Peter Canny remembers the first time he witnessed a Bikini Martini slink across his bar. It was at Pig’s Eye Pub in Hartford, Connecticut, his earliest bartending gig, circa the late 1990s. The big, dive-y spot—what at the time was known as a power bar—could regularly pack in 300 college students.
“This was in the era where you’re just grabbing whatever you have on the backbar and off your soda gun and trying to come up with fun shots to, you know, get the party started,” says Canny, a Hartford native and longtime hospitality vet.
An older bartender working at the pub at the time introduced him to the Bikini Martini when a guest requested a drink that would be “fun, fruity and in a Martini glass,” says Canny. “[She] was looking for something strong, but not too sweet... but also a little sweet... and pink.” The bartender threw together the requisite ingredients: vodka, Rose’s grenadine and coconut-flavored rum.
Something about that drink stuck with Canny. “It just had that nostalgic feeling of being young and in school, first [time] legally being out at a bar, and holding a Martini glass for the first time.”
Eventually, Canny’s career in bartending brought him to New York, where he joined Endless Hospitality Group, the team behind East Village cocktail bars including The Wayland and Goodnight Sonny. Today, he is co-owner and beverage director in the group’s latest project, a newly opened Martini bar on Avenue C called Madeline’s Martini.
When Canny devised the debut cocktail menu, featuring more than a dozen Martini- and ’tini-style drinks, he decided to feature his own homage to the ’90s drink. In researching its history, he found that the Bikini Martini may have originated as the signature cocktail of a swimsuit fashion event. Variations—many gimmicky—abound: blue versions featuring blue Curaçao, layered presentations, recipes with pineapple juice or peach schnapps. But the common denominator was always the trinity of grenadine, coconut rum and vodka.
To build a modern Bikini Martini for Madeline’s, Canny tinkered with both the rum and grenadine components. Instead of pouring a commercially sold coconut rum, Madeline’s makes its own version by fat-washing Plantation 3 Stars light rum with coconut oil in a two-day process that yields a more natural coconut flavor. The grenadine is also housemade, built with pomegranate juice sweetened with sugar and augmented by fresh vanilla bean. The Bikini Martini at Madeline’s retains the vodka base of the original, but also includes fresh pineapple juice for extra tropical flavor as well as three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, for both color (they’re going for pink, of course) and balance. Altogether what you get is a melody of simpatico flavors: tartness from the pineapple and pomegranate, playing opposite rich dessert notes of coconut and vanilla. All the ingredients are combined and given a hard shake over ice before being double-strained into a frozen, V-shaped Martini glass. “You’re left with this beautiful, pink, frothy, fun cocktail,” says Canny.
The team at Madeline’s didn’t know how guests would respond to the ’tini. “We thought, This could be a home run or a swing and a miss,” says Canny. But in the few months Madeline’s has been open, the drink has been among the top three sellers. “We put [the Bikini Martini] on the menu kind of as an ode to our history of bartending, and it took off.”
This new take on the cocktail appears to be tapping into that special place drinkers have in their hearts for their earliest memories of cradling a Martini glass, sipping on a drink that feels more classy, more adult. “Everybody can remember around the first time they held one of those, or the feeling that they had when they ordered a Martini for the first time,” says Canny, whether it’s the sophisticated classic or a fruity drink in the V-shaped vessel. “It’s a rite of passage.”