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How to Make an Adonis, the Low-Alcohol Cocktail That’s Complex, Delicate, and Elegant


Adonis, in Greek mythology, was a young human of exceptional beauty, so alluring that he was fought over by Persephone and Aphrodite, and they were goddesses. The reference survives in modern English as the epitome of youth and handsomeness, like a physical version of Einstein. “Who’s that Adonis?” you might ask of a particularly striking new neighbor or classmate. You could also ask it ironically of a pimpled 15-year-old who grew 9 inches in six months and is enduring that most gangly slog of puberty. The word “Adonis” can be a way to be mean.


The Adonis Cocktail really does seem to be applied in this latter way. If you’re expecting something youthful, vital and attractive, and are met instead with a brownish mix of sherry and sweet vermouth, you’d be forgiven for looking over each shoulder to try to spot the person who’s pranking you, but it makes a bit more sense when we remember that in 1887, cocktail beauty standards might have been a touch different than they are today.

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To illustrate: An issue of the The Sun of New York, from Sunday, March 27, 1887, finds a brief profile of a Manhattan bartender named Billy, who “was standing in statuesque repose behind the polished mahogany bar one day last week, when three young bloods, with bell-crowned beavers of matchless sheen and silver-headed canes of ultra-fashionable immensity walked in,” and ordered “Three Adonis cocktails, please.” Even if you didn’t know that “beavers of matchless sheen” means an expensive and attractive hat, you probably get the point—these men were fashionable, and the Adonis was the hot new thing.


It was so new, in fact, that our bartender Billy had no idea what it was. We don’t know precisely who created or named it, but we know it was named for a burlesque musical called Adonis that had debuted a few years before, one of the longest running Broadway shows of the period. Vermouth was extraordinarily fashionable in the 1880s, a brand new import from Italy, and bartenders were mixing it with everything from rye (Manhattan) to gin (Martini) to, in this case, sherry, the dry, slightly nutty, fortified wine from the south of Spain.


This is the Adonis: a Manhattan, essentially, but with sherry instead of rye. It’s much softer than the whiskey classic with less than half the booze—a full Adonis has the same amount of alcohol as a 12-ounce can of light beer—which makes it a way to keep your head while enjoying all the complexity of a properly made cocktail. The bright fruit and spices of the vermouth pops straight out of the gate then is dried out by the nutty delicacy of the sherry, finishing with the low vanilla tones of the vermouth and a faint herbaceous bitterness that makes you want to take another sip. How you feel about it will depend on how you feel about sherry (and we’ve got one recipe for sherry lovers and one for everyone else) but either way the Adonis is a complex, delicate, and elegant way to have a low-ABV drink, brownish and archaic through it may be. And if that doesn’t sound like the pinnacle of attractiveness to you, well, you didn’t even know that a beaver was a hat.

Adonis


Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. Stir briskly for 15 or so seconds and strain up into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.


NOTES ON INGREDIENTS

Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth


Sweet Vermouth: Across all tests, I found that the sweet vermouth worked best when it added heft and depth. The lighter ones—Cinzano, Dolin, Martini & Rossi—had a lovely brightness of fruit, but for me, if the vermouth is called upon to provide the body of the drink, I preferred the ones with some vanilla richness, like Carpano Antica or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino


Sherry: For the above, I like a dry Oloroso or Palo Cortado sherry, one with a bit of oxidative aging and some heft. Olorosos can vary in sweetness level, so take care to get the dry kind, as the vermouth provides quite enough sweetness for everyone.


Orange Bitters: Just a couple dashes. It’s not even strictly speaking necessary, as the orange peel and the faint botanical bitterness of the vermouth do a fine enough job, but use them if you have them, whatever brand you like.


And if you absolutely love sherry: Make this version, below. Fino and Manzanilla sherries have a much drier profile and lighter flavor, and they lead to almost an entirely different drink. While the above has the rich redolence of a low-ABV cocktail cosplaying as a Manhattan, the below truly embraces sherry’s inherent character. This can be slightly polarizing, hence the two recipes:

Adonis (Sherry Lover’s Version)

  • 1.5 oz. Fino or Manzanilla sherry

  • 1.5 oz. sweet vermouth

  • 2 dashes orange bitters


Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. Stir briskly for 15 or so seconds and strain up into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

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