The ’90s were a decade of “Asian fusion” and the advent of the clubstaurant, a time when sour mix still flowed freely and vodka was the booze of choice. It was also the decade that gave us places like Ruby Foo’s, the so-called “dim sum and sushi palace,” and Lot 61, the see-and-be-seen nightclub where nightlife impresario Amy Sacco put a whopping 61 Martinis (er, ’tinis) on the menu. Opened in 1998, the club served a Chocolate Martini, a Breakfast Martini, the Anis’tini, the Raspberry Mocha’tini and something called the Pooh’tini. Among the deluge, however, one stood out from the rest: the Lychee Martini.
While it may never have reached the ubiquity or achieved the infamy of the Appletini, the Lychee Martini became an apt shorthand for the time and place it was invented. But these days? It feels verboten among cocktail drinkers, and only celebrated at clubstaurant holdouts like Tao, where the drink still has a slot on the menu. Even the good people of Nobu, once (and, really, still) a beacon on the hill for those Lychee Martinis, declined to talk about the drink. A representative explained that although it’s one of their most popular cocktails, they “don’t feel that it fully encompasses the distinctive qualities that make a Nobu cocktail unique.”
A little over two decades ago, it was everywhere—a symbol of savvy and urban adventurousness, of worldliness, of being in the know. As is so often the case in cocktail lore, several of the Lychee Martini’s early practitioners claim to have created it in a vacuum. In the ’90s, when the craft cocktail renaissance was winding up, “everyone was keen to have the first one” of something, says Eric Lozano, who bartended at Three Degrees North, the bar opened in 1994 by Richard Widmaier-Picasso and Malaysian princess Zerafina Idris, and an early peddler of the drink.
But, by some accounts, the Lychee Martini made waves at least as early as 1993, the year Decibel opened in the East Village with a lychee syrup–flavored vodka Martini. As Decibel owner Bon Yagi explains it, the drink was already being served at the Decibel his brother owned outside of Tokyo; incorporating the drink into the New York bar menu was a practical choice, says Yagi, noting that sake simply wasn’t widely popular in the States.
Former Decibel manager Takahiro Okada, who started working there in 1996, remembers the story differently. In Okada’s version, the Lychee Martini was the “completely original idea” of a previous manager at the New York location. (The manager in question, he says, has since passed away.) Either way, Okada insists that Decibel was the first to serve it in New York. “When I first started working there, nobody was serving Lychee Martinis,” he says.
But Decibel wasn’t the only place where the drink had taken hold. Fred Twomey, the former head bartender at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s fusion restaurant Vong, points to the summer or fall of 1993 as a likely timeframe for when they began serving a Lychee Martini. But he isn’t sure if Vong can reasonably lay claim to being the first bar to plop a lychee into a Martini glass. “I don’t feel comfortable taking credit for it,” he admits, and points to Indochine, which opened in 1984 and has long served a Lychee Saketini, as another possible originator.
Part of what makes finding the original Lychee Martini so difficult is the sheer variety of early iterations. At Three Degrees North, owner Widmaier-Picasso served a version that he describes as “a dirty Lychee Martini,” while he remembers Jean-Georges, a friend, as serving “a very clean [Lychee] Martini.” Meanwhile, at Edward Lee’s Mott Street restaurant, Clay, the chef served a version that consisted of equal parts lychee liqueur, soju and lychee juice. “It wasn’t exactly a sophisticated drink,” Lee says, laughing. “I was 25, we were just throwing these things against the wall. It literally just took off … and I mean, gosh, that cocktail alone probably kept that restaurant afloat for five years, we were selling so much of it.”
The creative food director Dimity Jones, a Clay regular, remembers drinking her fair share of Lychee Martinis. “It was almost like it was a craze and took off,” she says. “And I don’t know this for sure, but I just feel like [Clay] was the first place I saw them.”
If nothing else, Lee’s restaurant brought the drink to a wider audience. The rock photographer Bob Gruen recalls stopping in on the recommendation of a friend, with the late Joe Strummer. “It was delicious, I do remember that,” he says of the cocktail. “It did get us all fired up, and there was an Ike and Tina Turner record playing; everyone was dancing on the tables. One of our friends was kind of kidding around, and after several Lychee Martinis there was a garbage truck picking up and she kind of climbed up on the back, as a joke, and the truck took off with her.”
Clay closed in 2002, but the Lychee Martini lived on throughout the aughts in New York at bars like Pravda, where bartender Charles Hardwick, who worked there from 2000 through 2003, remembers it as an off-the-menu special. The drink was on the menu at Nobu, as well as other Jean-Georges restaurants like Spice Market, his Thai-ish fusion restaurant situated in the beating heart of New York’s club scene, and Tao, now the butt of a thousand jokes about “fusion” cuisine. But in a true testament to the drink’s popularity, it spread well beyond its initial breeding ground. In 2003, the Guardian noted, of the London neighborhood Hoxton’s ascent to trendiness, “soon you could buy not just a pint of milk, but a Lychee Martini,” while the Australian publication Broadsheet quoted Sydney bartender Kate McCraw as saying, “in the late 2000s, it was quite sophisticated and cool.” By 2004 it was being served at P.F. Chang’s.
In the decade that followed, the Lychee Martini became shorthand for a dark-ages drink: fruity and sweet (with all the sexism to match); principally made with (gasp) vodka; and spiked with, in many cases, juice from a can. And yet, the drink hasn’t vanished entirely. It lives on as a totem of an era of restaurant culture and nightlife that would support a menu of 61 Martinis that were not Martinis at all, and an era that was capable of making a single drink so popular, that, as Lozano remembers, “I was staying until 6, 7, 8 in the morning making Lychee Martinis.”