Food & Drinks

Rescuing the Lychee Martini | PUNCH

There was a time when the Lychee Martini stood side-by-side with the Appletini and Cosmopolitan as the reigning blush-hued icon of stylish drinking. While its popularity peaked in the 1990s, when the V-shaped Martini glass was king, it has long since fallen from glory.

But don’t blame lychee, says Chicago bartender Kristina Magro. “Lychee is a beautiful fruit [with] beautiful depth,” she says.

Rather, it’s the Lychee Martini’s embodiment of dark age drinking—its too-sweet composition, its clumsy nod to “Asian fusion,” and perhaps the worst sin of all, its vodka base—that’s problematic.

Magro first encountered the Lychee Martini in the early aughts, while working at a sports bar in suburban Chicago that served 22 different “Martinis.” While she has since purged her repertoire of the $4 Apple Pucker ’tini, butterscotch ’tini and strawberry-and-cream ’tini, the Lychee Martini stuck with her, even though she groans at the memory of the shaken citrus version she first learned to make.

“It’s a fun drink,” she says. “Why not bring it back?”

But the version she resuscitated only distantly evokes the popular sports bar call. Instead, her take tilts the axis of the drink back toward traditional Martini territory.

Whereas vodka, rounded out with dry vermouth or sake and a generous pour of lychee juice, is the typical build, Magro is adamant about using gin as the base in her dressed-up take, called Suit and Tie. “Gin has a great backbone for the cocktail,” she notes. While a juniper-forward London dry might drown out lychee’s floral quality, Magro’s preferred Monkey 47, an expression made with 47 botanicals, possesses a chameleon-like ability to complement whatever flavors it’s paired with. “Monkey 47 stands up and amplifies the lychee, but it doesn’t overpower it,” Magro says. “It lets each ingredient sing appropriately.”

In her mission to create a fruit-forward cocktail that still read as a Martini, Magro found a particular touchpoint in Julie Reiner’s Gin Blossom, a Martini variation sweetened with apricot eau de vie. The specs for both drinks are similar, starting with an ounce and a half of gin plus three-quarters of an ounce of fortified wine and another three-quarters ounce of fruit liqueur. Magro’s version, however, uses manzanilla sherry—a nod to the Tuxedo—in place of bianco vermouth, and lychee liqueur instead of apricot eau de vie.

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“Sherry makes the lychee pop,” explains Magro, who favors fino or manzanilla for their dry, saline characteristics. “When people think of a Lychee Martini, they associate it with being more sweet. I wanted to balance it out and make it more round.”

For the all-important lychee component, she turns to Giffard’s Lichi-Li liqueur. “This is my favorite one that I’ve tried,” she explains. “This one is the most delicate, [it’s] less cloying, less viscous [than other] lychee liqueurs.” It also gives the drink a pleasing rosy hue.

The finished cocktail is then strained into an absinthe-rinsed Nick & Nora glass instead of the notoriously slosh-prone, oversized V-shaped vessel. Originally, Magro had hoped that Suze would be the rinse that distinguished the drink, but it soon became clear that the herbal liqueur “wasn’t going to play ball.” So she moved on to absinthe, which added a harmonious anise aroma. The final result “was a beautiful little symphony of everything,” she says.

Lastly, Magro garnishes the cocktail with a whole, peeled lychee. “I wanted people to be able to taste what lychee tastes like on its own, and see how it incorporates in the drink.” Notably, it adds “a burst of tart, bright acidity to the cocktail,” but it also serves as a distinguished finishing touch on a drink that aims to restore the Lychee Martini’s image as an icon of sophisticated drinking.

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“We have the Cosmopolitan, why not the Lychee Martini?” asks Magro. “In 2021, I’d like to see that no cocktail is safe from a resurgence.”

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