The Martini - August 9, 2011

"It is gin, vermouth, and orange bitters"

The very mention of the word conjures up an image as individual as the person hearing it.  Every single person who has ever ordered a martini has a specific way they want it, and believes that THEIRS is the quintessential version.  Think about it: gin, vodka, sweet, dry, shaken, stirred, olive, twist, onion, up, over, misted, nodded, rinsed, in&out, waved, dirty, filthy, porno, perfect, and even Mexican. And think of the iconic martini drinkers: Gleason, Bogie, FDR, Churchill, Hemmingway, Fields, Dorothy Parker, and Ford.

Basically, if it is served in that stemmed inverted conical glass, it’s called a martini. That’s how we understand it today. Somehow, that glass makes us feels, sophisticated…cool…somehow better than we see ourselves. It’s a sign of class, refined taste, and one who may be seen as a Bon Vivant. It gives the imbiber the illusion that he may actually have a chance at that girl on the end of the bar that otherwise wouldn’t give him a second glance if he didn’t have that glass in this hand.  The glass is pure sex appeal. And why shouldn’t it be as it was once rumored the glass itself was molded from Marie Antoinette breasts (it’s not true, and even if it was…..she must have had some funky looking boobs!)

Prohibition had much to do with the evolution and the bastardization of the martini. In all actuality, the martini is a very specific drink, with the only option being the garnish. It is gin, vermouth, and orange bitters. That’s it:  that’s a martini.  Don’t believe me?  Let me ask you this. If I ordered a pina colada but instead of rum, I asked for vodka, is it still a pina colada? If you said yes, then stop reading because the rest of this is gonna piss you off.

Now, I am not trying to say that everyone who has ordered a variation of a martini is wrong and I am right. That’s not the point here. I am not a judge; I am a bartender with a love of cocktail lore and history. I am a man who likes to teach, and that is my goal here: to expand our understanding of how we got to where we are now.

So…..The Martini.  It had a hard childhood, dominated and overshadowed by its parents, the Manhattan, the Martinez, and the old fashioned.  It never really fit in, and was never destined to be an iconic drink.  It tried to change itself, starting with Old Tom Gin and sweet vermouth, and then changing to Genever.  Its proportions of gin to vermouth changed over and over, going from equal parts to 3:1 ratios still never being accepted. It struggled for nearly 50 years, never giving up, hoping to find that right partner and right proportions. It was good, but not great….until…

Sometime in the late 1800, London Dry Gin appeared. And when this gin met dry vermouth and orange bitters, a legend was born, a match made in heaven that would live together in perfect harmony. No composer, no singer, no choir of angels had ever heard a chorus like the blend of London Dry Gin, dry vermouth and orange bitters!  It is a symphony where the sum is greater than its parts.  A divine inspiration,

And in 1911, the “dry Martini” appeared in print for the first time: 2 parts gin, 1 part dry vermouth, 2 dashes of orange bitters.  This is also when the olive first appeared as a garnish as an option to the lemon peel.

Sadly, eight years later, the great drought of Prohibition wiped legal liquor away. London Dry was replaced with bathtub gin, and trust me when I say Al Capone didn’t spend any time bootlegging vermouth and ornage bitters. 

But, the name Martini survived as speakeasies held on with no access to the ingredients. Bartenders, working with inferior products, began chilling the martini by shaking instead of stirring which helped mask the flavor of the rotgut.

And that’s where we take a break. Next post, how Hollywood has helped and hurt the Martini, why most drinkers are scared of vermouth, and the resurgence of the classic cocktail.