A good Bamboo Cocktail can be a delicious drink, but is it any better than a good glass of sherry?
The Bamboo Cocktail suggests a lot of questions.
For one: why is it called that? There’s no bamboo within spitting distance of this drink, that’s for sure. It’s a simple drink, made with dry sherry, dry vermouth and bitters, stirred down and served up — no bamboo-infused elixirs here.
William T. Boothby — Cocktail Bill Boothby as he was known — wrote about the drink in his book from 1908, The World’s Drinks & How To Mix Them. He stated that the Bamboo Cocktail was “originated and named by Mr. Louis Eppinger, Yokohama, Japan."
The German-born Eppinger was a bartender at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, landing there in 1889, just a few decades after Japan began opening up to the world (thanks to a threat of force by Americans wanting access to the country in the 1850s). Before Yokohama, Eppinger had bounced around the bars of San Francisco; presumably that’s where Boothby, also located in San Francisco, got word of Eppinger and this drink.
It’s an oddball drink, this mix of two fortified wines and bitters. The recipe lends itself to tinkering, and with good reason. Though many dry vermouths are more or less interchangeable, sherry comes in a range of styles and strengths, each with implications for how the drink is going to taste. So which sherry do you choose?
Put the PX down, for a start. You don't want the sweet stuff, you want dry sherry, and ideally a a richer, rounder style. The lighter styles of fino and manzanilla don’t have quite as much weight and depth as some olorosos; you want that extra weight to give the cocktail a little more heft.
Then again, it’s hard to make generalisations about sherry.
Take the Barbadillo Pastora Manzanilla Pasada En Rama that we've used here. It’s a manzanilla sherry, which means that it is made from the palomino grape in the light, fino style in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Jeres. It differs from other manzanillas in that it is aged longer — around nine years — and is bottled en rama (which means that it undergoes considerably less fining and filtration, retaining more of the flor character of the wine). There’s a lot of sherry geekery as to why it works — suffice it to say it’s a richer, rounder and delicious in this drink.
This sherry is one that plays well in the Bamboo Cocktail and requires the least amount of fussing with the recipe. You’ll see many tweaks of the recipe which call for the addition of red sweet vermouth, or the use of the sweet style bianco vermouth. And whilst it’s nice to see some people find a use for the otherwise useless bianco vermouth — honestly, who needs it? — once you start using sweeter vermouths the drink leans more into the territory of that other great sherry cocktail, the Adonis.
The Adonis, for those of you playing at home, is sherry, sweet vermouth, and bitters. It’s a great drink, but one that, if you ask me, has never tasted better than the Pineapple Adonis riff Tim Philips use to make at Dead Ringer back in 2015. I can still taste that drink, the finish was that long and good.
Whichever style of sherry you end up choosing, however, it pays not to be cheap about it. There's nowhere to hide in this drink. Poor vermouth and poor sherry will make a mess of things, so use the best quality stuff you can.
When it comes to the Bamboo, the big question you have to ask, I think, is a more existential one: what's the point of the Bamboo cocktail?
It's fair to ask why you would want to adulterate a good glass of sherry with vermouth and bitters. A good glass of sherry is a beautifiul thing.
Yes, the Bamboo is a great aperitif cocktail — you want to drink a Bamboo Cocktail before you eat. It'll make everything taste better. But isn't that what great sherry is made to do? And it's not like the Bamboo is going to introduce sherry to other drinkers — it's no gateway cocktail. This is one for the true believers.
I believe a well-made Bamboo is well-suited to the afternoon. It's easygoing, but demands you be fed (and soon); yet it won't slap you upside the head after a couple of rounds, like a Martini might. In fact, if it's a gateway to anything, it's the Martini — the appetiser before the main wallop.
That might be the lure of the Bamboo. It's a low-powered stir-down cocktail big on flavour, but light on the booze — one that whets the appetite, too.
- 45ml dry sherry
- 45ml dry vermouth
- 3-4 dashes of orange bitters
- Stir down all ingredients with ice.
- Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lemon twist.