In the first episode of the Netflix series Drink Masters, which premiered last year, Washington, D.C., bartender Kapri Robinson found herself in the bottom three competitors. The elimination challenge centered on using a smoking technique on a cocktail of each contestant’s choosing. Robinson turned to a favorite classic of hers—the Adonis—which she prepared in a decanter filled with cherry wood. Though the show’s judges, whose focus was often on modern techniques, claimed the cocktail was too simple, it nevertheless kept her safe from elimination.
For Robinson, who now works at Allegory, the simplicity of the drink—a classic aperitif built on sherry, sweet vermouth and bitters—is central to its appeal. When she first encountered the cocktail, she was working at Washington, D.C.’s Reliable Tavern and liked the way the ingredients harmonized. “The nuttiness of the sherry paired so well with the slightly spiced profile of the vermouth,” she recalls.
The Adonis emerged during the Gilded Age, a time when the American cocktail and the fledgling theater scene now known as Broadway were growing up together in Manhattan. The drink’s name is borrowed from an 1884 burlesque show that made a splash on Broadway; just as with the Rob Roy, the bar at the Waldorf-Astoria created a cocktail in the play’s honor.
Hewing closely to the Waldorf-Astoria recipe, Robinson’s spec keeps the equal-parts ratio of the original and strays only in the addition of an extra dash of bitters. (She doesn’t employ the smoking technique she used in the Drink Masters challenge for her Adonis at Allegory.) But, as with any drink with just three ingredients, choosing each product is crucial to keeping it in balance.
One of the most debated questions in the 21st-century life of the Adonis is which style of sherry to use—a question that springs from the fact that none was specified in early recipes. Though many modern bartenders reach for fino or manzanilla, two exceptionally dry styles, Robinson prefers amontillado, especially the Los Arcos from industry favorite Bodegas Lustau, for its raisin-and-nut profile. (According to historian David Wondrich, amontillado is one of a few historically accurate sherries for this drink; fino is not among them.) And though Robinson appreciates oloroso sherry, she avoids it in the Adonis, as it’s a touch too oxidized and nutty, and could overpower the vermouth.
The original recipe specifies Italian vermouth, more commonly known as sweet vermouth, but the choice within that category is no less important than the sherry. Some sweet vermouths, such as Carpano Antica, could bully the sherry with their chocolate or vanilla notes, according to Robinson. Instead, she opts for Cocchi di Torino, which is lighter and has pleasing herbaceous and spice notes.
As for the bitters, Robinson used a cardamom-flavored expression for her Drink Masters version, but prefers the classic orange bitters. She uses three dashes instead of two and favors Regans’, which are the standard choice at Allegory.
Though the original published recipe lacks a garnish—some, like author and former Waldorf-Astoria bar director Frank Caiafa, believe an orange or lemon twist may have been implied—Robinson’s spec requires one. Her garnish of choice, an orange peel, is the final touch that brightens the drink and gives it dimension.
Allegory’s bar program is rooted firmly in the classics and the staff often gets requests for bartender’s choice drinks, which gives Robinson a chance to turn her customers on to her favorite pre-Prohibition cocktail. The 140-year-old recipe resonates more today, too, because of the great interest in low-ABV cocktails. As Robinson explains, the Adonis can help downshift an evening. “If you’re feeling like you’re gonna get a little too saucy, switch to an Adonis to keep the night going.”