cocktail writers in America. Soon after, he interviewed Calabrese about the drink on his syndicated radio show, “The Happy Hour,” further spreading the word about the new drink. Within a year or two, friends were sending Calabrese menus from around the world featuring the cocktail, including drink lists from airlines like Emirates and Virgin. (Some bars that served the drink gave it an unusual garnish: a piece of toast. It was a trend that can be traced to DeGroff, who first added toast to the recipe in his 2002 book, The Craft of the Cocktail. Calabrese, meanwhile, always garnished the drink with a shredded orange twist.)
“Considering there was no social media in those days, it was amazing how many people became aware of it so quickly,” says Calabrese. As early as 2007, The New York Times was reporting on the growing prevalence of jam-based cocktails, with a nod to Calabrese’s invention as the granddaddy of them all.
“It spawned a whole generation of cocktails using preserves,” affirms Colin Asare-Appiah, the trade director of culture and lifestyle for Bacardi and a London-based bartender in the 1990s. Charlotte Voisey, now the head of brand ambassadors for William Grant & Sons, served cocktails with jam when she worked at London’s Apartment 195 in 2004, as well as later on as a brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin. Angus Winchester, another 1990s-era bartender who went on to become a prominent consultant, agreed. He recalls incorporating the Breakfast Martini into his lectures in the early 2000s, from Scandinavia to Australia, as an example of a modern classic cocktail and a cocktail using preserves.
Though now served across the globe, the drink remains closely associated with Calabrese. Boehm recalls that people would often order the drink the moment they walked into the Library Bar without even consulting the menu, and did the same at Calabrese’s subsequent perch, Salvatore at FIFTY. It’s also a top seller at Calabrese’s current stage, The Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel. Boehm isn’t surprised the drink has lasted.
“The Breakfast Martini has all the components that a cocktail needs to stand the test of time,” he explains. “It is tasty, has a curious name, has a nice backstory [and] has an unusual yet accessible ingredient.”
It’s also simple. As Calabrese notes, anyone can find the ingredients and anyone can make the drink. “I have always said that these factors are the secret to a great cocktail.”