Every year, the U.K.-based Difford’s Guide publishes a list of what they call the World’s Top 100 Cocktails. It’s not an opinion piece, or an editorial endorsement—when they say “top” they mean by popularity, the list is ranked by web traffic, and is therefore objective and purely democratic. And what was No. 1 for 2022? The eternal Margarita, or the hip Negroni, or the trendy Carajillo? Nope. It’s the Pornstar Martini, crowned in the top spot for an incredible eighth year in a row.
I don’t know what your reaction is to this, but I’ve been a professional bartender my entire adult life and when I first saw this a few years ago, I was surprised. Not surprised like “huh I wouldn’t have thought the Pornstar Martini would’ve placed so high.” No, my surprise was more elemental, and came out something like: “The Pornstar Martini? What the hell is a Pornstar Martini?”
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For answers, we need to back to 2002—the biggest song of the year was by Nickelback, Fox debuted a TV show called American Idol, and in London, a bartender named Douglas Ankrah was running a bar called Townhouse and trying to stay at the forefront of the burgeoning cocktail revolution. This was a transitional time for cocktails. The Cosmopolitan had achieved global domination by then, and the bartenders who considered themselves serious were looking towards fresh ingredients, and away from the oversweet “disco” drinks of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the ones with no acidity and provocative names like Red-headed Slut and Slow Comfortable Screw.
Ankrah, inspired (somewhat inscrutably) by a visit to a strip club called Maverick’s in Cape Town, had the idea to use fresh ingredients to make an innovative passion fruit and vanilla vodka sour, which he initially called the Mavericks Martini. Back in London, though, he thought twice. Those provocatively named drinks didn’t taste very good, but as a bar owner and lifelong bartender, he certainly would’ve noticed that people still asked for them. He had the idea to change the name of his drink to something a little more compelling. “What makes the Pornstar Martini work?” he’d reflect 20 years later, “First and foremost, I think it’s the name. It’s evocative, it’s confident, and it’s kind of daring.”
The other things that make the drink work, according to Ankrah himself, are “the ritual and the serve.” Order a Pornstar Martini, and it’ll come in a Martini glass, with half a fresh passion fruit bobbing in it, a teaspoon to eat the passion fruit, and served alongside a small shot of sparkling wine. You first devour the passion fruit, and then go back and forth between your two glasses, using the Champagne as a palate-cleanser between sips. It was engaging, ritualistic, risqué, over-the-top, and crucially, delicious. It was an instant hit. “We used to go through maybe 100 kilos of [vanilla] sugar every single week,” Ankrah recalls. To this day, as mentioned, it remains one of (if not the) most popular cocktails in England.
As for why it’s stayed on the far side of the Atlantic, there’s no one single answer. I suspect that the same things that catalyzed its success in England are the things that caused American bartenders to ignore it. If you’ve never had one, the name alone makes it easy to dismiss, because you’d naturally lump it in with the Buttery Nipple and the Panty Dropper and all the rest of that idiotic ‘90s garbage. Additionally, as a bartender, if the proper production of the drink necessitates a ton of prep, an expensive garnish and puree, a teaspoon, and a second companion glass of sparkling wine, that’s just plainly not a drink I’m going to labor over.
About the Pornstar Martini, however, one thing is certain: Vanilla and passion fruit are one of the world’s great flavor combinations. There’s no uniquely English appeal here—this isn’t like Blackadder, or the music of Robbie Williams—because a properly made Pornstar Martini is universally delicious. The electric acidity of passion fruit lights up the sides of your mouth with bright tropical freshness, and then the broad depth of vanilla soothes it back down. It is, whether despite the name or because of it, a worthy member of the neo-classic cocktail pantheon, and deserves wider fame. As Difford’s Guide wrote in 2020, then the fifth year the Pornstar Martini took the No. 1 spot, it is “proof that either sex sells or folk like vanilla flavored vodka, vanilla syrup, and passion fruit liqueur.” Or, if I may add, both.
1.5 oz. vodka
0.75 oz. lime juice
0.75 oz. vanilla syrup
0.75 oz. passion fruit liqueur or passion fruit syrup
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake hard for eight to 10 seconds. Strain into a martini glass, and garnish with a lime wheel, a lime peel, or, if you’re feeling rich, a half passion fruit bobbing in the top of the drink. Serve alongside a sidecar of Champagne or other sparkling wine, if you wish.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Recipe: I more or less ignored the original recipe and recombined it using easier and more modern methods. If you want to do it the OG way, start here.
Vodka: Ankrah called for vanilla vodka. This is good, and feel free to use it if you want, you need vanilla in here somehow and vodka is as good a way as any. Personally, I find it easier to just use vanilla syrup (below) and regular vodka, because it means I don’t need to go out and buy a special bottle just for this, but both the Grey Goose La Vanille and Absolut Vanilla were recommended by Ankrah himself.
Also, I’m aiming for about 2 oz. total of alcohol, so if you’re using liqueur, which comes with a little proof of its own, keep the vodka at 1.5 oz. If you’re using puree or syrup, which doesn’t, up the vodka to 2 oz.
Vanilla Syrup: If you’re using vanilla vodka, you can just use regular simple syrup here, which is equal parts sugar and water and stir until the sugar dissolves. To make it into vanilla syrup, take about a cup of that simple syrup and simmer it on the stove with a vanilla bean (split down the middle) for like five minutes. Then you’ll have a vanilla syrup. Store in the fridge and it’ll last a month.
Passion Fruit: The original recipe used both passion fruit puree and passion fruit liqueur. This seems like overkill to me, I think you can choose a puree, a syrup, or a liqueur, which is the order in which I prefer them.
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