When chef Sean Brock opened his bastion of classic fine dining, The Continental, in Nashville in 2021, he heralded a new era of appreciation for a certain vintage American style of dining. That means signature dishes like prime rib carved tableside, pâté en croûte, and caviar, plus oysters Continental, a menu item that Brock hopes will join the canon of classics like oysters Rockefeller and crab Louie. It’s an ambitious restaurant from an ambitious chef seeking to cement his place in America’s fine dining history books.
The cocktail program is built to match, with a selection of classics that have been upgraded to Brock and bar director Johnathan Howard's very unique specifications. For example, a perfectly clear “dirty” martini is one of the cocktail program’s stars, combining vodka, vermouth, salt, and olive distillates (olive juice that has gone for a spin in a centrifuge in the chef’s high-tech culinary lab). The drink is served in a coupe, ice-cold from the freezer.
With all this in mind, Brock and Howard are introducing another component to the experience at the Continental: The Vesper Club, which offers a martini tasting menu in the restaurant’s lounge.
“I always said from the first moment that I want to make this bar the American version of [the American Bar in] the Savoy in London,” says Howard. “When you think of the martini in this country, I want it to be synonymous with The Continental in Nashville, Tennessee.” The concept evolved over time, he says. “Originally we’d planned a whole other cocktail experience, but then one day at the bar at Audrey [Brock’s other new restaurant], Sean handed me a Waldorf Astoria cocktail book. I opened it to the the Opera cocktail, which I love.” The retro, spirit-forward recipe sparked an idea, and in that moment the duo decided to make the bar at the Continental an ode to that style of cocktails, specifically martinis.
For a bar to focus solely on variations of one drink is a big undertaking, particularly when it’s a beloved classic that’s very open to interpretation. “A lot of drinkers are paying close attention to the classic cocktails they’ve been taking for granted,” says cocktail writer Camper English. “We’ve had to relearn what classic cocktails are in their original format after years of drinking cold vodka in a V-shaped glass and calling it a martini.”
The Vesper Club tasting experience is centered around five small martinis served in vintage glassware, each one clocking in at around one and a half ounces. The flight is designed with enjoyment—not overindulgence—in mind, says Howard. “I want this to be something people can do before dinner. The point is to let it reverberate on the palate, followed by a bite of caviar, then another sip of martini to finish it.”
There is also an educational component in mind, Howard says. And there’s plenty to know: The history of the martini starts in Gold Rush-era California according to most accounts. But wherever that first cold cocktail was poured, it has garnered a rich history ever since, coming to large-scale popularity in the 1960s, thanks to Mr. Bond, who preferred his martini shaken, not stirred—a drink order that would go on to sweep the world. (Of note: The bar’s name is a reference to a martini variation created by none other than 007’s creator, Ian Fleming in Casino Royale, the Vesper.) Customizing one’s own martini order remains common: shaken or stirred, dry or dirty, vodka or gin, and more.
Eventually, the cocktail menu at The Continental will offer around twelve to fifteen different martinis. The Vesper Club’s tasting is an opportunity for guests to relieve themselves of the burden of choice, as well as to learn something new about a drink they’ve possibly had countless times before.
“I think by putting multiple variations on the menu you’re drawing attention to a whole category as opposed to having one signature martini,” says English. “Otherwise people might skip that and just order it how they order it.”
The Vesper Club is taking the category and running with it, according to the menu. The main spirits, at least on the opening menu, are vodka and gin with an intriguing roster of other vermouths, fortified wines, and ingredients like plum vinegar. One example combines Wodka Vodka with Carpano Bianco Vermouth, oloroso sherry distillate, and pistachio, paired with Siberian sturgeon caviar from Poland. Sake, walnut oil, absinthe, and more make appearances, too. So forget your "go-to" order and settle in for five inventive martinis that will change the definition of the classic cocktail, and possibly even cement their own places in cocktail history books.
Continue to Next Story