The crowd at Polo Lounge is sparse on a Monday at 10 am; only three customers are seated at the Beverly Hills establishment’s bar, where Matt Martinez—freshly scrubbed and smartly dressed in a dark suit, crisp white shirt, and gold necktie—meticulously arranges a cocktail shaker, a stainless steel strainer, and a wooden muddle on a towel. He stops, scratches his chin, and then disappears through a side door, returning moments later with three blood oranges in one hand and a freshly picked sprig of lemon verbena in the other.
Martinez’s mission this morning is to create a winter-holiday cocktail recipe for the readers of Robb Report. “I was thinking, ‘What is in season [over the holidays], and what would mix well with vodka?’ ” says the bartender, one of seven mixologists who fashioned six original cocktail recipes for this story (see “Mix Masters,” following). Without measuring, he adds 2 ounces of Ketel One to his shaker; 15 years of bartending in Santa Fe, San Francisco, and, since this summer, at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge, have made him exact with his pours. Like the concoctions he assembles, Martinez is a mix of various components: one part culinary artist, one part mad scientist, and one part showman, all blended with liberal measures of tact, poise, and humor. (Click the image to enlarge).
Ten o’clock in the morning may not be the finest hour to sample Martinez’s new recipe, although it is not out of step with tradition. The cocktail, the term for which originated some 200 years ago, began as a morning elixir. Consisting of a base spirit, sugar, and bitters, the beverage was intended to rid the fog from one’s head after an evening of debauchery.
Long before the christening of the cocktail, Europeans subscribed to the miracles of bitters, which came in a variety of alcoholic tinctures made from herbs and roots. Drinkers in the 18th century poured the curative blends into their wine to help settle their stomachs and stimulate their appetites. But the cocktail, according to historian David Wondrich, was an American invention. “We took what people had been doing in England, and we shoved it into overdrive,” says Wondrich, who, after cofounding the Museum of the American Cocktail in Las Vegas in 2002, is now writing a historical account of the recipes that appeared in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book How to Mix Drinks. “It’s the same way Americans invent anything: We took it, looked at it, and made it rock.”
The origins of the first cocktail—like those of the martini, margarita, and cosmopolitan, which followed later in history—are unclear. “At the end of the 18th century, somewhere in the Northeast, the cocktail occurred,” says Wondrich, who believes that the first versions of the beverage were akin to what we now call old-fashioneds. “All the earliest newspaper references take place in the triangle between New York City, Albany, and Boston, and it doesn’t, as far as we know, appear in newspapers anywhere else in the country.”
The term cocktail first appeared in 1803, in a satirical diary entry published by an Amherst, N.H., newspaper. The piece mentioned the writer’s waking up with a hangover and having a “glass of cocktail.” However, the word was not defined in print until May 13, 1806, when a slightly more serious political column in the Balance and Columbian Repository out of Hudson, N.Y., referred to the cocktail as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” The story went on to describe the beverage’s uses: “It is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion. It is said also to be a great use to a Democratic candidate, because a person having swallowed a glass of it is ready to swallow anything else.” Perhaps it was not happenstance, then, that in 1819, President James Monroe, a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, drank Artillery Punch, a potent concoction consisting of gin, rum, brandy, Champagne, rye whiskey, tea, sugar, citrus juices, and Benedictine liquor, garnished with maraschino cherries.
Some historians trace the cocktail to New Orleans, where, in 1803, Creole pharmacist Antoine Peychaud invented the sazerac. Mixing French brandy, a splash of water, sugar, and homemade bitters, Peychaud, according to legend, served the therapeutic drink in the large end of an eggcup, which was known by its French name, coquetier. The story holds that the American pronunciation led to the word cocktail.Another theory credits the cocktail to Betsy Flanagan, a Virginia innkeeper who decorated her drinks with feathers from a cock’s tail during the American Revolution. Yet another, albeit more dubious, hypothesis states that the practice of toasting the victor in cockfights gave rise to the name. Wondrich, however, believes that the term derives from the Northeastern slang word for a mixed-breed horse. “A cock-tail horse was a mixed-breed horse, and a cocktail was a mixed-breed drink,” he explains. “[That theory] has roots in the sort of groups who were consuming cocktails at the time. It was a horse thing.”
If Wondrich’s account is accurate, then the cocktail remains close to its equestrian roots at the Polo Lounge. The bar originally catered to the athletes who played the sport of kings in the bean fields adjacent to the now-94-year-old Beverly Hills Hotel. The surrounding landscape may have changed—the fields long ago replaced by mansions—but the bar appears much as it did in the 1940s, painted in forest green and decorated with black-and-white images of polo ponies.
Today, Hollywood’s elite gather in the Polo Lounge for breakfast, lunch, and especially cocktail hour, which has become so popular of late that the hotel plans to open another bar in the lobby. Still, says Martinez, Beverly Hills hardly can be considered a hub in the world of cocktails. “In my limited experience in Los Angeles, there is not as big of a cocktail culture here as there is in San Francisco and New York,” he says. “I recall experiences in New York where bartenders were making their own bitters. I think the culture is coming here, but it would be nice to see a lot more of it, where you see bartenders actually taking the time to create a drink.”
Wondrich agrees that New York and San Francisco are among the cities where cocktail-making is a serious pursuit. He adds London and Tokyo to that list, which he expects will grow as the cocktail undergoes a renaissance of sorts. “To give it a wine reference, we are in the late-Boone’s-Farm, early-California-Chardonnay age with cocktails,” he says. “There are people playing with infusions and wild new taste profiles, and at the same time there’s a huge interest in the classic cocktail and just getting them made right. You really see both schools roaring ahead on all cylinders, and in the more popular bars, they combine both.”
One of the wilder cocktail trends, says Wondrich, is molecular mixology, in which bartenders apply scientific techniques to create drinks that may incorporate foams, mists, and gels. The practice is based on the principles of molecular gastronomy and is symbolic of an ever-closer relationship between kitchen and bar. In Martinez’s case, this relationship includes having access to Polo Lounge chef Robert Allen’s seasonal bounty and to the hotel’s herb garden. “I could make this drink using concentrated orange juice and dried herbs,” he says. “But it wouldn’t be the same as fresh juice and something plucked from the garden.”
To illustrate his point, Martinez slices open the blood oranges to reveal their juicy, scarlet interiors. He then pulls several verbena leaves from the bottom of the sprig—setting aside the top leaves for later—and muddles them into the vodka to release their lemony-herbal flavors. He pours a half-ounce of white elderflower syrup, which adds a sweet, tropical-fruit taste, and then squeezes in the orange’s juice. Before shaking the entire concoction with ice, he tears apart one of the orange halves and tosses it in, “to release more of the citrus oils.” It’s showtime.
Martinez rattles the shaker rhythmically and then, with a flourish, strains a stream of crimson liquid into a cocktail glass, garnishes it with the remaining verbena sprig, and then places his alluring mixture on the bar. The drink goes down easy, not too sweet and not too herbaceous. It is lively and refreshing and has all the qualities that an honest cocktail should have—including a catchy name: As an homage to their bar’s location on Los Angeles’ most celebrated boulevard, Martinez and chef Allen christen the creation the Scarlet Sunset.MIX MASTERS
To mark what may or may not be the 200th anniversary of the cocktail, Robb Report enlisted bartenders from six of the world’s finest watering holes to create celebratory drinks for the festive season. Their creations—which range from a straightforward Scotch cocktail to a rum-based guava punch—are sure to add cheer to any holiday mixer.
Photograph by Dumitrescu Ciprian/ www.dreamstime.com (Click image to enlarge)
Created by Dan Hernandez and Paul Owen-Browne,
Oloroso Bar & Restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland
“We believe in keeping things simple. In this case, we looked to a classic and put a contemporary twist on it. We just wanted something nice to accentuate the whisky, not overpower it.”
2 oz Glenmorangie 10 Year Old Scotch whisky
1 shot Chateau Suduiraut sauterne
2 bar spoons Aperol
1 orange rind
Stir ingredients and serve in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the orange rind.
Created by Christy Pope, Milk & Honey, New York City
“In coming up with my cocktail, I looked for inspiration from the two classic cocktails that are synonymous with New York City: the martini and the Manhattan. Using the original Indian name from which Manhattan is derived, it is the ultimate ode to New York’s heritage.”
2 oz Beefeater London Dry gin
¼ oz Carpano Punt è Mes Italian vermouth
¼ oz maraschino liqueur
Flamed orange rind
Stir ingredients and add the flamed rind as a garnish. To flame the rind, use a knife to cut a small disk off the peel of a naval orange that has been stored at room temperature. Light a match and place the fire against the peel’s outer surface. (The oils released from the peel will ignite into a spark.) After lighting the skin, drop it into the drink with the flaming side facing up. Serve in a cocktail or coup glass.
Created by Matt Martinez, the Polo Lounge, Beverly Hills
“For me, the process starts with thinking about the ingredients I want to use and how they’re going to complement each other when it’s all combined. I had a base ingredient, vodka, and if you’re not using flavored vodka, it mixes with just about anything. The next component would be something that was in season.”
2 oz Ketel One vodka
¼ oz D’Arbo elderflower syrup
2 oz fresh-squeezed blood orange juice
1 sprig of lemon verbena (approximately 12 leaves)
Muddle most of the verbena leaves with the vodka, saving the top of the sprig as a garnish. Combine the orange juice and elderflower syrup, along with a portion of the orange (rind and all), in a shaker. Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with leftover lemon verbena. 310.276.2251
Photograph by Scott Gilbert. (Click image to enlarge)
Martini Le Cirque
Created by Enrique Correa,
Le Cirque Restaurant, Mexico City
“Ingredients are everything. With tequila, I look for ingredients that don’t hide the spirit’s delicate agave flavor, but instead complement it so that you can taste everything in the cocktail. I try to make it look nice, but always flavor before beauty.”
1.5 oz Herradura blanco tequila
2 oz cranberry juice
¼ oz Blue Curaçao orange liqueur
Dash of Tequila Rose strawberry cream liqueur
Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake and then strain into a cocktail glass.
Created by Colin Field, the Bar Hemingway, Paris
“Trends are lightening up. People do not want drinks with several ingredients and sugar sources; they want pure, sincere cocktails that excite the palate in their simplicity.”
2 oz Domaine de la Boissière young Armagnac
3 oz clear apple juice
1 sprig of mint
1 tsp sugar
Bollinger Brut Champagne
Gently muddle together mint, sugar, and Armagnac in a glass tumbler. Add apple juice, fill with ice, and top with Champagne.
www.ritzparis.comGuava-Vera Rum Punch
Created by Joel Garcia,
Ortanique on the Mile, Coral Gables, Fla.
“The star is not always the spirit; sometimes it’s about choosing a spirit that is neutral enough to allow the fruit and other flavors to show through.”
2 oz Matusalem Gran Reserva dark rum
2 bar spoons Coco Lopez sweet
2 bar spoons Goya guava jelly
6 oz guava juice
1 guava slice
Fill three-quarters of a shaker with ice, and then add rum, sweet coconut crème, and guava jelly. Add guava juice until the shaker is full and then shake it vigorously. Pour with ice into a red-wine glass. Garnish with the guava slice, and serve with a straw.