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Cocktails

Time to Join the Turf Club

September 07, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Time to Join the Turf Club

September 07, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Lizzie Munro

The Martini's obscure predecessor has finally found a band of devotees.

Where the Martini is concerned, there’s enough love to go around. The king of cocktails has enjoyed the spotlight for so long, nearly every one of the drink’s many variations has enjoyed its moment in the sun. The Gibson, garnished with an onion instead of an olive, has made a notable comeback during the past decade, while the sweetish Martinez was championed in the early years of the cocktail renaissance. The Tuxedoboth the No. 1 version, with sherry, and the No. 2, with maraschino liqueur and absinthehas become a surprise favorite in recent years. And bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts who came of age after the turn of the century have made the lower-proof 50/50 their go-to. 

Meanwhile, the Turf Club, a mixture of gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur, absinthe and orange bitters, which predates the Martini and is just as old as the Martinez, patiently waits its turn. And waits. And waits.

But that wait may soon be over. A few select, but prominent, bars have taken up the 1880s relic as their own, including the reborn Brooklyn chop house Gage & Tollner, the Miami restaurant Surf Club and Holy Water in San Francisco. “It’s definitely time for a comeback,” says Steve Bielawski, head bartender at Gage & Tollner. 

But one of the things holding the Turf Club back is that—the wealth of cocktail history scholarship of the last two decades notwithstanding—the drink remains largely unknown.

“We had a lot of drinks to choose from, from the original Gage menu,” says Bielawski, noting that the bar traces its history back to the 1870s. “The Turf Club sort of jumped out. Most of us hadn’t even heard of it before.”

The Turf Club’s recovery is so long in coming arguably because of its vague pedigree. The original recipes for the cocktail are inconsistent. The first-known printed formula, from 1884, calls for Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth and bitters, making it very close in profile to the Martinez. An 1891 formula, though, uses genever. It wasn’t until 1900, when famous barkeep Harry Johnson recorded a mixture of Plymouth gin, dry vermouth and dashes of absinthe, maraschino liqueur and orange bitters, that the drink settled down to something resembling the Turf Club we now know.

Given that scattered history, today’s fans are given a nearly blank slate as to what sort of Turf Club they want to serve. 

John Ottman has placed the Turf Club on the menu at both Holy Water and Bloodhound in San Francisco. “It’s one of those drinks that’s always floated around in my mind,” he says.

Conversely, the cocktail is a recent find for Valentino Longo, head bartender at Miami’s Surf Club. “I had never heard about the Turf Club before,” says Longo, who discovered it in The Martini Cocktail, a 2019 book about the history of the Martini (written by this reporter). His version, naturally called the Surf Club, is a far cry from any of the original recipes. A fan of sherry, Longo uses the fortified wine instead of vermouth, but first infuses it with maraschino cherries. Also in the mix is a bit of housemade pickle liqueur. Guests can choose gin or vodka as their base spirit, and select a garnish from a caddy that includes an olive, lemon peel and pickled onions. 

“I wanted to do something different from the classic maraschino liqueur,” explains Longo, “like a Bamboo cocktail.”

Gage & Tollner settled on a version very close to that published by bartender Harry MacElhone in his 1921 book ABCs of Mixing Cocktails. Rather than equal parts, however, Bielawski opts for a more gin-forward rendition, to which he adds trace amounts of maraschino and absinthe. Ottman’s interpretation is not far from that ballpark, and close to the Harry Johnson formula, marshaling two ounces of gin to three-quarters of an ounce of dry vermouth, again with touches of maraschino and absinthe, but also orange bitters. 

All three bartenders have been pleasantly surprised that their beloved obscure drink has also become a favorite with their customers. 

“It’s one of the most sold cocktails,” says Longo. “They like it because the presentation is very fun. They like to choose their own garnish and they like the story of how the Turf Club became the Surf Club.”

Bielawski said Gage & Tollner goes through six or seven pre-batched 750ml bottles of Turf Clubs a week. “Everybody who orders it asks about it first,” he says. “At Gage, we can lean on the history a little bit. Once you’ve got a good story, you’re in.” (The drink is also a staff favorite, running neck and neck with the Perfect Martini, which splits the vermouth between dry and sweet.)

Ottman, for his part, sells a good amount of Turf Clubs at both his places. And the numbers make sense to him—the drink has a lot going for it. 

“It’s a pretty stiff gin drink that also has a sweet note to it,” he says. “The absinthe and bitters add a little bit of complexity without going in any particular direction.”

In the end, however, he thinks the Turf Club ultimately benefits most from its famous connections. “It feels very classic,” he adds. “Like a Martini.”

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