J. Robert Oppenheimer Made Famous Martinis

Parties at the Oppenheimer House during the Manhattan Project were known for their strong martinis. Courtesy photo

By Heather McClenahan
Los Alamos Historical Society

The martinis made by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer are legendary.

It’s no wonder, when his recipe calls for four ounces—four ounces!—of gin.

According to Pat Sherr, wife of a Manhattan Project physicist, “He served the most delicious and coldest martinis.”

Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, wrote that Oppeniemer’s “usually empty stomach” was “assaulted by highly praised martinis and highly spiced food.” Colleagues reported that during the Manhattan Project, Oppie, as he was known, seemed to survive on coffee, martinis, and cigarettes.

British physicist Rudolf Peierls told the story of coming to Los Alamos for the first time during World War II. He and his wife, Genia, were whisked away to dinner at the Oppenheimers, where they started the evening with Oppie’s famous dry martinis.

The mixture of strong drink and high altitude was more than Peierls expected. “After dinner we had great trouble getting up from the table and walking home,” he recalled.

In a piece titled “Oppenheimer, Martinis, and the Atom Bomb,” blogger Paul Lewandowski delves into the murky origins of the martini.

He writes that it was a cultural fixture in the 1940s, the preferred drink of Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock, President Franklin Roosevelt, and, of course, Oppenheimer.

Regardless of its origins, whether named for the Martini & Rossi brand of vermouth or the Martini-Henry rifle used by the British army (both reportedly had a strong kick), Lewandowski says the martini grew in popularity during Prohibition.

Bathtub gin “was easily made in the home, so gin-based drinks were readily available in speakeasies.”

“The martini evolved over time,” according to Lewandowski. “At its inception, it was two parts dry gin to one part vermouth and served without garnish.

As the Roaring Twenties began, the ratio of gin grew to three to one, and the iconic olive garnish was added (although many purists still believe the twist to be the only acceptable garnish).”

Lawandowski continued, “By the 1940s, the drink grew stronger still. Alfred Hitchcock famously preferred his martinis five to one, but his martinis were made with an instruction to give a glance at the vermouth from ‘across the room.’ Owing to the difficulty of getting supplies to the remote Los Alamos lab, Oppenheimer crafted his own martini recipe that used only a dash of vermouth, as well as lime and honey.”

In celebration of this summer’s showing of Doctor Atomic at The Santa Fe Opera and of the exhibit J. Robert Oppenheimer: Photographs From His Life, 1904-1967, currently on display at the Los Alamos History Museum, Oppie martini glasses are being sold in the Museum Shop.

The glasses are etched on one side with a silhouette likeness of Oppenheimer and on the other side with what is reportedly his martini recipe. They are $25 for one or a set of four for $80.

The Los Alamos History Museum Shop is located at 1050 Bathtub Row, adjacent to Fuller Lodge.

It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission to the museum is free to residents of Los Alamos County (and no admission is required to shop).

Information for this article came from American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, and Of Logs and Stone: The Buildings of the Los Alamos Ranch School and Bathtub Row by Craig Martin and Heather McClenahan.

All are available at Mesa Public Library or in the Museum Shop.

In conjunction with ‘Doctor Atomic’ showing at the Santa Fe Opera this summer, the Los Alamos History Museum has introduced an Oppenheimer martini glass, complete with his likeness and his recipe. Courtesy photo