Between gin or vodka, olive or lemon twist, brine or stark, dry or wet, MSG-tinged or saline-tinctured, there is no shortage of paths in the choose-your-own-adventure of martinis. If, however, you are a martini variation completionist, then let me direct you to another forking branch from this titan among cocktails: the herbal martini. I can’t think of a better introduction than the Alaska cocktail.
The Alaska is a pre-prohibition era drink, immortalised in the Savoy cocktail book. It features gin, Yellow Chartreuse, and, more often than not, orange bitters. And while it has lived through more wars and recessions than anyone you or I may presently know — and it’s still a few decades younger than the rest of its milieu — its clever refinement does make me wonder at the particular circumstances surrounding its invention.
What I can tell you is that the Alaska was born circa 1910; prior to that, at least in the states, an “Alaska cocktail” was a jug of cold water with ice (the Alaska we will be making today is certainly ice cold, but thirst-quenching in a very different way). Whether the two were ever related is doubtful. And while Alaskan ice was deeply cherished by any barkeep (no doubt the reason for the current craft-cocktail preoccupation with clear ice), it’s uncertain whether that factored in the naming, since the drink is served up. General consensus has it that the Alaska was christened as such because the territory of the same name was surging in popularity at the time, and the golden hue of the drink was reminiscent of the precious metal that was promised to the pioneers that settled there in droves. Wild, isn’t it? All of that history just so I, today, can add this herbaceous player to your martini arsenal.
Yellow Chartreuse really shines in this number, and is (obviously) the herbal driving force. Milder and slightly sweeter than its green older sibling (which has more of spice and bite), it harmonizes with the gin and orange bitters beautifully, and makes for a surprisingly smooth sipper for a drink that packs such a boozy punch. I think it’s perfect for this time of year: the herbal tones give it a medicinal association, and the potency of its high proof must be killing some seasonal germs along the way. While it may not be a pitcher of mountain water packed with ice, it is still, somehow, oddly refreshing — like taking a deep breath of crisp mountain air.
The recipe below is the more common, modern variation, but for my cocktail die-hards out there, swap regular gin for the slightly more esoteric Old Tom gin (a sweeter gin, halfway between London dry and Dutch jenever) and you’ll have a closer approximation of the OG. Enjoy!
The Alaska Cocktail
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- 22 ml yellow chartreuse
- 65 ml ounces dry gin
- Lemon twist
Pour ingredients in chilled mixing glass, add cracked ice and stir for about 25-30 seconds, or until sufficiently chilled (but not over-diluted). Strain into chilled coupe, express lemon twist over cocktail and garnish.
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