The Martini Comes Full Circle - August 15, 2011

"Hollywood did as much to promote cocktail culture as it did to bastardize it..."

On December 5, 1933, the 21st amendment had gotten enough states to ratify into law making the sales, production and distribution of alcohol legal in the U.S. again (interesting that it was the 21 isn’t it?). 

But let’s backtrack a little…

Prohibition did many things to the country: some good, most not so good. The good side it is ushered in a wave of social revolution with popularizing a new form of music (jazz), and a liberalities thought fashion and thought (the flapper).  Women were “allowed” in bar/speakeasies for the first time, dance became more expressive, and young and old alike held up a finger to authority as they drank illegal hooch in hidden clubs.  Americans are rebels by definition: it is what our country was based on!

On the other side of the coin, the beginnings of an economic and political downturn began unmatched in our history. Poverty and unemployment were at an all time high. Moreover, spirit (not just the ones in the bottles) was at an all time low. 

Before Prohibition, bartenders were highly respected members of society and everyone aspired to be the man behind the wood. Mark Twain once wrote, ”…for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker…and the saloon-keeper, occupied the same level in society, and it was the highest. The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large was to stand behind a bar.”

When the Great Drought came around, the barmen of the time retired, moved to other professions, or moved to Europe. During the 13 years the U.S. was dry, amateurs ran the speakeasies using bathtub gin and monkey rum to make the drink of the time. Delicate flavors became unheard of due the the fact that the booze was so harsh it had to be mixed with sweet, fruity juices to mask the bad flavors of the homemade hooch. 

But after 13 years, people came to their senses, and Prohibition ended on December 5th at 5:03 p.m. (could be considered the first happy hour), and liquor was legal again. However, there remained one problem: There was no one left with knowledge of how to mix the stuff. Yes, there were a few cocktail recipe books available, but they relied on long macerations and homemade cordials, liqueurs, and syrups, which took time to make. The grocery store did exist, but their stock was seasonally based. Beside, just because you have a recipe doesn’t mean you can actually create what the recipe instructs.  I am a competent cook, but I cannot come close to Thomas Keller’s technique. The technique is what we lost the most.

Sure, there were several drinks that out of Prohibition that were good, but they were basic.  Simplified.  Kinda like the fast food chains of today -- everything fried, or in the mixology world, everything shaken.

But at least we could drink legally again.

Another new phenomenon that surfaced during this time as well was the moving picture.  Yes, dear friends, Hollywood!

Society and science came through with a new medium of social interaction that has influenced us ever since in our thought, lifestyle and propaganda. Hollywood latched on to the drinking culture, made it cool to drink again, but also promoted our naivety of mixology and the Golden Age of cocktail culture.  The Thin Man (1934) shows William Powell as private investigator Nick Charles teaching a young bartender, saying, “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.” In “proper" mixology, the Manhattan and the Martini are never shaken, but he is right about the rhythm of the shake.

Hollywood did as much to promote cocktail culture as it did to bastardize it.  No example hold truer than every mans’ man, every woman’s fantasy man, the king of socialite cool, both rebel and nationalist Mr. Bond…James Bond.

In the first feature film, Dr. No, Bond drank vodka martinis, shaken not stirred, medium dry with a lemon peel. Not the first branding of liquor but definitely one of the most recognized: gin, vermouth and bitters became vodka and vermouth. Gin was still bathtub in the U.S., and bitters, sans Angostura, were unheard of. (Interesting fact here: Bond was a Westerner fighting the Cold War against Communism, drinking the favorite spirit of those behind the Iron Curtain. After all, politics aside, there is no reason to be rash.)

Hollywood has done many things to promote the cocktail culture as well as promote the misunderstanding of its origins and technique. The list is endless:  Cocktail, The Big Lebowski and Sex n the City are just a few examples. Ever had a Cosmo that was bright red rather than baby girl pink?

So back to our friend the martini.

Post Prohibition, the martini was gin and vermouth, no bitters shaken (to dilute the bathtub taste) and served with an olive.  Dry, once referring to the type of vermouth rather than the amount of vermouth, and gin became vodka. Because vodka was much more palatable than the still used bathtub gin of the past, the martini still held an iconic place, but had changed….changed through time, wanting to hold on to its social elegance and iconic name, but compromising itself because of popularity.

The '60s and '70s saw a decline in drinking. This is due in part to the popularity of social drinking of the ruling generations and the cocktail party.  The young of the '60s found other recreational substances to use other than booze. The '70s and '80s weren’t much better. Then Hollywood strikes out again with a little film circa 1988 called Cocktail. Bartenders Brian Flanagan and Doug Coughlin chased skirts and flipped bottles, putting on a show with little thought to the drinks they made. The drinks of the time were over-sweet Day-Glo colors meant to get you drunk fast with overly sexed names like The Screaming Orgasm, Sloe Comfortable Screw, The Panty Dropper, the Blowjob and the Finger Me Good. There was very little quality in the mainstream drinks. But as Hollywood would want it, the show must go on!

Cocktail did do some good for the world, however -- a topic I'll revist. But for now, let’s mark 1988 as the beginning of the new drinking age. 

In the mid '90s there was a shift again.  Drinkers and bartenders began to look back at the drinks of yesteryear, and began to look more at quality. At the same time, post punk and grunge music began to switch as well. Modern swing bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy became cool again and fashion and drinking made the same move to a more sophisticated style. Bartenders began to balance the flavors of their drinks a little better, focusing on flavor rather than flair.

However, every drink had the same name, or at least the same suffix: ‘-tini’: Lemon-tini, apple-tini, chocolate-tini, my-tini, your-tini, this-tini, that-tini.  Basically, if it was chilled served up and put in that reverse conical cocktail glass, it was a ‘tini’.  But the granddaddy of them all, the MAR-tini, had yet to rise from its slumber.

Right around the same time, the Internet became the next big medium of influence and with it came message boards, forums, instant messaging and finally social networking media. There were groups of bartenders gathering in these electronic corners, talking, asking, exploring, reading, and researching the history, the techniques and the ways cocktails were first made. They knew there had to be more to tending bar than color, bad flavor and flipping bottles. They learned and shared and began to show their newfound knowledge and techniques on menus. They began to share with their guests drinks that were more than the sum of their parts.

Guests responded to the cultish group of bartenders, along with liquor companies, who began to import products not seen since before Prohibition.  These little groups of bartenders changed the world one drink at a time!

With this, out-of print books were found, read, analyzed and brought to the public. Suddenly, we had original recipes and a timeline to how history and region influenced these recipes.  

A recipe for the martini, the iconic dry martini, first printed in 1911: 2 parts London dry gin, 1 part dry vermouth, 2 dashes oranges bitters, stirred with ice, served up, and garnish with a lemon peel or olive.

The King has returned!  What’s been called the quintessential cocktail has come to reclaim its mighty throne. With its hard childhood slowly blossoming into the King of Cocktails only to be lost, bastardized, beat down, imitated and finally, returned to its true nature.  It is one recipe, three ingredients, and a simple stir.

Come by Secreto Lounge at Hotel St Francis, and let me mix you this incredible cocktail.