Do you remember the first cocktail you made?

I’m thinking about shaken or stirred creations, the ones that make us go that step beyond highballs or Rums-and-Coke.

Mine was a martini. The “Vodka Martini,” as we called it then. I even remember why I wanted to make it.

It was sometime in the mid-80s. (Yes, I’m that old. I’m even older than that.) My Bride and I were just starting to have some success in our careers, so we celebrated one day at a particularly fine restaurant. Putting on the Ritz was something new for us. As part of “doing it up right,” we stopped for cocktails in the restaurant’s bar before dinner. My idea of spirits drinks at the time was gins-and-tonic on particularly hot afternoons. But this evening we were the elite, so martinis it had to be.

Well, it was a very good bar, and that was memorable fun. And one day the back cover of Food and Wine had this gorgeous photo of a Waterford cocktail glass— “Lismore” —in all its V-shaped crystal glory. It seemed just the right thing. Affordable luxury. We bought a pair.

Absolut vodka, a little splash of M&R dry vermouth, lots of shaking, strained into the frosted Lismores, two olives. We had made our first martinis. They tasted… delicious.

Thus, the Vodkatini became our standard evening libation. Easy to buy, easy to make. It goes to show you how small and simple a satisfying bar can be.

And that’s why I have a soft spot in my heart for the Vodka Martini. And it turns out that this drink actually has a proper name. Not “Vodka Martini,” —a name derided as an oxymoron by the “martinis-are-made-with-gin” cocktail aficionados, but rather the “Kangaroo” (or the “Kangaroo Kicker,” as Lucius Beebe referred to it in his 1946 Stork Club Bar Book.) I doubt I would have discovered this bit of lore if Imbibe hadn’t identified it as one of the 25 most influential cocktails of the past century. Imbibe credits the Kangaroo and the Moscow Mule for leading the rise of vodka in the United States, for better or for worse.

The Kangaroo Cocktail, Waterford Lismore, photo Copyright © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Kangaroo Cocktail

Over time I drifted toward other cocktails, and forgot about this one until recently, when my Bride began requesting it again. I learned in the process that though she enjoys this drink as a work-night refreshment, I no longer do—there isn’t enough flavor to keep me interested. I’m not ready to dismiss it out of hand, though. The Kangaroo is as legitimate a cocktail as any other. But it’s vodka-built, so its main stylistic attribute is a very light flavor, quite contrarian in an age of strongly flavored cocktails.

That light flavor is the drink’s main point of controversy and condemnation; I believe it is also its greatest selling point. The fact that I no longer enjoy the Kangaroo means nothing, except that my tastes have changed—I’m such a slave to fashion—while other’s tastes are looking for just this kind of drink. I believe the Kangaroo’s strength and importance is that it is the gateway to a larger universe of cocktails. This is the cocktail that led us to enjoyment of a much larger repertoire; it makes little sense to think that if we had started with, say, the Sazerac or the Negroni, that we would have had as fun an experience. I love those drinks now; then, I would have dumped them without a second sip.

Yes, the Kangaroo stays in the repertoire:

The Kangaroo Cocktail

  • 3 oz Vodka (Prairie, Vox)
  • 1 oz Dry Vermouth (M&R Extra Dry, Noilly Prat French Dry)
  • 1 dash orange bitters (optional)

Stir (shake if you prefer) with ice until very cold, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with olive or lemon twist.

Such a simple drink, but there’s lots of room for improvisation.

The vermouth is important here, since it’s the biggest flavor in the drink. Find and stick to your favorite—it’s more important than the vodka in the final result. My Bride enjoys this drink at 3:1 or dryer. With the Prairie vodka she prefers the fairly dry, almost sere, M&R Extra Dry; with the Vox, she prefers the Noilly Prat French Dry, and a much smaller proportion, 6:1. That latter combination works for me, too.

The vodka should of course be your favorite. We started with Absolut, and used it for years. Recently we’ve shifted to Vox and the locally produced Prairie Organic.

In our house, this drink is more likely to be shaken than stirred—it runs counter to my normal rule,  but it’s my Bride’s drink, and she places more value on the extra coldness of the shaken version, and on the look of all the little ice shards (the “raft”) on top when it’s freshly served. (Have you ever noticed how, on a hot day, that does look really, really cold?)

And if you can, indulge in great glass. The better it looks, the better it tastes. (Alas! that one of those original Lismores hit the floor during a Millenium celebration. I still hear that dead thunk of lead crystal crushing against the oak of the kitchen floor. (And the sucking in of breath and momentary silence among the witnesses…) Well, it did its crystal duty well. And its partner still stands, a regular at cocktail hour, and gathering its celebrity moment in the photo above.)

I’m interested in how others started their cocktail careers. What’s the story that goes with your first cocktail?