That a drink called the Porn Star Martini found immediate popularity in the early aughts is shocking to no one in contemporary cocktail circles. When bartender Douglas Ankrah came up with the decadent mixture of passion fruit purée, passion fruit liqueur, vanilla-flavored vodka, vanilla syrup and prosecco, the inviting flavors paired with the ribald handle made it a sensation at his popular London bars.
“The Porn Star Martini is provocative, playful and tongue-in-cheek as a call,” says Colin Asare-Appiah, who worked alongside Ankrah at LAB, the influential Soho bar where the cocktail became popular. “The balance of flavors is easy to consume and exotic.”
However, what is unexpected is that its popularity would endure for nearly two decades, to the point where, in 2019, it was reported to be the most-ordered cocktail in the entire United Kingdom.
“I don’t think anyone knew that over a decade later it would start to take off again,” says the British cocktail authority Angus Winchester, citing the cocktail’s profile surge after recent press coverage in the Sun and Telegraph. “I was flabbergasted when I read that it was such a popular drink in the U.K.”
To most observers, the appeal of the drink boils down to three things: the lurid name, which almost dares you to order the cocktail; the widely popular components (“three of the most popular ingredients of that moment, prosecco, vodka and passion fruit, all together in one drink,” as Simon Ford, the English-born distiller and former brand ambassador, put it) and the novel presentation. The bubbly is not poured atop the drink, in the form of a royale, but comes in a sidecar as a chaser to the cocktail. “The drink was great visually when made correctly,” says Winchester.
Though widely known as the Porn Star Martini, the drink travels under another name, too: the Maverick Martini, after the Mavericks Gentlemen’s Club, a multilevel strip club in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2002, Ankrah was in Cape Town working on his cocktail book, Shaken and Stirred, and preparing to open a new London bar called Townhouse. He spent his off hours at the club. It was on this same trip that the cocktail was conceived. According to Ankrah, the drink simply came to him while walking to work one morning on a warm summer day. “Truly, it was a spur of the moment thing,” he said.
When Ankrah returned to London he rechristened it with its second, better-known name, a provocative tease designed to pique the customer’s curiosity. As Ankrah explains, somewhat cryptically, of the now-famous moniker, “It’s just that the drink looked like a cocktail a porn star would drink.”
For Ford, the cocktail embodied everything that was sexy and chic about London during the early ’00s. “England was in a boom period,” Ford recalls. “Tony Blair had ushered in and bolstered a new meritocratic middle class that was born on the heels of Brit Pop and the supermodel era of Kate Moss. London was the hottest city in the world once again and people had disposable income.” A lot of that money was spent at LAB, one of the earlier beacons of the London cocktail renaissance, and arguably the most raucous; as well as Townhouse, its sister bar in upscale Knightsbridge.
It was at Townhouse that Ankrah first unveiled the Porn Star Martini in 2002. It was an instant hit. By 2003, it had made the jump to LAB, which was run by the same owners.
“The Porn Star Martini was popular from Day One,” recalls Appiah. “We couldn’t shake them fast enough. It was always in the top three in cocktail sales at LAB and Townhouse. Both bars were a mecca for aspiring bartenders at the time and they took the recipe back to their bars with them and introduced it to their clientele, thus perpetuating the popularity of the cocktail.”
At the time, a new cocktail could not hope for a better launching pad than the two bars, which were not only trendy but also trendsetting, being two of the most prominent mixology hotbeds during the early years of the London cocktail renaissance.
“It’s important to understand that LAB—and later Townhouse—were very much a new school of bars back when,” explains Winchester. “Lots of fresh fruit, fruit purée and crushed ice–style drinks with a great team of bartenders, as well as a slightly more fashion and showy crowd.” (The cocktail has never quite taken off in the States the way it did in the U.K., but it has popped up from time to time at in-the-know cocktail bars like the bygone Suffolk Arms and Underdog, both in New York.)
In recent years, the racy name of the cocktail has proven more of a liability than an asset. In 2019, the British supermarket chain Marks & Spencer was compelled to change the name of a canned version of the drink to the tamed-down Passion Star Martini.
That setback has not discouraged others from cashing in on the thirst for Porn Star Martinis, however. In early June, a Porn Star Martini–inspired gin, BLOOM Passionfruit and Vanilla Blossom Gin, was launched in England. Around the same time, the Scottish craft gin distiller Eden Mill introduced a canned Maverick Martini, and Two Brooks put out a hard seltzer version of the drink, also called Passion Star. It seems that the cocktail will endure even if the name eventually does not.
Ankrah, for one, is not surprised that his heady creation from the tail end of the “Cool Britannia” days is still showing legs in 2020. “The drink is the ultimate party starter: sexy, fun and unpretentious,” he says. “One can party with a Porn Star rather than a boring old Negroni.”