A Spicy Vodka Martini for Non-Vodka Drinkers
Paul and Kay Prudhomme’s Cajun Martini might have started as a joke in their New Orleans restaurant but it’s a truly delicious cocktail.
I’m not much of a vodka drinker. Not now, anyway. Sure, if I’m in a part of the world where vodka is the drink, I’m happy to go shot-to-shot with my hosts until (inevitably) I’m utterly defeated.
But when I’m back here in the USA weeks or even months can go by without a drop of the stuff passing my lips. When it does, it’ll usually be in a Bloody Mary—in which case I will nine times out of ten be strapped into a middle seat at 39,000 feet and half mad from the anticipation stoked by the drinks trolley as it squeak-squeaks oh so fucking slowly down the aisle.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it. A shot of good vodka straight out of the freezer does something no other spirit can, and there are occasions its neutrality is just the thing you need to soften another flavor in a drink or entice one out of hiding. But in general, I’ll go for gin or rum (if it’s the kind with actual flavor) or rye whiskey or, well, almost anything else.
Back in the day, though—by which I mean back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when this whole Cocktail Renaissance of ours wasn’t even a gleam in Dale DeGroff’s or Gary Regan’s eye and a properly made Sidecar was as rare as unicorn tears—I drank a lot of vodka. It wasn’t the only thing I drank: I liked gin in my old-man bar Martinis and well Scotch in my old-man bar Scotch & Sodas. There were shots of Bushmills or Tullamore Dew in Irish bars (Jameson was hard to find then), hot buttered Myers’s when it was below zero, Tanqueray & Tonics when surrounded by WASPs, and Campari Sodas when living la dolce vita.
But there were also plenty of Cape Codders and Madrases (that’s a Cape Codder—vodka and cranberry juice with a wedge of lime—plus a splash of orange juice), Kamikazes and Long Island Iced Teas. When I could afford it, I kept a bottle of Stolichnaya, the premium vodka of the day, in the freezer, for iced shots. The one thing I didn’t drink, though, was Vodka Martinis. At least, not until I came across the so-called “Cajun Martini.”
In 1983, when I first encountered it at the tiny bar of the East Village’s beloved and recently-closed Great Jones Café, all I knew was that the drink was made by slicing up a bunch of hot jalapeño peppers and dropping them into a big jar full of cheap vodka, drawing some off, shaking the shit out of it with crappy bar ice, straining it into a sawed-off Martini glass and dumping a couple of olives out of the jar into it. It was murky, briny and head-arrangingly hot. A couple and you were ready to feed a few more dollars into the restaurant’s always-stellar jukebox (45s only, because that’s all there was back in 1983) and tackle its mediocre, but perfectly acceptable, Cajun food. Three, and your stomach started to send signals, and not the good kind.
As far as I knew, Great Jones had invented the drink. I didn’t ask, or otherwise dig into its origins, because who would do such a thing? There were other things to worry about, such as “should I go see the Fall at Danceteria or the Blasters at Maxwell’s?” or “should I spend this $10 bill on drinks here at Great Jones or save it for that tuxedo jacket at the thrift store off Canal Street?” Important things.
Nowadays, however, what with the Fall and the Blasters as far away in time now as Artie Shaw and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd was then and Lower-Manhattan thrift stores gone the way of the passenger pigeon, I can state that Great Jones did not in fact invent the Cajun Martini, although if its inventor had tried their version she might have disowned it. It was in fact the signature cocktail—and only one—of New Orleans’s now-legendary K-Paul’s, invented there back when it was a newcomer seeking to get established.
In 1979, Paul Prudhomme, the head chef at Commander’s Palace, and his wife Kay Hinrichs Prudhomme opened K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Paul was the chef and Kay the manager. The space they opened in came with a liquor license, but the last thing they wanted was a full bar: a full bar in the heart of the French Quarter would end up packed with drunks, and what they wanted to do, as Paul said in 1986, was “let people eat the food and get high on that.”
They had to serve some spirits, though, if they wanted to keep the full license from lapsing. What’s more, their customers kept asking for the hard stuff. So, one day in 1980, they came up with a bright idea: what if they have only one drink, a house cocktail that’s so crazy that most people will chicken out from ordering it and the rest will only have one. Funny. “I don’t want to make my living talking to drunks,” as Paul explained in 1986. Apparently, it was Kay who came up with the idea in the first place, and she also developed the final formula, a premixed Martini “Cajunized” by infusing it with hot peppers. Easy to make, easy to serve, and plenty forbidding.
That was the theory, anyway. In practice, people were happy to eat the food and get high on that, but they wanted to be high from the Cajun Martinis first. Eventually the drink got so popular that K-Paul’s launched a commercially-bottled version in partnership with the Sazerac company. Back at the restaurant, they had to limit them to two to a customer to cut back on the drunks. That might seem like plenty; it’s certainly enough for the version they used to make at Great Jones, which was, let’s say, lacking in subtlety.
But the way they made them at K-Paul’s was rather different. Better, in point of fact. The recipe was simple, once it was finalized (it seems to have gone through a development phase where it included scallions and celery leaves):
- Find a jalapeño that’s hot and not too big to fit into the neck of a liquor bottle.
- Slit it on four sides, with each slit running from near the top to the bottom, where they all meet.
- Spread the sides slightly from the bottom, making sure not to dislodge
- any seeds.
- Pour about an ounce out of a full bottle of good-quality vodka. Drink it. (K-Paul’s originally gave its customers the choice of vodka or gin; nobody took gin, with reason.)
- Using the pepper’s stem as a handle, insert it in the neck of the bottle until it’s fully submerged in the vodka.
- Seal the bottle and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. The longer you let it sit, the hotter. Past 12 hours, and the heat will be unbalancing.
- Again using the pepper’s stem as a handle, remove it from the bottle.
- Fill the headspace in the bottle with good-quality dry vermouth.
- Store the bottle in the refrigerator.
- To serve, stir two-and-a-half ounces per serving with cracked ice until it’s nice and frosty, then strain it into chilled cocktail glasses and garnish with a little skewer of Cajun pickled vegetables—a tiny green tomato, a clove of garlic, a piece of okra, like that.
I came across the drink’s history and Kay Prudhomme’s recipe for it a couple of years ago while I was researching something else. In a fit of 1980s nostalgia, I made a bottle. I wasn’t expecting much, but I thought I’d spring it on a couple of my friends who are old enough to remember the Cajun Martini during its heyday. It was good for a chuckle, anyway.
The chuckle, it turns out, was on me, because the K-Paul’s Cajun Martini has me drinking vodka again. Made with care, as K-Paul’s did, the drink is flat-out delicious. It’s hot, sure, but the short steeping time means that it’s not too hot, and there’s also some of the fruitiness of the pepper in there. If you want a cocktail as an aperitif; as something to hone your appetite to a Samurai-sword edge, this does that exceedingly well. Ironically, it also works as a sort of bridge to get Millennial gin-Martini drinkers to appreciate the cold, crisp charms of a vodka Martini, as it has all of that going for it, plus the spice and pepper-fruit to combat the vodka Martini’s initial impression of insipidness. (If you don’t have the Cajun pickles and are disinclined to make them, an olive or a pearl onion—or both—works just fine.)
As for storage. Paul told one journalist in 1983, “Use it [the refrigerated drink] before 36 hours have passed or the Martini will change character; but if you refrigerate it for more than 30 days, it will become very smooth.” I haven’t been able to keep a bottle that long, not in the refrigerator. In the freezer, however—you didn’t hear this from me, but it turns out you can store the bottle there and drink it in little frozen shots and it will keep as long as you can keep your hands off of it. That, however, puts you in a state of risk of becoming one of those loquacious drunks that Paul Prudhomme was so disinclined to deal with.
Kay passed away in 1993 and Paul in 2015. If you make a bottle of their Cajun Martini, pour out a splash for them, two people so dedicated to hospitality and so talented at it that even their joke drink is delicious.