The Pornstar Martini has become the go-to drink for the British bar-going public. But where did it come from, how should you twist it, and what the hell do you do with the passion fruit anyway? Julian de Feral looks at the guilty secrets of an X-rated hit
The first time I tried a Pornstar Martini in the early 2000s, it wasn’t LAB and it wasn’t my order. It was an old friend who ordered it, and she was positively outraged. The bartender had not only had the audacity to skip the champagne back (aka the ‘money shot’), but when she curtly requested one – horror of horrors – he had used prosecco, explaining that they didn’t sell champagne by the glass.
It’s funny to think that over a decade later this simple drink still has the capacity to inspire such heated debate among bartenders and guests alike. The ingredients, history, order of service and even questions as fundamental as to whether it’s actually any good, or whether bars even need to serve the retro classic in this age of ‘modern mixology’, have all come under the spotlight in recent times.
The Original Pornstar
By Douglas Ankrah, Townhouse, 2002
Glass: Martini and shot
Garnish: Passion fruit half
Method: Shake first four ingredients and fine strain into a Martini glass. Float the passion fruit on top. Serve with a teaspoon on the side and the champagne in a shot glass.
2 spoons vanilla sugar
50ml Cariel Vanilla Vodka
12.5ml Passoa Passion Fruit Liqueur
25ml Funkin Passion Fruit Purée
These things can be haggled over as much as you like, but one thing is not up for discussion: its popularity. Statistics make abundantly clear that, over the past few years, particularly in high-volume bars, the Pornstar Martini currently reigns supreme when it comes to sales.
‘Only a few people drank prosecco back then, it was all about champagne,’ says Douglas Ankrah, the creator of the drink, putting at least one of these debates to rest. When he started to play around with the idea for the recipe during a stay in Cape Town, inspired by the city’s infamous Maverick’s Gentlemen’s Club, Ankrah felt that the champagne gave the otherwise tropical drink a glamorous edge – the kind of thing he imagined a porn star might enjoy drinking.
When he returned to London to run Townhouse in 2002, he set about tinkering further with the drink, using the more restrained moniker of ‘Maverick Martini’ when serving it to friends and family, and ‘Pornstar Martini’ for those nights when hedonism was dialled up to 11.
Ankrah – being a fan of desserts – made the natural association of passion fruit and vanilla, and although he enjoys twisting the drink with other base spirits such as rum or tequila, he initially reached for vodka as he was after a ‘bread-and-butter drink’; a crowd pleaser that fell in line with his vodka-swilling customers.
That simplicity might go down well with the public, but it’s not always made it popular with bartenders. Some treat the drink with disdain, others are eager to make (and push) less accessible and more complicated creations.
‘Bars are their own victims,’ Ankrah tells me. ‘Although I don’t mind twists, I’ve always been a big fan of simple drinks like the Bloody Mary.’
People drink with their eyes, and I wanted to make a drink that was immediately recognisable
And they don’t get much simpler than this four-ingredient, two-flavour drink: vanilla sugar and vodka, passion fruit liqueur and purée.
Two glasses & a spoon
However, simplicity of creation and directness of flavours only get you so far. The reason the drink has stood the test of time is that within it there are some delicious juxtapositions: it is at once accessible yet exotic.
By Elliot Davies for Genuine Liquorette, 2018
New York-based Genuine Liquorette made a name for itself with its cha-chunkers – cocktails served in cans with a miniature liquor bottle inverted into them. When Liquorette opened its London outpost, Davies wanted to create cha-chunkers out of British classics, hence this irreverent take on the PsM.
Glass: Can of Rio Tropical
Garnish: Bushy mint sprig and passion fruit quarter
Method: Cut the top of the can (Liquorette uses its signature cha-chunker machine to do this). Drain a little of the Rio out and add rest of ingredients. Leave the mini upturned in the can, and wedge in the garnish.
1 can Rio Tropical
50ml Absolut Vanilia Vodka miniature
10ml lemon juice
3 dashes Bob’s Vanilla Bitters
1 dash Fee Brothers Lime Bitters
And once it had found its way to Townhouse’s iconic sister bar LAB on Old Compton Street – where not just its reputation but the ‘Pornstar’ prefix was cemented – the contrast between the irreverent name, fun cocktail and champagne in a shot glass was something unexpected that struck a note with the early-2000s crowd.
‘People drink with their eyes, and I wanted to make a drink that was immediately recognisable and stuck out in a busy bar,’ explains Ankrah of his creation.
He designed the champagne shot as a palate cleanser (not, as some believe, as a shot, or even worse, to be poured into the drink).
With half a passion fruit laid atop the drink and a teaspoon served on the side, this interactive element is undoubtedly another strong part of the Pornstar Martini’s appeal.
Apart from flammable nonsense designed to get you drunk such as flaming sambucas and Flaming Lamborghinis, that generation of London bar patrons was not, at that time, much used to theatre. But, with its two glasses and a spoon, here was a drink that stimulated discussion and explanation.
Incidentally, the ‘Douglas Ankrah sanctioned order’ of this ritual is: ‘eat the seeds from the passion fruit with the spoon first, then sip the drink, alternating with sips of champagne.’
Clearly, as I experienced the first time I had tried the drink, not all bartenders got the memo. Elliot Davies, former bar manager for Genuine Liquorette, which serves a popular version using an Absolut Vodka mini dunked in a can of Rio Tropical (see boxed recipe), sees it through a slightly different lens.
He suggests the Pornstar Martini’s appeal is perhaps down to the fact that it is so easy to adapt, not just by the bartender, but by the guest.
‘It’s one of my favourite drinks of all time,’ he says. ‘Not only is it fun and audacious, it’s the first time I came across a drink that would empower the customer in such a way.’
Elliott Ball, bartender and owner of Cocktail Trading Company in Shoreditch, adds, ‘It is not just the ritual, but that feeling of generosity.’ His bar is well known for its meticulous cocktail menus with a strong sense of tone and identity, with all listed cocktails being distinctive, creative and extremely original (even if some are twists).
By JJ Goodman for The London Cocktail Club
Garnish: Passion fruit half
Method: Add all ingredients except prosecco to shaker. Shake and fine strain into a Martini glass. Float the passion fruit half to garnish and serve the prosecco in a shot glass on the side.
25ml Passoa Passion Fruit Liqueur
20ml cloudy apple juice
20ml Funkin Passion Fruit Purée
10ml vanilla syrup
Ball didn’t particularly want to list the PsM on his current menu given the focus of the concept (nor some of the other heavy hitters such as Espresso Martinis or Appletinis), but recognised that – especially in his high-volume bar with an open-armed approach to a mixed demographic of guests – it would be foolish to turn down their requests for such drinks.
To that end he created The Back Bar Project, which takes the top 20 most frequently ordered cocktails that are off-menu and prebatches them so when ordered they can be delivered swiftly and efficiently in order to ‘fulfil and exceed the customer’s expectations without being especially different – it’s not a statement. Anyone who comes into Cocktail Trading Company, turns down the entire menu and goes for a Pornstar has already made a statement’.
This seems a great solution for bars that perhaps are striving for a more focused drinks offering but recognise that they still have a particular demographic to accommodate. It might also help to explain a recent influx of bottled Pornstar Martinis over the past few years, from the likes of Craft Cocktail Company, Tails and, not least, Ankrah’s very own bottling. The latter is now registered as ‘P*star Martini’, with a ‘P*star Spritz’ being canned as I write this.
Not to be outdone, purée specialist Funkin, who has the honour of being recognised as the go-to purée for the drink, has a version that can be found on tap in the likes of large pub chains, alongside the likes of a version from Frizzenti.
Beat the Mojito
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that, with all of these heavy hitters tapping (sorry) into the popularity of the Pornstar Martini, there is currently something of a revival of Ankrah’s creation going on.
But JJ Goodman, founder of the constantly expanding, 11-strong London Cocktail Club group of bars, as well as the aforementioned Craft Cocktail Company, is not so sure. He thinks that what we are seeing now is not so much a revival of the drink as it is a continuous growth in popularity, to a level where the cocktail has become unmissable.
The Pornstar Martini has a sense of occasion. It just screams out ‘‘PARTY’’!
According to Goodman, the drink finally overtook the Mojito around five years ago. But he says that it has always been popular with punters and its sales have never dropped, only risen. Since one in five cocktails sold in his venue is a Pornstar Martini, with 200,000 served over the past year, it must be said that he speaks with some authority on the subject.
For Goodman, its popularity isn’t hard to understand. ‘It just has a sense of occasion,’ he explains. ‘It just screams out ‘‘PARTY’’! Also, when you think about it, there aren’t really that many truly accessible vodka drinks in the UK that can call themselves classics.’
As an aside, he also notes that, surprisingly, the drink hasn’t really travelled, and has only made waves in the UK: ‘Nobody knows about this drink in the USA,’ he says. ‘I’ve never seen it listed there.’
The Long Film
By Alex King for the UK Bartenders Guild Espresso Martini Competition, 2018
King’s unusual mash-up of London’s two famous ‘Martinis’ links the sweet, fruity and acidic notes present in both passion fruit and coffee beans for a contemporary take.
Method: Stir, strain and serve in a
coupe with a rock of ice.
40ml Grey Goose Vodka
20ml Grey Goose La Vanille Vodka
10ml amontillado sherry
10ml passion fruit coffee cordial*
1 dash saline solution (10:1)
1 dash citric acid
*A simple syrup with medium-roast coffee beans and passion fruit seeds and pulp, infused with citric and tartaric acids.
So, given its gradual growth in popularity, why did I have the impression that this ‘Pornstar boom’ had only come about in the past couple of years? Why have I only just noticed it appearing on menus once more? And not just high-volume cocktail bars, but in bars with bartenders of a more experimental or ‘modern’ approach?
Looking at the boxed recipes on these pages, there certainly seems to have been an influx of twists created in the last year. It suggests that a generation of bartenders and bars have spent the past decade or so choosing to ignore the steady growth of the drink, opting instead to champion forgotten vintage classics or push the boundaries of drinks with esoteric ingredients and high-tech methods.
I know of at least one influential bar group that made a point at the time the drink started to rise in popularity of purposely not stocking vanilla sugar in order to castrate orders. They also strongly hinted on their menus that the popular categorisation of ’tinis (chocolate, apple, Pornstar and so forth) was perhaps not in line with their more purist approach. The PsM was not welcome.
To be or not to be... pure?
Again, Goodman is not so sure it’s this simple. He likens the downplaying of the drink by bartenders on the front line to what he describes as the ‘Mojito debate’.
‘I don’t think it is so much about bartenders being snobby about the drink, more the boredom of having to repeatedly make the same drink over and over again,’ he reasons. This sounds plausible. Why, after all, wouldn’t a bartender get frustrated or, at the very least, unlikely to recommend a drink they have had to make a hundred times during the first half of their shift?
Somewhat ironically, perhaps, the Pornstar Martini does now have its purists who stand by Ankrah’s original recipe and are adamant that, if made properly with the right ingredients, it is a beautifully balanced and complex drink; one not just for the masses, but for so-called ‘serious’ cocktail drinkers too.
There will always be interpretations of classics; I can’t police it
That said, the likes of Goodman and Ball have chosen to alter the recipe to fit their high-volume needs, controversially adding a little apple juice into the mix, with Ball going further by having everything from hints of cardamom, salt, vermouth and rooibos tea in there. Goodman believes the apple juice tempers the tartness of the drink, and this seems to fit with what his customers want.
What, then, does Douglas Ankrah think of all this? ‘I don’t mind twists, as long as they taste good and I’m still acknowledged as the creator,’ he says phlegmatically. ‘The Beatles openly admitted that Chuck Berry was their key source of inspiration. There will always be interpretations of classics; I can’t police it.’
The jury might be out on whether the Pornstar Martini really is the biggest-selling cocktail in the UK, but there’s no denying it’s grown, since its creation 17 years ago, to become one of the most popular. And why not? Irreverent but populist, safe but naughty, familiar but escapist, simple but complex, solid yet pliable, and above all, delicious. The Pornstar is dead, long live the Pornstar.