Photo by Adita Saxena
By Liz Crowe
Of all the drinks in all the gin joints in all the world…there is nothing quite like the martini. What the martini is quite good at is getting you day-drink sloshed, but it is not for me to judge you, should you desire such a thing. Perhaps we have earned such liquid debauchery. Perhaps not. Regardless, it is, without a doubt, one of the most misunderstood forms of pure alcoholic content in a pretty glass I have yet conquered on our collective behalf.
That is not a direct Ernest Hemmingway quote. It’s merely my attempt at writing something that might could be misattributed to him in someone’s cringy Instagram post. I’d be flattered if it were, cringes and all.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, our topic this month is the martini.
First, let’s set a baseline: To order a “gin martini” is what we words-people like to call “redundant.” A martini, by definition, is made with gin. A martini by the same definition is not made with vodka. Ergo, should you wish to imbibe a cocktail that combines a clear liquor with vermouth and is served in a fancy triangle glass to be made with vodka, you need to order it that way.
And to think, I meant to start this month’s booze knowledge column by shaking a finger at all the muddling, bittering, simple-syruping, bacon-smoking, milk-washing, flower-essence-ing craft mixologists by reminding them that “simple is better.”
Now let’s focus on the basics of the martini. Be well-reminded that if you’re a martini newbie, this drink is not for amateurs. It’s meant to be sipped, not slammed. It’s not meant to be served anything much above ice-cold. We’ll get into the whole shaken-vs-stirred controversy shortly.
Because I’m here first and foremost in an educational role, let’s cover some history. (Okay, so I’m really more on the inspirational side of things, but I do like giving you cocktail party tidbits now that we are returned to a cocktail party world.) Digression aside, the straightforward martini has a bit of a muddled history. Some claim it was invented in Martinez, California by a bartender who’d been asked by a jubilant gold miner to make him something to celebrate with in lieu of champagne. As it’s told, the bartender mixed in a bunch of ingredients he had on hand: gin, vermouth, bitters, and maraschino liqueur, and he garnished it with a slice of lemon. When said lucky miner tried to order one again while in San Francisco, the bartender required instruction, and so some ingredients got left out.
Another school of martini thought holds that the drink was invented in San Francisco after a request by a miner on his way to Martinez. And still another one claims the whole thing was concocted at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. Finally, there’s a group of people who believe the drink’s name is a short version of Martini & Rossi, which is a brand of vermouth. So, the short answer is: Who knows? But really, who cares?
The martini has inspired pop culture references galore, including the concept of the “three-martini lunch” back in the day when you could show up to work after lunch drunk as a proverbial skunk. The famed “shaken not stirred” version favored by a famous spy played by many different actors is another one. That one has inspired plenty of semi-famous quotes and quips as well. My favorite one is attributed to that bastion of class, Homer Simpson, when talking about bartender Moe: “He knows how I like my martini — full of alcohol.”
But don’t forget British novelist — and, some say, inventor of the cocktail party — Alec Waugh, who said, “I am prepared to believe that a dry martini slightly impairs the palate, but think what it does for the soul.” And of course, we can’t forget Frederic Henry in Papa Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, who claimed, “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized,” after having a bunch of them while waiting for his lady love at a bar.
Some might even say Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H had the best one (and who am I to argue with them?) when he said: “I’d like a dry martini, Mr. Quoc. A very dry martini. A very dry, arid, barren, desiccated, veritable dustbowl of a martini. I want a martini that could be declared a disaster area. Mix me just such a martini.”
The reason for all this popularity might be in the drink’s simplicity. It could also be the fact that it’s served in such a classy-looking glass, even in the middle of the Korean War. My take is that it’s a quick way to get hammered, but by booze that doesn’t leave quite as nasty a hangover behind, thanks to the nature of gin (and vodka) versus some of their darker, sweeter, boozier counterparts.
Let’s break it down, shall we? The original, classic martini was made of one part gin and one part vermouth, served extremely cold, and garnished with either a single unstuffed green olive or a lemon peel. These days, the gin sometimes edges out the vermouth, but the rule of thumb is that if you want a dry martini, go with less vermouth. Not so dry? Keep the ingredients on the vermouth side of equal.
Some purists claim that shaking a martini à la James Bond is an abomination and it should always be stirred. Some claim it can’t be served ice-cold enough unless it’s shaken.
A dirty martini (a.k.a. yours truly’s second-favorite variation) calls for a dash of olive brine that turns the normally-clear drink opaque. A Gibson martini is the classic recipe, but with a cocktail onion in place of the olive or lemon.
The vodka martini had a name, but you don’t hear it much these days — mainly because no one knows why it was called “the Kangaroo” at one point. Feel free to call it a vodkatini* if you must, but risk being burned alive by the vicious stare of your craft mixologist. Calling it a “vodka martini” is just fine, thanks.
And finally, my absolute favorite when I’m in a martini-sort-of-mood is the Vesper Martini, which is a triple whammy of gin, vodka, and Kina Lillet vermouth with a lemon twist. I mean, why discriminate?
The key to enjoying this drink is the temperature at which it’s served, which should be extra cold. And as for the whole shaken-vs-stirred thing: While it’s sometimes pleasant to watch a bartender put on a show of shaking one for you, bartenders who know what they’re doing will skip the show. By rule of alcohol mixology, drinks that are 100% alcohol like the martini should always be stirred. I don’t make these rules, I merely report them so you understand them and spout them at parties in an annoying fashion. It could be argued that to make it cold enough to enjoy, it should be shaken — to which those in the other camp will say, “Put the glass in the freezer.”
Finally, I will leave you with this, my favorite quote about martinis and one you can take to the bank, in terms of veracity: “Martinis are like boobs. One isn’t enough. Three is too many.”
*The terms “appletini,” “mochatini,” and “lemon drop martini” should be stricken from your vocabulary.**
**This is me being judgmental. Feel free to ignore this, drink whatever you want and call it whatever you like.
Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.
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