Paul Harrington created the Jasmine on a whim one night in 1993 at Townhouse, a restaurant in Emeryville, a sleepy community across the bay from San Francisco. A few years later, Harrington left bartending for architecture and didn’t give the drink much thought.
In the intervening years, the Campari-kissed Pegu Club variation had taken on a life of its own, but Harrington wouldn’t catch wind of its success until 17 years later. He was doing some work at Tales of the Cocktail, the New Orleans–based drinks event, when the lauded bartender Jamie Boudreau, who went on to open Canon in Seattle, excitedly walked up to him and introduced himself. “He rambled a bit about his appreciation of the cocktail,” recalls Harrington. “I had no idea who he was, but his excitement made me realize that the drink was gaining popularity in my absence. When I got back to my hotel, I Googled Jamie and further realized the Jasmine had made it.”
Harrington’s creation is one of the earliest entries in the modern-classic cocktail canon, coming just a couple years after the birth of the Cosmopolitan (with which it shares a pink hue, and to which it is often compared) and just as bartender Dale DeGroff, one of the acknowledged founders of the cocktail renaissance, was beginning to earn a reputation at New York’s Rainbow Room. In fact, DeGroff played an indirect role in the Jasmine’s story.
In 1989, Pizzico chef Evelyne Slomon, a recognized pizza authority, had just moved to Berkeley and was looking for a place to find a good cocktail. Back in New York, she had been spoiled by her friend DeGroff, who had tested all his Rainbow Room creations on her. “That was my introduction to cocktails,” recalls Slomon of DeGroff’s craft recreations of the classics. “It was something that wasn’t being done anywhere.”
While visiting friends at a restaurant in Emeryville, she discovered Townhouse, a former speakeasy which had recently been refurbished and reopened. She quickly became a regular. “There was this kid behind the bar,” says Slomon. “And I mean a kid. He did not look 21. That was Paul.” She taught him how to make a Martini the way she liked it, and many cocktail-oriented discussions followed, including talk of DeGroff and what he was doing in New York. “He got bitten by the bug,” she says. “He really went with it.”
Townhouse had no cocktail menu. Harrington would instead ask customers what they liked to drink and what they were in the mood for, then select from a catalog of house cocktails—an early version of what became known in the industry as “bartender’s choice.” The Jasmine came about one slow weeknight when Matt Jasmin, Harrington’s former architecture classmate and a dishwasher at nearby Chez Panisse, had a request: “Make me something you have never made before.”
It was a first for Harrington, who didn’t make a habit of creating original cocktails. He’d recently purchased a copy of the Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide and, in it, read about the Pegu Club, an old pre-Prohibition drink made of gin, Curaçao, lime juice and bitters. “The Pegu, for me, was the first classic cocktail that resembled something people would regularly order at the bar: a Kamikaze cocktail,” says Harrington, mentioning a popular shot made of vodka, triple sec and lime juice. “I had all of the ingredients behind the bar and could easily offer it to any patron.”
Staring at his backbar that night, his gaze fell on the bottle of Campari. “I used to make my Pegu with a fair amount of bitters, so when I eyed the Campari a light went on; I thought I could make a substitution.” A full basket of fresh lemons on the bar inspired him to change the Pegu’s lime juice to lemon juice and garnish the drink with a lemon twist.
“I liked it,” recalled Jasmin, who downed the drink but didn’t order another. “I like citrus and gin. It was both refreshing and had a punch. I most remember Paul naming it, obviously.” (Harrington did not discover until many years later that he had misspelled his friend’s name, which lacks an “e.” By then, it was too late; the “Jasmine” it was.)
The second person to try Harrington’s new concoction was a regular named Evan Shively, who declared: “Congratulations! You’ve invented grapefruit juice.” “Just a bit of snark, failing to disguise my admiration and fascination,” recalls Shively decades later.
The Jasmine’s march to local notoriety began in 2000, when Slomon put the drink on the cocktail menu at her new restaurant, Nizza La Bella, near Berkeley. Though Harrington thought of the Jasmine as a riff on the Pegu Club, Slomon saw it as an answer to the countless Cosmo orders she was fielding. “I was never a big fan of the Cosmo,” she says. “I’d tell customers, you should order the Jasmine. That’s the Cosmo for grown-ups.”
Menu placements were nice, but it took a book to launch the Jasmine beyond the San Francisco area. During the 1990s, Harrington connected with some of the editors of a new magazine called Wired to collaborate on a series of cocktail columns, called CocktailTime.com, that ran on Wired’s new website, Hotwired.com. In 1998, those columns were collected in a book called Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, a collaboration with Wired editor Laura Moorhead.
The book did indeed become one of the early bibles of the cocktail renaissance, falling into the hands of dozens of striving bartenders thirsty for knowledge, including Boudreau—who put the Jasmine on the menu at Lumière in Vancouver, where he was working in the mid-2000s—and Tony Abou-Ganim. Abou-Ganim was one of the reigning bartenders of the San Francisco scene, where he presided over the swanky Starlight Room. When he moved to Las Vegas to become the beverage director at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, he took the book with him, buying 50 copies for his staff.
“In 1998, the use of Campari in cocktails was still a little rare,” says Abou-Ganim. “So, when I first came across the Jasmine in Paul’s book, I had to try it and I found it to be delish as well as a very stimulating aperitif.” The drink became the signature cocktail for the Bellagio’s high-end Chinese restaurant, which was also named Jasmine, no doubt helping to fix the drink’s name in the public’s mind.
Boudreau also found the drink boundary-pushing in its simple but ingenious addition of a small share of Campari. “It was just a simple, yet transformative, drink,” he says. “It was one of the first drinks that got me to start pushing the bitter in cocktails.”
As for the man the cocktail is named after, all this history passed unnoticed. After that first Jasmine cocktail at Townhouse, Matt Jasmin never had another. He never made the drink at home and never asked for it at bars. When I recently contacted him about the subject, he was surprised. “I guess I still don’t appreciate it as much as I should,” says Jasmin. “I think I’ll start asking for it the next time I am out.”