James Bond, make room for the Oppenheimer Martini

  • Lexington House owner and spirits expert Stephen Shelton and bartender Chiara Harleman at the Los Gatos restaurant with their version of the Oppenheimer Martini. (Bay Area News Group/TNS)

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.

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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.

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.’”

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.

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.

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.

Shelton took a sip. “It’s not bad.”