The Story of Dry Martinis
Martinis have been comforting the stressed since Martini di Arma di Taggia slid one across the bar top to a customer in New York in 1911.
That’s one story of the provenance of the sustaining beverage that H.L. Menken called “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Another is that it’s not American at all. In 1863, a vermouth maker in Italy began selling its product under the trade name Martini. That company was, of course, Martini and Rossi.
“One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.” James Thurber
A third yarn takes us back even further, to the California gold rush of 1848 to 1855.
A miner, having struck it rich, walked into a bar and asked for Champagne to celebrate. The bartender told the miner there was no bubbly but he would fix him something special. Here’s the recipe:
Dash of bitters
2 dashes maraschino liqueur
1 pony Old Tom gin
1 wine glass vermouth
1/4 slice lemon
The miner liked the tipple so much he ordered it for everyone in the bar. This is all supposed to have happened in the city of Martinez in the San Francisco Bay area.
But, the gloriously named Barnaby Conrad III, author of The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, begs to differ. The martini, he asserts in his 1995 book, was invented in San Francisco. An anonymous miner (perhaps, the same anonymous one mentioned above) entered a bar in the Golden City and asked for a pick-me-up before he caught the ferry across the bay to Martinez. The bartender obligingly whisked up a cocktail he called a Martinez.
The city of Martinez makes the most of its claim by holding a Martini Festivalin September that, for those with the stamina for such events, lasts for a month. Even Pensacola and Tampa try to elbow their way into the martini festival racket without having any historical connection to the beverage. Cheeky.
“I never go jogging, it makes me spill my martini.”
The Perfect Martini
There are probably as many Martini recipes as there are Martini drinkers. Shaken or stirred? Gin or vodka? Sweet or dry vermouth? Olive or twist?
- There are those who like their Martinis dry - very dry. There is a concoction that involves putting a bottle of gin and a bottle of dry vermouth into a cupboard for a month. Then, the gin is taken out poured over ice and drunk.
- Noël Coward had a similar approach: “A perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.”
- Luis Buñuel, the Spanish-Mexican filmmaker, thought it was sufficient to hold up a glass of gin next to a bottle of vermouth and let a beam of sunlight pass through.
- Some like to pour gin over ice then dip their finger in dry vermouth and run it around the rim of the glass.
- Winston Churchill another gold-plated member of the martini cognoscenti opined that “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.”
- Ernest Hemingway, who knew a few things about alcohol, liked what is known as the “Monty” – 15 parts gin to one part dry vermouth. He wrote in A Farewell to Arms “I’ve never tasted anything so cool and clean ... They make me feel civilized.” He also wrote “I drink to make other people more interesting.” But, that’s another story.
- Richard Nixon liked a seven-to-one ratio; liked it a little too much so it’s said.
“I like to have a martini, two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.” Dorothy Parker
Aficionados shudder at some of the tinkering with the hallowed martini. Ian Fleming takes the blame for an egregious assault on what E.B. White called “the elixir of quietude.” His James Bond character famously enjoyed a vodka martini “shaken not stirred.” But, he didn’t limit himself to one.
Here’s Leah Hyslop in The Telegraph, “Researchers worked out that across the James Bond books, the spy downs 1,150 units of alcohol in 88 days: around 92 units a week, or four times the recommended maximum intake for men in the U.K.”
That’s the level of boozing that can, in lesser men, cause liver damage and impotence. The latter ailment does not seem to have afflicted 007.
In Casino Royale he gives instructions for a martini called the Vesper: “A dry martini. One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet (a French vermouth that is no longer available). Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”
This is probably not the sort of thing to chug prior to a shootout with some of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s thugs.
“I drink too much. The last time I gave a urine sample it had an olive in it.”
The Bond shaking instruction is in direct contravention of the rule laid down by Somerset Maugham: “A Martini should be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.”
Coffee martinis and Boston cream pie martinis are bad enough but there is absolutely no excuse for the grilled cheese martini, while the notion of a candied bacon martini leaves one reaching for a highball glass to steady the nerves. If you must know - Amaretto, vodka, and Applejack are swilled onto sweet smoked pork. Arrgghh.
Cicero the Bartender: “What’re you drinking?”
Flavius: “Gimme a martinus.”
Cicero: “You mean a martini.”
Flavius: “If I wanted two I’d ask for them.”
Wayne and Shuster, Rinse the Blood off my Toga
In 1935, H.L. Mencken wrote an essay called How to Drink Like a Gentleman: The Things to Do and the Things Not To, as Learned in 30 Years’ Extensive Research. It has been republished by Gawker.
The V2 rockets launched against Allied targets by Nazi Germany during World War II contained enough alcohol as fuel to make 66,130 dry martinis.
In June 2015, Texas real estate millionaire Garth Herro took his girlfriend, Karen Smith Dominguez, for a drink at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. He paid $12,000 for a Martini that contained a diamond engagement ring. Karen said yes.
“The Martini Story.” City of Martinez, undated.
“The Martini: This American Cocktail May Have An International Twist.” April Fulton, National Public Radio, June 20, 2013.
“How to Make a James Bond Martini (but Limit Yourself to one).” Leah Hyslop, The Telegraph, June 19, 2015.
“What Does a Grilled Cheese Martini Taste Like?” Lauren Shockey, The Village Voice, October 19, 2011.
“House Martinis.” One Ten Lounge, Poulsbo, Washington, undated.
“Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services, 2003.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor