One-third of the way through a recent blind tasting, it became clear that not every bartender sees the Bamboo cocktail the same way. Though a simple drink on the surface—it’s a sherry Martini, basically—the submitted recipes varied wildly in color, aroma and flavor.
Also like a Martini, the character and success of the drink ultimately rested on the casting of the central roles—sherry and dry vermouth—and the bartender’s understanding of each and how they interact.
“I feel it’s not, strictly speaking, a sherry cocktail,” said Joaquín Simó, owner of Manhattan cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons and one of the guest judges at the tasting. “It’s a sherry-forward cocktail, but you want that vermouth to show. They should have equal billing.”
Meaghan Dorman, of the Manhattan bars Raines Law Room and Dear Irving, agreed. “You can definitely be as thoughtful with the vermouth as you can with the sherry,” she said.
And thoughtful the contestants were. The 11 drinks sampled by the panel—which also included Tim Miner, bartender at The Long Island Bar and Death & Co., and PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette—featured sherries ranging from bone-dry fino to rich Pedro Ximénez and every grade in between, along with dry, blanc and even sweet vermouths from a variety of producers, all prepared by bartender Nate Dobson of Banzarbar.
It was perhaps to be expected that a recent comeback kid like the Bamboo would be subject to such fungible interpretation. The drink dates back to the late 19th century, an era when bartenders everywhere were pairing vermouth with any spirit under the sun. Credit for its creation usually goes to Louis Eppinger, a German bartender who worked at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Within a decade, the cocktail had skipped the Pacific and was being served at American bars and included in American cocktail books. Early printed recipes, however, are a bit muddled; some call for sweet vermouth, creating a potion we know today as the Adonis, the sweeter kissing cousin of the Bamboo. But soon enough, things sorted themselves out, and the arid assembly of dry sherry, dry vermouth and bitters alone took on the name Bamboo.
The drink wasn’t one of the lucky ones to survive the collective amnesia suffered by drink-makers and drinkers after the repeal of Prohibition. By the end of the 20th century, the Bamboo was completely forgotten. It wasn’t until the early aughts when cocktail revivalists, mad for sherry and vermouth and other neglected ingredients, hauled it back into the modern drink-mixer’s repertoire. It had an important advocate in the influential New York bar Death & Co., which opened in 2007. (Both Dorman and Simó recalled drinking their first Bamboo there.) The Death & Co. recipe, as printed in the bar’s eponymous cocktail book, calls for sweeter blanc vermouth, as opposed to dry, as well as a half-teaspoon of cane sugar syrup. Dorman speculated that the influence of that particular spec may be one of the reasons that so few of the entries in the tasting came off as dry. Indeed, many resembled the Adonis more than the Bamboo.
That sweetness boost was fine by Simó, up to a point. “That’s my biggest complaint with the Bamboo,” he said. “There is almost no sugar in there.” To his mind, a barspoon of sugar syrup went a long way toward better texture and a more palatable cocktail.
Miner added that, because of that ultradry quality, the drink doesn’t always make the best first impression. “I didn’t get the austerity of it,” he recalls of his first Bamboo. “I wrote it off for a long time, until I came to love sherry.”
While the panel was in general agreement that the Bamboo was a drink that allowed a lot of leeway, they were still on the lookout for what they thought of as the archetypal Bamboo profile: pale in color, dry in character, with a touch of salinity and nuttiness from the sherry, and a pleasing, if subtle, complexity. They didn’t find many entries that matched that description. Drinks were variously decried as too sweet, too thin or lacking body. Some overemphasized the orange flavors in the drink or shortchanged the contribution of the vermouth or sherry.
Only the Bamboo from Chip Tyndale, of Dutch Kills in Long Island City, New York, hit all the marks with every judge. The formula was classical by modern standards: 1 ½ ounces of Lustau Amontillado sherry, 1 ¼ ounces of Dolin dry vermouth, ¼ ounce of Dolin blanc vermouth, and a dash each of orange and Angostura bitters, served with a lemon twist. Miner called it a “complete cocktail,” citing the complexity of flavor, which pulled in saline, bitter and dry notes, while boasting a full body and a finish that didn’t fade.
Early in the tasting, the panel floated the idea that busy recipes for the Bamboo don’t pay in the end. Nonetheless, the drink that came in second place, from Karen Fu at République in Los Angeles, was the fussiest of the bunch. It calls for eight ingredients, including three sherries (½ ounce each of Valdespino Amontillado Tío Diego and Barbadillo Palo Cortado Obispo Gascón, and 1 ounce of El Maestro Sierra Fino), two vermouths (¾ ounce each of Bordiga bianco vermouth and Dolin dry vermouth), Angostura and orange bitters and a scant barspoon of J.M. Sirop de Canne. The judges knew upon first sip that they were tasting a cocktail that was involved, perhaps unnecessarily so. But they praised the balance, declaring the drink lovely, with a good mouthfeel—an Improved Bamboo Cocktail, as it were.
Taking third prize was Chicago bartender Caitlin Laman, with her bitters-less mix of 1 ounce El Maestro Sierra Fino, ½ ounce Valdespino Amontillado Tío Diego, 1 ounce Dolin dry vermouth and, unusually, ½ ounce Dolin sweet vermouth.
The double split base of two sherries and two vermouths made sense to Miner. He noted that when he gets an order for a Bamboo, nine times out of ten it comes from a member of the drinks industry. Because of that, he takes some license with the cocktail. “I will change it every time,” he said. “I know they’ll let me be playful with it.”
The cocktail that once girded the globe, and now does so again, remains a moving target.