In that classic tradition of 19th century cocktails, none agree on what’s in, or how to make a Bamboo. OK, so that’s not entirely true, everyone agrees the Bamboo is sherry, vermouth, and bitters, but there is some debate on the variety and proportions of each, and we approve of the tinkering. The Bamboo is one of those cocktails that very much depends on the taste of the consumer, and as close as we can get to standard is that the sherry should be dry and the vermouth should be your favorite. Now, from where do we know this gentle aperitif?
Common legend says it comes from Japan. In the 1890s, Americans living and working in Yokohama imported a bartender from San Francisco, who is the suspected creator of the Bamboo. That works for us, but we know it’s not true. Yes, there was an American bar in a Yokohama hotel, and yes they served a Bamboo. We know this because it’s documented in bar manuals printed shortly thereafter, with a nod, in some cases, to those same far away origins. However, we also know that the recipe for what we now know as the Bamboo appeared in the Western Kansas World in 1886. This we can’t confirm, however, we can confirm for sure that it also appears in the St. Paul Daily Globe of 19th September 1886, and is attributed only to “an Englishman.” Was it the Yokohama bartender? Nope. He was an American of German descent.
Given the rapid rise in popularity, and referenced by cocktail books from as early as 1908, one suspects that this might have been a drink known in some of the more upscale saloons and hotels. The Bamboo’s inclusion in more than one book from the first decade of the 20th century is likely no accident. By 1901 the drink could be found everywhere, even in bottles. You read that right. The Bamboo was an early example of a bottled, pre-made cocktail.
Interestingly, it’s not just the Bamboo cocktail that’s gone in and out of fashion, but the ingredients, too. History has a very ambivalent take on sherry, and anyone who remembers a time as recent as the 1990s knows that vermouth was once a bad word in barcraft circles. Neither is true today, and we can take some time to examine this drink and see how to make it.
Originally, this was a 3:1, sherry to vermouth beverage, but the more classic ratio is 2:1. Eventually, the recipe sort of settled on equal parts, plus bitters, and that’s how we like it. As for the sherry, the old recipes simply call for “sherry,” or “dry sherry.” So a Fino, then? Sure, if you like a super dry sherry, which we totally do, but we like an amontillado in our Bamboo for the depth of character that works with the assertive Interrobang White Vermouth with which we mix it.
The original vermouth was, well, you’re guess is as good as ours. Those early recipes we found call for “vermouth.” Just “vermouth,” and “sherry” doesn’t offer much guidance, except it might be assumed based on access and what was available at the time. Later examples specify French vermouth, which suggests a dry vermouth, while a very few others call for Italian, or sweet vermouth, and if you search for modern recipes, most seem to prefer dry vermouth and a dry sherry of some sort. We take a sidestep on both, and use a blanc vermouth with amontillado. As always, please make sure both the sherry and the vermouth are as fresh as they can be if you want the most from this drink, and use some quality bitters with it. Scrappy’s Aromatic and Orange bitters, both. But don’t take our word for it. Our favorite recipe follows, but this is one cocktail above all others where you can explore, so take heart in sage advice, and try this with a sherry you like and a vermouth you like and fiddle with it until you like the results. Then bottle it, because that used to be a thing.