May 30, 2024
Moviegoers renew interest in physicist's unusual cocktail recipe

J. Robert Oppenheimer wasn’t just a renowned physicist. He was a fine party host who often held gatherings at his Los Alamos, New Mexico, home for his colleagues, as moviegoers are learning at “Oppenheimer” screenings.

And though the scientists’ atomic-bomb mission was dubbed the Manhattan Project, his drink of choice was the martini.

Cocktail lovers who paid close attention during a party scene may have noticed Oppenheimer (as played by actor Cillian Murphy) mixing one for a guest. He takes a glass and dips the rim … Wait, what is that? Salt? Sugar? This hard-charging, chain-smoking scientist isn’t making a Lemon Drop, is he?

Turns out he had his own concoction — a strong one. The Oppenheimer Martini is gin with just a splash of dry vermouth, with a rim that’s been dipped in a mixture of honey and lime juice.

The Lexington House version of the Oppenheimer Martini, with the honey-lime mixture for the rim. (Bay Area News Group). 

Because of the movie, there’s renewed interest in the cocktail, though it’s enjoyed a place in Los Alamos history since that World War II era. The Los Alamos National Laboratory features the recipe on its website, and the Los Alamos History Museum sells cocktail shakers and martini glasses etched with the recipe.

According to a Los Alamos Historical Society account of that era, “Pat Sherr, the wife of a lab physicist, said, ‘He served the most delicious and coldest martinis.’ ” Another couple reportedly said the mixture of gin and high altitude made it difficult to even get up from the Oppenheimers’ dinner table, much less walk home.

Curious to try a (less potent) version, we paid a visit to Stephen Shelton, a noted Silicon Valley bartending and hospitality industry veteran who owns the Lexington House in Los Gatos. He’s getting ready to celebrate the restaurant’s 10th anniversary with a series of “flashback” dishes and cocktails in the coming weeks.

He had heard about the Oppenheimer Martini over the years and seen the movie, but hadn’t tried the cocktail yet.

Bartender Chiara Harleman looked at the recipe and selected a gin whose botanicals would pair well with the ingredients — Gin Blend No. 1 from Venus Spirits, a craft distillery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The official Los Alamos recipe calls for 4 ounces of gin, which Shelton said is a mighty big drink. He suggested the traditional 2 or 2.5 ounces of gin.

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Harleman stirred (although Oppenheimer reportedly liked his martinis shaken), dipped, poured, garnished with a twist. “It’s like the Bee’s Knees, which is gin, lemon and honey, but a boozier version,” she said.

Her gin choice was indeed a smooth one, and the honey-lemon edge adds just the tiniest touch of sweetness.

Now we needed the expert opinion, the carefully chosen words of a man who has catered to the whims of bar customers for more than three decades.

Shelton took a sip. “It’s not bad.”

He took another sip. “The lime and honey is very interesting.” He compared the drink to an “old-school gimlet” made with Rose’s lime juice.

“I would like a little more vermouth. But there was a lot of pressure on Oppenheimer — ‘should I build a bomb?’ — so he probably needed extra booze.”

Details: The list of 10th anniversary cocktails and dishes is coming soon. Check Lexington House at www.facebook.com/thelexlg. 40 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos.

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