The apple martini was born in Los Angeles over Fourth of July weekend in 1997, and no one drink could have better captured that specific moment in American culture. This was pre-9/11, pre-Recession, and it was fun, eye-catching, and boozy as hell — pure West Hollywood hedonism, a liquid equivalent to the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Hanson songs on the radio.
The principal ingredients of the appletini, as it came to be known, are vodka and Sour Apple Pucker, a radiant, possibly radioactive green schnapps that gives the drink its signature hue and melted Jolly Rancher taste. Sometimes bartenders add a dash of triple sec or sweet-and-sour mix, which acts as a push-up bra for a flavor that’s already the opposite of subtle. The appletini is unrepentantly sugary, reminiscent less of an actual apple than of the tangy artificial flavor known as “green.” It’s originally, and one might argue best, served in a martini glass the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
America wasn’t as attuned to the evils of sugar as it is now, and as someone told me about drinking culture at the time, “Those were the years when everybody threw up.” It’s trite and usually inaccurate to say that it was a simpler time, but when it comes to the appletini, you almost have to believe it.
It was created during what cocktail historian and Imbibe! author David Wondrich calls “the death throes of the artificial drinks” of the 1990s, before the craft cocktail revolution that brought back the Old Fashioned and its ilk gained momentum. More than 20 years later, the drink has fully fallen out of fashion. To get a good apple martini these days, you first have to find a bar that has the necessary ingredients. Vodka is easy, but not every establishment stocks Sour Apple Pucker, which is made by the Dutch brand DeKuyper, which is owned in the U.S. by Jim Beam. Then you need to find the bartender at that bar who knows what to do with it.
After a few failed attempts to track down an appletini this fall, I hit gold at a spot in downtown Milwaukee. The bartender who made my drink wasn’t the same one who took the order — that task was quickly handed off — and when he arrived carrying a coupe filled with a dazzling neon liquid, he bellowed, “Who ordered the appletini?” He was grinning, but I’m pretty sure I was being publicly shamed.
It tasted like the Otter Pops I used to get during the summer as a kid, and like those plastic tubes of syrupy ice, it was absolutely delicious and strangely refreshing. After a few sips, my brain started screaming, all at once, Put this thing down! and GIVE ME MORE! If there was any vodka in it, I’ll never know, because that night I followed my better instincts. This is 2019, after all.
Unlike iconic drinks like the martini and the cosmopolitan, the true origins of which are either lost to time or muddled, so to speak, there’s little doubt in the bartending community as to who invented the apple martini. Everyone points to Lola’s, the LA restaurant and club that closed in 2013 after a 17-year run.
When Loren Dunsworth opened Lola’s on Fairfax Avenue in 1996, she wanted to recreate the experience of entertaining at home, dialed way up. The menu was comfort food served until 2 a.m. — mac and cheese, bread pudding — and the space was full of nooks and crannies: a dining room, a small lounge up front, a side room with a pool table, and, later on, a larger bar out back. Dunsworth instituted a special martini menu, which grew into a long list of inventive cocktails. This was the era of ’tinis for every occasion — espresso martinis, lychee martinis, none of them technically martinis — and Lola’s took the trend as far as it could go with chocolate martinis, melon martinis, banana martinis, pumpkin martinis in October, and martinis made with edible glitter for Christmas.
A year after Lola’s opened, during the calm before the service storm on that fateful July Fourth weekend, Dunsworth asked one of the bartenders, Adam Karsten, to mix up a drink from a bottle of Sour Apple Pucker schnapps “that had been sitting collecting dust on the shelf” — though not for long, since DeKuyper only launched the neon-hued Pucker line in 1996 and sour apple wasn’t even in the first lineup — and Ketel One vodka, for which a sales rep had been hoping Lola’s could find a use. “We put this martini together and thought, it tastes pretty good, like an apple Jolly Rancher,” Dunsworth says. “I said, ‘Get a slice of Granny Smith apple, soak it in lemon juice, and float it on top.’ That’s how it started.”
They named it the Adam’s Apple, after its maker, though over time, the “Adam” dropped off, and it became simply the apple martini. Equal parts vodka and schnapps, with a splash of simple syrup, it was a hit almost immediately, particularly with young women. “It was very easy to drink,” says Dunsworth. “It was a little sour, a little sweet, it was pretty. It was mostly popular with girls, and guys worried about looking soft, but we served plenty of men.”
Dunsworth credits the early success of Lola’s to a review in the Los Angeles Times by restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila that dinged the food but praised its warm atmosphere (“Occasionally I’ll find a place that’s so congenial, I’ll go back whether the cooking is my heart’s desire or not”), and to the apple martini. The popularity of the drink, which Dunsworth says easily represented 30 percent of bar sales, refocused the attention paid to Lola’s: It was no longer a restaurant with a bar. It was a bar with a restaurant, one with celebrities in every corner and a line wrapped around the block.
The apple martini also achieved a degree of notoriety early on. The martini glasses at Lola’s were huge, and bartenders filled them up. One afternoon the West Hollywood sheriff’s department came by the restaurant to tell Dunsworth and her team that they were pulling over a lot of people, mainly drunk women, who said they’d been at Lola’s drinking apple martinis. Dunsworth decided to pull it from the menu (“I said, we’re not going to serve it if people won’t drink it responsibly”), but relented after her public mutinied. “We had people calling and saying, ‘We’re canceling our party of 10,’” Dunsworth says. “People were so outraged, so we did quietly put it back on the menu. It had a time-out for about a month.”
Within months, the apple martini had started making its way into other establishments around LA. The appletini was huge (though only 4.5 ounces) at Chaya Brasserie, a trendy Asian-fusion restaurant in Beverly Hills that was regularly filled with agents, athletes, and actors (Seinfeld, Clooney, Pacino). This crowd would come in for their power lunches, return at 5 p.m., and drink until 2 a.m., says Lawrence Moore, who worked at Chaya for 14 years, including as general manager.
But the appletini was equally suited to a younger, less sophisticated audience. Eric “ET” Tecosky was bartending at Lush, a nightclub that hosted ’70s and ’80s cover bands on the weekend and attracted people in their early 20s, when he first heard of the drink. “Someone ordered it, and [a coworker] had heard of it and showed us how to make it from the Lola’s recipe,” he recalls. “Overnight it took off.”
Every bar had its own version of the drink. At Lush, the bartenders tweaked the recipe to include a maraschino cherry — “Remember, we only used neon red, indigestible cherries” — and a bit of grenadine, which sank to the bottom and created a nice colorblocked look. “That’s how we made it a fancy apple martini,” Tecosky says, sarcastically.
Having taken over LA, the appletini might have exploded out of California because of customer interest alone, but it didn’t. Instead, an important factor in its spread across the nation was a group that had been watching its ascent closely: liquor reps.
It’s common for salespeople at liquor brands to recommend ways to use a particular product when they’re pitching to bar and restaurant owners or distributors, and when the appletini started getting big in LA, companies like Ketel One, the chosen brand for the Lola’s apple martini, began pushing it hard nationwide. (DeKuyper, maker of Sour Apple Pucker, did not respond to requests for comment, though multiple interviewees recall that it too was talking up the appletini.)
“I flipping loved it, are you kidding me?” says Kirk Gaither, who started working as a sales manager for Ketel One during the appletini’s heyday and covered the brand’s California accounts. “First off, from a business standpoint it was fantastic. From a cocktail standpoint, it was tremendous just because it was a nice, refreshing martini, and it was a nice, big martini that Loren always served.”
Rich Nestro started working with Ketel One in October 1997 as a sales rep in New York, and he heard about the apple martini from Gaither, who’d worked closely with Dunsworth and her team at Lola’s. Nestro says that the drink became one of four cocktails that Ketel One reps promoted with clients, along with a classic martini; the lemon drop, another candy-like drink that was very popular at the time; and the trendy cosmopolitan, which predates the appletini but became the iconic drink of the late ’90s thanks to Sex and the City. To bar and restaurant owners, Nestro stressed the appletini’s profitability, suggesting that a $10 to $12 cocktail was a better pour than a glass of wine or a beer.
In the same way that Sex and the City made the cosmo seem like a fashionable accessory, Gaither recalls that bar patrons gravitated toward the appletini because they loved the elegance of a martini glass. But he also noticed bartenders cutting corners — using maraschino cherries instead of fresh apple slices, for instance — in such a way that the appletini, already a sweet drink, became a “really sticky-sweet cocktail.” The appletini’s bid for sophistication and candy-like flavor gave it a reputation for being an inexperienced drinker’s cocktail, a go-to for people who wanted to look chic and a trap that showed just how much they were failing at that. To Tecosky, the appletini said: “I’m not a kid anymore, even though I’m drinking a drink made specifically for kids.”
Like the cosmo, the appletini has become part of TV and film history — though it often serves the function of undercutting, rather than glamorizing, its drinker. The appletini is portrayed as the stuff of college-age girls, men deemed to be overly effeminate, and uncultured types. In 2010’s The Social Network, Napster founder Sean Parker (an extremely swaggy Justin Timberlake) buys rounds of appletinis for the young Facebook crew after asking Christy Ling (Brenda Song) what she wants to drink. On Scrubs, which ran from 2001 to 2010, appletinis are a favorite drink of J.D. (Zach Braff) and a recurring punchline, often about his sexuality. (“Does that come in hetero?” he’s asked in one episode.) In Molly’s Game — written, like The Social Network, by Aaron Sorkin — a mobster orders an appletini at an upscale bar in an ill-advised effort to fit in. You can’t drink an apple martini, it seems, without giving the world a reason to judge you.
In fairness to everyone involved, the apple martini emerged out of a wider craze for super-sugary drinks and shots. Bartending hadn’t evolved into the high art it is now — it was a side gig, not a career — and drinks weren’t exactly nuanced at the time. If you wanted to create a drink that tasted like watermelon, you’d just use Watermelon Pucker.
“The way people came up with exciting drinks was by matching them to some sort of candy or dessert,” says Portland’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who started bartending in 1996. “You’d come up with new drinks by messing around with Baileys, something that tasted like caramel, and a tiny dash of Frangelico, and be like, ‘It tastes like a Snickers bar!’”
So when DeKuyper started selling Sour Apple Pucker, it was a slam dunk. “The green Jolly Ranchers were fucking huge at the time,” Morgenthaler says. “They sold 10 billion bottles. It was a no-brainer.” Even more so when it arrived in a stylish, nearly 10-ounce martini glass.
Even as the apple martini was enacting its fluorescent takeover of the country, bartenders’ approaches to cocktails were starting to change, Wondrich says. Here and there, they were bringing back classic cocktails made with fresh, quality ingredients. These were cocktail experts like Sasha Petraske at Milk & Honey in New York, opened in 1999, and Murray Stenson in Seattle. “It was sort of the end of what we call the Dark Ages,” Wondrich says. “People were like, ‘We’ve got to do this stuff right.’ They were getting recognized, and it was starting to coalesce into a movement.”
To a certain extent, the forces that brought about the appletini’s eventual decline were apparent from its birth. The fresh garnish on the Lola’s apple martini gestured at the coming movement away from preserved, artificial ingredients, Wondrich says, though it floated on “all this green yuck.” When the cocktail revolution ramped up in the early to mid-2000s, it truly broke the hold that chemical flavors had on the drinks business.
Dunsworth contends that the apple martini never went out of style — that the drink survived the cocktail revolution and the Recession and had its loyalists long after the press declared it passé. And that’s true enough: I did get my appletini fix in Milwaukee without a terrible amount of trouble. But plenty of bars gave it up as customers moved on to other, more bitter flavors. Tecosky says that appletinis were still immensely popular when he went to run the bar at Jones in West Hollywood in 2001, but by the time he left, 15 years later, they didn’t carry the ingredients to make one. Nobody was ordering them anymore.
Customers today want to taste the flavor of the alcohol in their drinks, says Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn, and they want to know where the ingredients are sourced, from the herbs to the spirits. It’s the exact opposite of what the appletini was: an alcohol-cloaking device of unknown provenance.
When I asked Mix how she’d make an apple martini today, she paused to think. It would be vodka based, she says, maybe with some Massenez apple liqueur and one of the apple brandies she’s into now, with some verjus for acid and some kind of sweetener — maybe chamomile? But, Mix says, “It would be white, not green.”
In recent years, bartenders have made a habit of trying to improve upon the most unfortunate cocktails of decades past, and they’ve been attempting to make less artificial versions of the apple martini for ages. Julie Reiner, Mix’s business partner at Leyenda, was doing that at the appletini’s peak: The New York Times reported in 2000 that Reiner, then bartending at C3, made hers with apple-infused Skyy vodka, “no more than a rinse of Pucker,” and a bit of Martinelli’s sparkling cider. Morgenthaler, who has a reputation for taking “bad” retro cocktails and making them good, has tried making a fresh-juice version of the appletini, too, but he says that isn’t the same.
“It’s just not possible,” he says. “You can’t get that flavor without chemicals. Nothing tastes like that.”
This is the strange allure of the appletini. You might not want it, but you don’t want it any other way.
Eliza Brooke is a freelance writer. Bárbara Malagoli is a multidisciplinary artist based in London.