The Martini

MartiniTaste in poetry is akin to taste in food and drink. Some like the floral emotion in Shakespeare’s sonnets, others the disturbed modernism of T.S. Eliot. Some take pleasure from the stolid and heroic verses of Homer, while others prefer the alcoholic ramblings of Bukowski or the dharma-laced peregrinations of Kerouac.

Over time some tastes are acquired while others are let go of, but in the end you either like a thing or you don’t.

Me, I like my poetry three ways: short, saucy and funny. Call me shallow (it won’t hurt), but my favorite poet is Dorothy Parker, and my favorite poem “Martini Glasses:”

I like to have a martini;
Two at the very most,
Three I’m under the table,
Four, I’m under my host.

I acquired my taste for Parker one day when a friend, who wanted to make sure I had something to read during a long flight to the Yucatan, loaned me a volume of her selected works. It was a testament to the effect that time, place and circumstance have on one’s taste that I happened to first crack the book in the airport bar, that it opened as if by magic to the appropriate page; that there was already a half-empty martini at my elbow, and that I had just been forced into ignominious retreat after clumsily attempting to convince the young lady next to me that it would be best for both of us if she threw over her fiancé in Chicago and flew to Isla Mujeres with me right then.

Both Parker and the cocktail have sustained me all these years, through that defeat and many similar ones, with a wisecracking directness. Like Parker, the martini employs many the same stratagem: Economy, sustainability and power selectively applied in overwhelming quantities at the most vulnerable points, rather like Napoleon in his gloire days.

The martini is, of course, a historical phenomenon. I shan’t overburden you with details you’ve probably already read in Barnaby Conrad III’s magnificent history, “The Martini,” but I will give you the facts as I know them. The martini is not the earliest known cocktail. That honor belongs to the sidecar, which I may address at a later date. The martini either was or was not named after the San Francisco Bay Area town of Martinez. It either was or was not invented by an Italian immigrant bartender by the name of Martini at the Knickerbocker hotel in NYC. It either was or was not named after the fast-firing British rifle, the Henri-Martini. And it either was or was not named for Martini & Rossi vermouth. That pretty much covers the cocktail’s cloudy origins.

But one thing is certain: While the martini has never been known to go out of fashion entirely — unlike the “purple hooter” and “brain hemorrhage” — it has had its ups and downs. If you were to judge by the current newspaper puff pieces, advertisements, and fashionable restaurant and bar menus, you would think the martini is enjoying a renaissance. On both coasts there has been a plague of so-called “martini bars” adding a plethora of “martinis” to their cocktail menus: Apple martinis, melon martinis, grape martinis, sunshine martinis, tequila martinis, chai martinis, and even Laphroaig martinis.

How many “martinis,” the alcoholiscenti ask, can one menu sustain? The proper answer is, of course, one. “A martini” wrote Bernard DeVoto, “is made of gin and vermouth” garnished with an olive or a twist. All these other “martinis” are simply cocktails. They are perfectly legitimate cocktails in themselves, I suppose (except for the Laphroaig one), but they are not martinis. (DeVoto would disagree that any of those are cocktails at all. In his charming book “The Hour,” the great historian of the American West insisted that there were but two legitimate cocktails: the martini, and bourbon on the rocks with a dash of bitters.)

And so we come to the buried lead of this correspondence. I am going to tell you categorically how to make the best martini. I would have said a “perfect martini,” but that is a particular type of cocktail with which I will have no intercourse, its numerous imperfections giving the lie to its overblown handle. You will have to look that one up on your own.

First, let’s clear up a myth or two. DeVoto was an historian seldom wrong. But he went awry when he wrote, “It does not matter in the least whether you shake a martini or stir it.” Of course it matters. It matters a great deal. But the matter is mainly one of context. We’ll get to the whys and wherefores of that context in a bit.

The next is the vodka myth. There is no such thing as a “vodka martini.” Back in the 1930s a certain Russian refugee landed on these shores with an itch to sell the native firewater of his homeland. By the time of the Cold War, American drinkers, either confident of eventual victory or preparing for the worst, were tippling a vodka and ginger beer concoction called a “Moscow mule.” The fact that drinking vodka left one’s breath less “boozy” than did gin caught on and soon company men all over the country began imbibing this opiate of the Soviet masses at lunch time. The old three-martini lunch gave way to the three “vodkatini” lunch.

There is nothing wrong with vodka. Having myself lived through a winter in Finland I have a personal and lasting affection for the stuff. But the mixture of vodka and vermouth is not a martini. In fact, it isn’t anything but bad. If you want to order vodka at a bar, say to the bartender, “I’d like a chilled vodka served up with a twist, please.”

A proper martini consists of gin, vermouth and an olive or twist. In that, DeVoto spoke the truth. But that is only the beginning. It’s the way that these ingredients are combined that makes the difference. Like every good cocktail, a good martini starts with ice. Not just any ice will do. The overweight stuff that comes from the thick trays in most iceboxes certainly won’t. To be effective martini makers, the ice cubes should be small so as to give the maximum amount of surface area to the liquor. This is important both for chilling the spirit and giving it the right amount of “loosening.” Some specialty kitchenware stores offer ice trays with smaller cubes, but if you haven’t time for that, then corner-shop ice will do. If you do freeze your own cubes, start with distilled or spring water, as tap water in some parts of the world can make your martini taste like chlorine or soap.

Next, choose your poison. Choice of gin is largely a matter of taste. My preference is for the mellow idiosyncrasies of Bombay, Veranda or Plymouth, but I won’t look too far down my nose at you for choosing plain old Gordon’s, Beefeater or Gilbey’s. The truly adventurous may enjoy Hendrick’s, but Tanqueray, with its generic laundry detergent-like flavor is strictly for suckers. The maker of history’s finest martini, the late Bruno Mooshei, longtime owner-operator of the Persian Aub Zam-Zam in San Francisco, insisted that the cheap gin he kept in his well made the best martinis. It certainly seemed so. But Bruno is gone now and there’s simply no one left on earth who posses his unique gift for mixology. (Some days it feels like heaven can’t wait.) For vermouth you will use Martini & Rossi, forsaking all others.

A good host, by the way, always prepares his guests’ martinis himself. To cast such an important role off on a hired servant ought to be considered a grave insult.

Now make sure your glasses are chilled. You can do this in a freezer if one is handy. It only takes about 10 minutes to get the right tinge of frost. If no freezer is available, fill the glass with ice and top off it with water. Let sit a few minutes and extract the water and ice just before pouring your drinks.

Place the ice into a metal mixing cup. Metal conducts cold faster than glass. The cheap stainless steel variety professional bartenders use work the best. Fill the cup all the way to the top with the ice and pack it down lightly with the palm of your hand.

Next, add the gin and vermouth. Traditional recipes call for a gin pour of about 1 1/2 oz. per serving. But cocktail glasses, like just about everything else of American origin these days, seem to be increasing in girth, so pour two ounces or a little more to be on the safe side. It won’t go to waste.

Another argument between traditionalists and les nouveaux alcooliques surrounds the relationship between gin and vermouth. The current trend is toward the dry. Strict constructionists insist on a ratio of four parts gin to one part vermouth, while the most modern of martini drinkers aver that as long as there’s bottle of vermouth somewhere in the county, that’s plenty. Others use such gimmicks as putting vermouth into an atomizer and spraying a thin film of it onto the inside surface of the glass, or putting a dollop into the mixing tin, rolling it around and shaking it out before adding the ice and gin. All of that is great for show, but if you really want the best balance between the herbal sweetness of the vermouth and the dry heat of the gin, you need a significant amount of the former. I favor between about eight to one and ten to one, depending on the gin. Gins full of personality, like Hendricks and Veranda, already carry a good deal of fruit and so require less vermouth. Plainer gins, like Gordon’s, or “hotter” gins (those higher in alcohol content), such as Bombay Sapphire, call for a little more. And don’t refrigerate either the gin or the vermouth, as this keeps them from blending properly with the water from the ice as it melts slightly during mixing — that is, it doesn’t “loosen up” and blend together cohesively.

Once all the ingredients are together it’s time to mix them, which brings us back to the stirring vs. shaking controversy. Inveterate shakers always point to James Bond and his “shaken not stirred” quip in “Casino Royale” as the final authority for their choice. What they seldom remember is that Bond also insisted on mixing gin with vodka and substituting Lillet for vermouth. Only the foolish few that have ever tried this concoction know what an egregious error in judgment it truly is.

As a general rule, clear cocktails (martinis, manhattans and so forth) should be stirred, while opaque cocktails (such as gimlets, daiquiris and grasshoppers) are shaken. A shaken martini comes out cloudy, which ruins that pristine, icicles-glistening-in-the-Alpine-sun effect that makes the drink look so cool and refreshing. Shaking also leaves ice chips floating atop the liquid, which can further damage the cocktail’s appearance. No, stirring is the way to go, but only if you have the proper tool.

What you’ll need to properly stir your martini is a long-handled bar spoon. You can’t do it right with a tablespoon, and fancy glass spoons are likely to break. As with mixing cups, you’ll again find that the cheap stainless steel kind used by bartenders works best.

With one hand, place the back of the spoon against the inside rim of the cup with the handle upright. Place your other hand around the base of the cup. Work the spoon down between the side of the cup and the ice. Then, work the spoon straight up and down with a brisk motion while slowly rotating it the cup. After a surprisingly short while you will find the condensation on the outside of the cup begin to freeze. You’re ready to pour when the cup becomes almost unbearably cold to the touch.

If you don’t have the proper spoon, by all means shake. But shake gently and in waltz time, as Nick Charles insists in “The Thin Man.”

Before you pour, you will want to garnish the glasses — yes, this is done before the booze goes in. Olives are easy: just spear them and drop them in. There are all sorts of olives on the market today, most of which will work just fine. If you have guests, you may want ere in the conservative side and stick to the plain, pimento-stuffed variety. Otherwise, go nuts. Just remember, one olive per drink is the rule, two if a lady asks for it, but three is just vulgar.

Twists are only slightly more complicated. Slice a bit of peel off a lemon and, taking the ends between thumb and forefinger squeeze lightly, skin downward, over the glass. A little sprits of zest will coat the inside. Run the peel firmly around the rim of the glass before dropping it in.

Pour. Enjoy. Repeat. With luck, you’ll soon find yourself under (or over) your host, winging your way to Mexico with a pretty little bird — or drowning your sorrows after having struck out.

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3 Responses to “The Martini”

  1. The Martini « The Compleat Lounger Says:

    […] The origins of the martini are at best murky, although Michael Mattis over at has a fine article which sums up most of the stories around the drink, and gives his way of making it. For an […]

  2. Scott Locklin Says:

    Bruno used Boords and a wee splash of Boissiere. They were the greatest Martinis ever. Bruno also gave much respect to the House of Prime Rib’s martinis; not quite as good, but they occasionally come close. Don’t ever go to the new Aub Zam Zam; it’s apostasy.

  3. Seth McFarlane, James Bond and BiteSizeTV’s Own Oscar Party | Mevio Men Says:

    […] not stirred.” That’s problematic enough already. (For one thing, technically speaking there’s no such thing as a vodka martini, but never […]

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