The Pornstar Martini combines striking and sweet ingredients like vanilla vodka and passion fruit, and its gaudy name and bold appearance have garnered plenty of attention over the last few decades. This modern classic cocktail was first concocted by Douglas Ankrah, who watched the cocktail grow in popularity in the U.K. and beyond over the last two decades.
On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy chats with Pornstar Martini expert and owner of Birmingham, Ala.’s Queen’s Park, Laura Newman. Newman breaks down the ideal specs of the classic Pornstar Martini, iterations on its specs, and how she is doing the Pornstar Martini (and Ankrah) justice with her own version of the drink.
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Laura Newman’s (Classic) Pornstar Martini Recipe
- 1 1⁄2 ounces vanilla vodka, such as Grey Goose La Vanille
- 1⁄2 ounce passion fruit liqueur
- 2 ounces passion fruit puree
- 2 barspoons vanilla sugar
- 2 ounces sparkling wine, ideally Champagne
- Garnish: 1/2 fresh passion fruit
- Add all ingredients except sparkling wine to a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
- Shake vigorously until well chilled and aerated.
- Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
- Garnish with fresh passion fruit and a demitasse spoon.
- Serve with sparkling wine sidecar.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” We have Laura Newman joining us today, everyone. Laura, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Laura Newman: Well, thanks for having me.
T: I was looking at a copy of your résumé earlier — it was very impressive — and one thing stood out to me. Those were the words “Pornstar Martini expert.”
L: I’m still not sure who told you this about me, but I’m extremely flattered.
T: Well, that is a title anyone should be proud to have. This is a drink that I think goes woefully underappreciated, and I think it’s just such a great story. This drink also happens to be my mum’s favorite cocktail. So on all accounts, I’m very excited to dive into this one.
L: Same. It’s also my mother’s favorite cocktail. She’s actually flying down to Birmingham to visit today, so she will be having a few at least.
T: I definitely can’t have just one. But before we dive into some of the more technical aspects, let’s just talk about this drink from a cultural standpoint. I feel kind of like, as a British transplant, that it’s maybe more widely appreciated or more widely known in the U.K. But definitely it is this cocktail that has gained steam over the years here in the U.S. What’s the reaction from bar guests for you? Is this a beloved cocktail? What’s the general vibe?
L: I’ve had it on the menu at my cocktail bar, Queen’s Park, since we opened in 2018. But we really opened with our normal classic menu in January 2019. We’ve had it on the menu without stop since we opened, and it is hands down the best-selling drink of all time at this bar by a really large margin. The bar is actually named after another cocktail, the Queen’s Park Swizzle, and yet the Pornstar Martini is No. 1. I want to say the Queen’s Park Swizzle is No. 5 in terms of all-time greatest sales.
L: Just to give you an idea of where it is in terms of, it’s more popular than the drink we named the bar after.
T: People knew you were the expert.
L: I know, I just need to open a bar called Pornstar, but I don’t think the Alabama government would let me. When we first put the drink on the menu it was, from what I understand, not on any other menus in Birmingham at that time. I frequented pretty much every cocktail bar in the city and did not see it anywhere. Coming from New York, I obviously had more than several at several different places. We put it on the menu. I think people were initially a little scandalized by the name, especially in the South. Even though Birmingham is a larger, more liberal city, people were still like, “What is this?” The appeal of it is twofold. First off, people are drawn to it because of this name that, for a lot of people, is still kind of naughty to say and to order. It also is this mixture of things that are absolutely delicious when combined together and have a history of being combined together in pastry, so people may already have an association with it from either cakes or baked items. They may have had it previously. Or if they haven’t had it, it’s something that’s shown, tried and true, to be this combo that people love.
T: You talk about the name there. I do think it’s one of these slightly scandalous names. When it first came out, or in certain markets, that might continue to be the case. There’s a number of notable things about this drink that make it striking, that make it stand out. We’re going to get into all of those; the color, the garnish, the sidecar that comes with it. This is not a cocktail that’s trying to blend in and mix into the fold. This is in your face. But I would argue, like you say, this can be a wonderful drink when treated properly and with respect.
L: Absolutely. This is a really good example of how it really comes down to the ingredients, to the minutiae of how you want to present and combine these flavors. Obviously, the original recipe is my favorite. But in some cases, if you can’t execute it for reasons that I’m sure we’ll talk about, you can actually overcome some of those and hack it in a way that makes it possible to execute it where you are, which I like.
T: Hacking Pornstar Martinis. That is going to be our task for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Before we dive in, just a quick reminder for anyone who’s not familiar with it. This is vanilla vodka, passion fruit in a couple of guises, sweetening agent, and then a side of sparkling wine, traditionally. That’s the general composition that we’re talking about.
T: Can you tell us about the backstory of this drink, though? There are all these conversations out there about modern classics and modern classic cocktails. What constitutes that? Some of the drinks that we give that title to, I would argue that you could go to many bars and the bartender might not have heard of, or might not know the spec of by heart. This is an example that’s broken into the mainstream in the modern history of cocktails. Correct?
L: I think that it’s a really interesting cocktail in the sense that, like you said, it was created while we were alive and it grew in popularity while we were alive. There aren’t a lot of classics like that. For a lot of classics, we look at these menus and it’ll be people that died hundreds of years ago. We have no way of knowing their thoughts on the original drink outside of what has been published. Sometimes, there’s not even the author it’s really attributed to. It might be like, “Oh yeah, it was served at this one bar but we’re not really sure who came up with it.” However, more recently, we do have this generation of cocktails coming out where we know the people that made them. A Trinidad Sour, Giuseppe Gonzalez. You have Dick Bradsell with the Bramble and the Espresso Martini. In the case of the Pornstar Martini, we have Doug Ankrah — or Douglas or D — depending on what you knew him as. He only recently passed away. But this is a great example of a drink creator being able to witness the global popularity of a cocktail they created and its ascension to the pantheon of modern classic cocktails.
T: Incredible, imagine that.
L: Which is super cool. Anyways, a little bit on Doug. A really great regret that I have, especially as someone who is apparently a Pornstar Martini expert, is that I actually never got a chance to meet him. Unfortunately, I left New York prior to getting to meet him there, and I don’t think visiting Birmingham in the U.S. was very high on his or anyone’s list of places they’re excited about going to. Which hopefully is changing, but it’s not a massive destination yet. He didn’t really make it down and for me to meet him, but I got to speak to some of his really good friends about him, and it’s been really interesting to learn about him. He was actually a member of the Ghanian royal family. He was very proud of his culture. He moved to the U.K. and was pretty much just in London. People describe him as having been a boundary pusher, really ahead of his time. But at the same time, really big on ensuring that the next generation of bartenders were educated, that he passed his knowledge on to them. He was one of the first people to require people to work in a support role before moving behind the bar at the bars that he owned: Lab and Townhouse. You had to barback before you could start serving drinks, which we do at my bar. I mean, it’s pretty common, I think. The idea for the Pornstar Martini came to him when he was actually running a bar program at a place called Mavericks, otherwise known as Mavs, which was a gentlemen’s club. He was writing his book “Shaken and Stirred.” Apparently, the PG name for a Pornstar Martini — I think this is a little more common in the U.K. — is a Maverick Martini. That was fun to learn. And then he menu-ed/developed the drink into what it is today at Lab, which was a bar created by the London Academy of Bartenders, a group he founded. The really interesting thing is, he knew Dick Bradsell and he saw him create the Espresso Martini and the Bramble. He made no money from his creative efforts. And he was like, “as a bartender, I’m going to make money off of this.” Which was, again, ahead of his time and kind of daunting seeing as how once we create a cocktail, it’s the public domain.
T: It’s just so incredible, though, that he managed to watch this creation over time and spread around the world and gain this incredible popularity. I’m not sure if he did manage to monetize it in any way. I hope that he did. But as you mentioned there, that’s not always the case, sadly, when it comes to drinks and drinks culture.
L: He was able to, in a sense. He had a lot of irons in the fire. Like I said, he was really creative. He was really big on thinking about, not necessarily like disruptive things, but he was really on the money in terms of always realizing things that were ahead of the trend. Sometimes to his detriment, in that he sometimes pursued stuff before people were ready for it. He was creating this line prior to Covid. I feel like doing Covid and during lockdown, RTDs really took off. Maybe more like 2019 is when I really started noticing them in the South, which is kind of like the last place stuff hits. But he was creating Pornstar RTD, and he was looking into maybe creating some sort of proprietary mixer for it. He had developed that drink during lockdown basically into Pornstar kits that he was selling. He was, to a smaller degree, monetizing them. It’s obviously a tragedy that he passed away, but especially from a historical and development-of-cocktail standpoint, we never really got to see where he was going to take this idea of monetizing it. I feel like he was the kind of person who was so big on these ingenious ideas. It’s really unfortunate to not see this final form of creating the template like he did with making people barback first, and creating this template that spread around the globe, creating a template for how to monetize and capitalize on creating a modern classic.
Breaking Down the Pornstar Martini
T: Yeah, 100 percent. Certainly some of the aspects of his personality and legacy that you’re describing there are epitomized by this creation and live on through it. This idea of being a maverick, and just the cocktail itself. We spoke a little bit about it, the striking appearance, the combination of ingredients that are common in other fields, but perhaps had never been brought together in cocktails before. So let’s dive into those now and let’s dive into the drink. First of all, if you order this drink, what are you expecting to receive both visually and also the profile of the drink within the glass? What are you hoping for in its highest form?
L: There are a few caveats in here that I can go into further. But disregarding things like the environmental impact of flying exotic fruit around the world, wasting glassware, and water during service, I am expecting a striking, powerful yellow cocktail. Two vessels, one is a sidecar, and it can be anything from a standard, basic shot glass to more of a stemmed cordial glass. I expect the drink itself, though, to be in a coupe glass. Ideally, there’s going to be at least some room in that coupe. I think a lot of people don’t think about this, but the idea of the side serve should be that you can either have it separately as a shot or you can add it to the cocktail all or partially. I have a lot of feelings about that. The drink is garnished with a half-slice of passion fruit. Again, we’re not going to talk about the cost or environmental impacts of this.
T: We’ll just say that you care about these things, but we’re ignoring them just for the purposes of this conversation.
L: Yeah. A half-passion fruit, a tiny demitasse spoon. The drink itself is extremely fluffy on the head. It’s been aerated, chilled, diluted correctly. It has a rich texture. And then for me, ideally, the sparkling wine has been specifically chosen to pair well with this cocktail. It is not necessarily the sparkling wine by the glass offered by this cocktail program.
T: Amazing. We will get into that, because I have some strong thoughts about the sparkling wine for this drink, too. But before we do, let’s break it down ingredient by ingredient — sparkling wine being one of them, but not the first. Let’s go with that base spirit, which we classically do when we’re breaking down cocktails. So what are we calling for here? And what’s your approach to the base spirit of this drink?
L: The original recipe calls for vanilla vodka. That was Doug’s original recipe. It’s really important when thinking about all the ingredients of this cocktail, to think about the fact that they really need to harmonize, and there is a tremendous amount of variation in all of these ingredients. So it’s really important that people tweak this drink correctly based on what they’re getting. For example, Doug had a preferred vanilla vodka. However, that may not be available in certain places. For us, they’re certainly not. We found that the vanilla vodkas that were available simply did not work for the flavor profile we were trying to achieve. It just tasted really artificial. It really did not do it for me. So we actually used an unflavored vodka, which I feel is fair given the other tweaks that we have made to accommodate that. However, the traditional recipe does call for a vanilla vodka.
T: Fantastic. We’ll get into some of the other ways that you can remedy that. But I think it’s a very important point that you make there, which is that just seeing something listed on a recipe doesn’t mean that it is canon. Maybe that has contributed to some of the strong feelings that people may have against this drink, whereby people are taking the ingredients very literally, but not tasting them all together. Maybe that takes us to an outcome that’s maybe too artificial or sweet — especially because the next two components of the drink we’re talking about are passion fruit in two different ways. Let’s start with the passion fruit liqueur first. Perhaps the most common of which being Passoa.
L: I would imagine it’s the most common, although there are some other great brands on the market, but I’m certainly not opposed to using it. I want to say that Doug’s original recipe called for that. But Giffard has a great one; so does Alizé. Chinola is another good one. There are a lot of options for people that are looking for a passion fruit liqueur to toss into their Pornstar Martini. But I do want to say his original recipe was Passoa, if I’m not mistaken.
T: Specifically from the flavor profile of that, is that something that’s going to be dead-on sweet? Is it going to be full-on tart? Or is it maybe somewhere landing somewhere between the two?
L: In my experience, passion fruit liqueur versus the passion fruit puree that’s up next is going to be the sweeter of the passion fruit expressions. Passion fruit, for those of us who haven’t bitten into a fresh one recently, is extremely tart. Your salivary glands get going immediately. It hurts the back of your jaw to eat in a pleasant way, for most people, I would hope. But passion fruit liqueur definitely is not as acidulated or acidic. I’m sure that in order to enhance the flavor, there are powdered acids added to them. But traditionally, this is the sweetener element in the original cocktail. There isn’t the addition of simple syrup or anything like that, so this is where the sweetness comes from.
T: You talk about two brands right there, Passoa and Alizé, which are definitely not things that in the early 2000s were being considered very seriously by those in the highest echelons of the bartending community. Maybe I’m wrong. But again, maybe that’s why this drink has sometimes been overlooked or not taken seriously enough.
L: Agreed. I hadn’t even really thought about that, but you’re right. I was talking to my mother, who was very fond of nightclubs in New York in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. And she was telling me about how she loved Alizé and Champagne. That was her drink. But she traditionally didn’t use it as a small cocktail ingredient. It was usually as part of a one-in-one or some sort of Alizé Champagne or Alizé vodka or something like that.
T: Nice. Next up, passion fruit puree. We’ve gotten some of the sweetness from that liqueur. That puree, therefore, is going to be doing the bulk of the work when it comes to making this drink refreshing, ideally.
L: Yes. Again, if you haven’t tasted it in a while, you may be a little rusty. I know I certainly don’t get exposed to passion fruit puree that often due to reasons we’ll speak about going forward. But traditionally, the recipe actually calls for a pretty tremendous amount of this. I think his original recipe was 2 ounces, approximately, of passion fruit puree, which is an insane amount to me. I actually just had one in preparation for this interview. Last weekend, I had an O.G. Doug Ankrah spec passion fruit Martini with 2 ounces of passion fruit. And let me tell you, it was extremely luxurious. I wish I could afford to do that all the time because it was incredible. It was really, really good. It added this really luscious mouthfeel. All that acidity that I talked about was right there. There is a sweetness in passion fruit, for those of us who use it in cocktails or in our bar setup. There is certainly some sweetness there, but it is tremendously offset by the amount of acidity that’s in it. So I wouldn’t necessarily think of this as adding too much sugar. It might be the equivalent of a significantly lower amount of simple syrup.
T: Typically in their ideal form, this is a frozen product that arrives that you will melt down, and you’ll have it there on hand, and has a shelf life and whatnot. It’s that frozen puree; we’re not talking about a cordial or something else. It’s in the original form.
L: Yes. I’ve also heard of places actually processing real passion fruits. That just sounds tremendously expensive on both a labor and materials front. I have never had one like that because I personally do not feel like processing enough passion fruit to yield 2 ounces of it. I just can’t fathom the cost of that. But supposedly, it’s delicious. But yes, this is traditionally something that is purchased frozen. A couple companies that I could think of off the top of my head that make them are Perfect Puree and Boiron. But the other issue, too, is that those two things can be really hard to come by if you’re not in a major market. In the case of Doug, or me having been from New York, it’s really easy to get those things. They cost a lot less because they’re brought directly into that market. They’re imported directly from where they’re produced to New York, Chicago, or L.A., and then they get distributed around the rest of the country. Perfect Puree is in Napa Valley; Boiron’s in France. But if you have access to it in a way that is cost effective for a beverage program, it is absolutely delightful in a Pornstar Martini.
T: Amazing. That final flavor profile that we mentioned there — tart enough so that this shaken cocktail with these other ingredients resembles something of a sour. It actually doesn’t contain any citrus, classically.
L: That’s correct. Classically, there is no citrus in Doug’s recipe. But again, depending on how you’re hacking this drink or trying to think about a way to make it more cost effective in a beverage program or even cost achievable in a beverage program, you may need to add some citrus. It’s still to the spirit of the drink to do that, I think that’s fair. I don’t think you should penalize a bar that is in a really small market and cannot fiscally add these ingredients in a way that they can afford. They can charge what the market will bear for that. I think that’s fair.
T: Ultimately, you’re looking to achieve a final flavor profile. We’re not just talking about trying to religiously stick to the list of ingredients, it’s a case-by-case scenario.
L: Yes, I agree with that.
T: Interestingly, while we’re not opting for citrus, we are still going to include some more sweetening agent. What’s the traditional thinking here?
L: I want to say that the original one is just sugar or vanilla sugar, sugar that’s been put in a jar with vanilla. If I’m bartending at home and I want to make the O.G. one, yes, that’s great. But if I’m in a bar working a busy service, you do have to think about stuff like that, too. Incorporating actual sugar instead of a sugar syrup into a cocktail just takes longer in order to emulsify it and dissolve it into the liquid, and not let any sugar be left over and not get into the drink. So I want to say the original one is vanilla sugar, which again, it’s basically infusing white sugar with vanilla bean pods in a jar. More commonly, in any sort of volume bar setting, it’s usually a vanilla syrup at this point.
T: That makes a ton of sense. Now onto the sparkling wine sidecar. I’ve seen varying accounts. I believe some people have reported Champagne being the original. The version that I’ve always come across, and that would seem to make slightly more sense with the soul of the drink, is Prosecco. How do you feel about the sparkling wine for this drink?
L: I want to say the O.G. recipe calls for Champagne, and I think the reason for that being that Champagne is the most expensive sparkling wine. It has the most prestige. Even though it is prestigious and the Queen of England is drinking it with oysters, they’re also popping it at strip clubs. It’s something that has this sort of high and low connotation. But it’s this idea of, we’re spending a lot of money; it’s luxe but it can be in this more lowbrow setting. In my opinion, I do think that sparkling rosé, and ideally a rosé Champagne, is the correct side serve in that, even though that is not the original original spec, just because sparkling rosé and rosé Champagne is ostentatious. It’s luxurious; it costs even more than Champagne, usually. And that sort of works with the idea of a Pornstar Martini to be this over-the-top, luxurious, bougie cocktail. That’s how we serve it, at least. But my biggest thing with this sparkling wine is that it has to match the drink. So many people again just say, “Oh, we have this sparkling wine by the glass, so that’s what’s going to be the side serve.” Any time we had a production issue — they were no longer able to get the sparkling rosé that we were using — we did a tasting of six different sparkling rosés against our Pornstar Martinis back at Queen’s Park. Because I wanted to make sure that it paired correctly with the drink, both as a secondary sip or shot after sipping the drink, or something that you could pour into the drink. Thinking about the O.G. recipe versus how you can tweak it a little bit, what we do is, ours is slightly sweeter than Doug’s recipe for various reasons involving the procurement of ingredients. There’s also a sweeter palate here in the South, and I like having the rosé as a way for a guest to temper the cocktail a little bit. We have some people that are like, “I love it the way it is, I’m going to do it as a shot afterwards.” We also have some people who pour the whole thing in or part of it in, because it adds more acidity. Champagne or any sparkling wine is going to have that acidity in it. For me, it gives guests the option to kind of hack their own cocktail a little bit. We get such positive feedback from guests that are like, “I love being able to adjust the cocktails to the way that I like it.” There’s no other bar that I know of in the city that does something like that, where you’re encouraged to make the drink to your liking.
T: This is a nice kind of clean natural transition into the garnish here, because I’m hearing something having been done or is happening. Someone asked me about this recently and I’m like, “Wait, no, that is an abomination. Who’s doing this?” Some people are taking the passion fruit garnish, the half passion fruit cut in half, removing the meat of the fruit, and serving the sparkling wine inside that. And that’s the only sparkling wine that you’re getting. That is not how it should be done, right?
L: No. Again, it’s over the top, it’s ostentatious, it’s a second glass. Whether or not that second glass is so high volume that it just needs to be a shot glass, maybe you can get a cute little cut glass. That has unfortunately been out of stock since six months into Covid. But I’m hoping it comes back; that has a really pretty side serve. You can throw those against a wall and they survive. Or something in a lower-volume, more expensive establishment like a footed, tiny, cordial glass of a couple of ounces. I’ve seen really beautiful vintage ones used. I think that a big part of the serve is having it be two pieces of glass. There’s no other cocktail where you get two glasses instead of one. So I think it’s really important that it comes in that second glass. Also, it’s just messy.
Laura Newman’s Queen’s Park Pornstar Martini
T: You’ve alluded multiple times to you having to overcome different issues, but ultimately arriving at your ideal serve based upon what you’re able to do where you are. Before we get into that, I was wondering, can you outline the recipe, build, and technique for making this drink in its most classic form? After talking us through that, can you talk about how your current version differs from that? Those are really important points for people in similar markets as yourself. Can we start with a classic version?
L: Oh, of course. It’s really important to, whenever possible, hew to the classic when you are showcasing one. So the O.G recipe is going to be approximately 1 and a half to 2 ounces of vanilla vodka. I know he was really fond of Grey Goose’s vanilla expression. But there are different ones you can use to play around with to make sure this plays nicely with the other ingredients. A half-ounce of passion fruit liqueur, 2 ounces of passion fruit puree, and then two bar spoons — so approximately like a quarter-ounce, if we’re doing by volume — of vanilla sugar. And then approximately 1 and a half to 2 ounces of chilled Champagne on the side. The garnish is half of a passion fruit, ideally with a demitasse spoon.
T: You said serving that into a chilled coupe glass with enough space, should the guest wish, and the nicest possible sidecar. This is a shaken cocktail. Are you double straining this after shaking? Do you have any shaking tips?
L: My feeling on double straining is that, with the advent of the tightly coiled Hawthorne strainers that were produced by Cocktail Kingdom eight years ago now, those have really made a double strain pretty unnecessary. If you’re closing the gate, unless there’s going to be a muddled element to it, that pretty much gets rid of that ice sheen on top. It’s not an “I-ordered-a-drink-at-an-ice-rink” kind of thing. So I would do a single strain, but double if you’re working with an older or less tightly wound Hawthorne strainer. In terms of shaking it, you want to do a pretty hard shake. One thing that you can do to augment that would be the addition of either a king cube, which is a silicone 2-by-2-inch square that you can add in along with ice, or you could shake with a large format cube. The one issue with this, as someone with a torn labrum I’m very aware of, is this can cause tremendous damage to your body. So I don’t know if I would recommend shaking with a large cube if you’re selling 10,000 of these over a couple of years.
T: The ultimate goal there being, just as much aeration as possible. And that ultimately translates to this iconic serve and what it looks like at the end of the day in the glass.
L: I will note that I haven’t been able to find any photos of Doug actually pouring and completing a passion fruit Martini. The thing to consider is, I’m not sure if he intended for there to be room to pour in some of the sidecar or not. I think his original intention might have been more for it to be a fun party shot, either before or after the drink. But in my perfect Pornstar, anticipating the needs and wants of our guests who may want to make the drink a little more acidic, I try to leave a little bit of room.
T: That’s very considerate there, and I totally go along with you on that one. We kind of skipped over this, too, but the little demitasse spoon that is traditionally served in there, is that so you can scoop out fresh passion fruit?
L: Yes. I remember, I had never seen an edible side serve or garnish with a cocktail before I saw my first Pornstar Martini, and I loved the theater of it. The fact that it was three items of serving — the coupe glass, the shot or a cordial glass, and then the demitasse — I loved the theatricality of it.
Hacking the Pornstar Martini
T: Me too. I love that this drink is kind of extra and just comes with those accessories. That really adds to this drink. Getting back into hacking Pornstar Martinis, can you now share your specific recipe and some of the techniques and ingredients that you’ve come across to overcome those supply difficulties that you mentioned before? Especially in smaller markets, like you said.
L: The first thing that bears explaining is, different U.S. states get to add a different amount of taxes to alcohol that’s brought into the state. So the state of Alabama has the fourth-highest Liquor Excise Tax, this is what it’s called. So basically, it means that alcohol is way more expensive here, even wholesale, than it is in other states like New York, where I worked for 10 years before moving here. Because of that, things like modifiers such as passion fruit liqueur, are tremendously expensive here. Anything of value added, for example vanilla vodka, is way more money here than it would be anywhere else. Even though other things like the lease on my space for Queen’s Park is less, it’s still detrimental to our overall product cost. Putting in modifiers will dramatically raise it. One thing that I started doing when considering all my cocktails was, I started trying to reverse engineer different modifiers so that we didn’t have to rely on them. The other issue, too, is that we’re a control state, so double whammy, which means that it’s really challenging for us to just get certain things. The state is basically our liquor store. Unfortunately, this liquor store is run by people who have never worked in the industry, have no interest in the industry, and don’t understand the industry. We used to have to beg them to bring in Campari every year because they said they don’t sell that much of it. Well, yeah, I realize that. But there’s this drink called a Negroni you might have heard of, and you can’t make it without Campari. There’s no other way to make a Negroni.
T: That’s crazy.
L: It’s basically like the inmates are running the asylum; they have no idea what’s happening. So it’s really important for us to make sure that, especially for our most popular drinks like a Pornstar Martini and an Espresso Martini, things like passion fruit liqueur and coffee liqueur weren’t things that we had to scramble for. Legally, we can’t go buy it from a store. We can’t go to another state to buy it. They give you no options. The funny thing is, we’ve ended up sort of hacking these liqueurs, meaning we’re not buying these things from the state anymore. So they’re actually making less money than they would be if they just carried it. Anyways, I have a lot of feelings about that. The first thing we did was we created our own passion fruit liqueur. The issue, too, with this was that things like Perfect Puree and Boiron are really, really hard to get here. You can get a 22-pound box of Boiron online — which is actually sadly very small — but it’s about $125 per box. And if you’re using a full 2 ounces of passion fruit puree, it just makes for a drink cost that’s wild. Same thing with vanilla vodka. I remember costing the drink and I was like, “Cool, this is going to be an $18 cocktail with tax. Nobody was going to pay for that.” I know it’s more common in big cities, but our most expensive drink on the menu right now is $13, including tax. We also have the highest tax in the country; it’s 10 percent. So there’s a lot going against us. So what we ended up doing is basically hacking our own passion fruit liqueur/puree. We just add it in one form. We also use lime juice in ours simply because, even with the addition of powdered acids, our passion fruit liqueur combo is not tart enough, and we keep lime juice in the well, so it’s really not an issue. We use vanilla syrup exclusively for the vanilla, we just use a little more than it calls for in the original. Because of the fact that, again, vanilla vodka is so expensive here and we can’t unfortunately use that. For our sparkling wine, we do a sparkling rosé. It’s not a Champagne. Again, that liquor excise tax does apply to wine as well, so it’s really expensive here. But we do have a great sparkling Cab Franc from the Loire that I’m really fond of, and we specifically chose it for this drink. That’s what we offer as by-the-glass. But rather than being like, “Oh, that’s what we have by the glass; that’s what we’re going to use,” we’re like, “OK, cool, so we also sell this by the glass now.” I have a great cost on it because if your best-selling cocktail uses an ounce and a half of wine in it, you never have to toss the wine. We have zero waste on it, which is awesome.
T: That is awesome.
L: For garnish, ethically, I don’t feel great about passion fruits. They’re not grown here; they have to be shipped and trucked here. Bars produce 100,000 pounds of waste on average a year. I feel like whenever I can, I will kind of mitigate the environmental impact of that. It’s the same thing that 70 companies produce 90 percent of carbon emissions in the world. Individuals don’t produce as much. But if as a business owner I can lower the amount of impact I’m having, I’m going to try and do that. We do that in a lot of different ways throughout the space. But one small way is we just garnish it with a lime wheel. I wish we could do a passion fruit. Obviously, it looks so much cooler. I just ethically didn’t feel great about doing that, although I am known to enjoy a Pornstar with an actual passion fruit garnish.
T: There are so many great points that you bring up. Talking into all the different worlds that any one drink made behind a bar and serving to guests can creep into, right? We’re talking taxation here, different state laws, environmental issues, all of them coming together in this one drink. I think that’s a wonderful way of highlighting that.
L: Texturally, ours is still rich from the sugar. It’s not as rich, obviously, as with 2 ounces of passion fruit puree. But it’s still a great drink. It is the spirit of the drink. If Doug were to have seen it when he was alive, he would give me a high five and be like, “Keep going, that’s great.” So I feel good about it.
T: Amazing: hacking and reverse engineering the Pornstar Martini with Laura Newman. Wonderful. Any final thoughts on this drink before we move into the final segment of our show?
L: Gosh, not really. It’s nice to have all this primary-source information from the person who created it. I think that’s so cool. My menu is actually in APA format, with credits of who created the drink. So it’s cool to have his name underneath the drink. I think that’s really important to give credit where credit is due. Literally every single drink has that. But especially for him, it’s cool, because of the date it was created. So you can see, “Oh, it was so recent.” I think that’s really cool educating consumers. Some people are shocked at how new it is. Some people are like, “Oh, I drank passion fruit in the ’70s. Wow, I had no idea.” He was a modern guy who just was, in a lot of ways, ahead of his time. I think it’s really cool that he produced something that has had and will continue to have such impact. I can only hope to do something similar.
T: What he has done there is amazing. I love the fact that you’re continuing his legacy by naming him on the menu. Slightly unrelated, but I would like to add my own opinion for two seconds here, if folks will allow me to. Sometimes, people have spoken about this drink being too sweet, and that being something that we should count against the Pornstar Martini. No, I think all of the techniques that you’ve outlined there show how you can avoid doing that. But also, these are two ingredients that you mentioned at the top of the show, vanilla and passion fruit, that are traditionally found in desserts. There’s a reason why, if you’re having a three-course meal, only one of them is the dessert. Or if you’re doing a five- or seven-course tasting menu, you’re going to get one or two desserts, and the rest are going to be savory. We’re not supposed to enjoy too many sweet things. You can say, yeah, maybe you’re only going to have one. I challenge that, though. You probably — definitely — always want two. That shouldn’t be held against the Pornstar Martini.
L: Taste your drinks and dial your spec in if you think that the original recipe is too sweet. You can add a sour agent. Obviously, it’s a shaken drink, so of course it’s going to be sweeter than just a spirit served up. If someone is complaining about a drink being too sweet as its original spec, then change it and modify it; make it to your palate. It’s still the spirit of the original drink.
Getting To Know Laura Newman
T: No one can argue against passion fruit and vanilla working together seamlessly. Well, that’s been wonderful. It was a truly enjoyable conversation and exploration there. Laura, thank you for that. Now for our quick-hit questions to finish the show. How do you feel?
L: Oh, I feel great. I’m enjoying a rainy day, drinking some tea, and chatting about cocktails. I mean, this is a great morning.
T: So question No. 1 for our guests to get to know you a little bit more as a bartender in your program: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
L: I was thinking about this and I was like, “Man, he’s probably just talking about my house.” But I, of course, went to my bars. At my cocktail bar, Queen’s Park, it’s a toss up between whiskey and rum. At my nightclub that I owned called Neon Moon, it’s whiskey for sure. At my house, it’s probably amari and modifiers. I’ll be like, “Oh, we can’t get this here,” and then I bring it home and never use it. We just have so much stuff. In terms of spirit, though, it would be rum or definitely in the rum family.
T: Amazing. So that’s kind of neck and neck there, whiskey and rum kind of across the board. Nice. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
L: Oh, yikes. You told me about this one ahead of time, and I’m still having a lot of emotions about it. Most undervalued? Ingredient wise, I’m really fond of vanilla. We keep it in our well because of the Pornstar Martini, but I use vanilla in a lot of things. I think it can add to a perception of sweetness without actually adding sweetness. That’s a really cool way to play around with people’s expectations and then perceptions of taste in a cocktail.
T: Nice, I like it. Very on-brand for this conversation, so thank you.
L: I had to do it.
T: Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
L: I thought about this one, too. That’s hard. I can’t even remember who told me to do this, but just remembering to have hobbies and a life outside of the industry. As much as I love cocktails and I love bartending and I’ve been doing this for a very long time and I hope to continue to do it for a long time, I do think it’s really healthy to have friends that don’t work in the industry; to do things that aren’t industry-related. I read books that have nothing to do with cocktails. I garden. I would say I run, but everyone should be exercising. I intentionally choose to do things that have nothing to do with the industry. Or I volunteer at a food pantry, stuff like that. Just doing things that keep you from being too emotionally and physically set in into the booze world. Nothing wrong with it, but I just think it’s nice to vary what you do.
T: And it keeps the job fresh, keeps the passion alive when it comes to approaching your profession.
L: Yeah. I think it’s really important to have a thing that’s yours outside of that.
T: Wonderful. Question No. 4; penultimate question here. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
L: I’m going to be honest, I absolutely love Lyaness in London. Whenever I tell people this they’re like, “Oh, you don’t like X?” Yes, I like that too, but I just love Lyaness. It’s what I want when I go to a bar, I absolutely adore it. I love the staff every time I go. I went once when I was in London, and my husband called me right before I walked in the door and he was like, “Two of our dogs have escaped.” They were found eventually, but I walked in and I was hysterically crying, and the staff was so wonderful to me. They were so cool about taking it in stride, and they brought me tea. They were like, “Do you need us to call anyone in the U.S.?” I was having this completely come apart, and they were just so wonderful. The hospitality there was great. I love the drinks. I love everything about their steps of service; they really do it for me. I truly love that bar. I look forward to going there every time. And then in the U.S., I love sitting at any bar that Sother Teague is working at. He is my mentor and a great friend. I love watching him bartend, even if he’s super busy and I am the last person he talks to, I love watching him talk to other people and just be a master of his craft.
T: Two very fine choices right there. Final question for the show today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
L: I feel like this is a bit of a cop out because I’m not saying anything specific, although I can give specific examples. Anything by Luis Hernandez is a cocktail I want to drink. To me, that would just be a wonderful last cocktail to have. I worked with him at Bacchanal in Lower Manhattan in 2014, I want to say. It wasn’t love at first sight, but like mutual admiration and respect and really enjoying each other and each others’ palates at first sight. He does things that are so creative and interesting. The last drink I had from him when he was bartending, before he moved to more of a brand side, was an Old Fashioned that had chorizo in it somehow. It was chorizo-washed or something, it was incredible. It’s not just that it’s a delicious drink, but he’s come up with some crazy technique or taken an existing technique 10 steps further and done something so wild. He takes such a culinary approach to cocktails. To me, having a cocktail made by him and then being like, “I can’t drink anymore after this,” I’d be cool with that. I’d probably have it, I’d love it, and I’d know that cocktails are in a good place because he’s going to take them even further.
T: I love that idea as well of being like, “OK, I don’t care what it is you make, but as long as this person is making it, then that will make me happy.” Amazing. Well, Laura, thank you so much for taking the time today. I know of at least two listeners that are going to love this one. So if no one else does, both of our mothers are going to be happy. And that’s all that matters.
L: Tim, thank you so much. This has been so fun. I wish I could be there in person, but I guess I’ll have to come make you guys Pornstar Martinis in the studio the next time I’m up in New York.
T: We’ll be waiting, and we can’t wait for it. Thanks, Laura.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.