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Martini Madness

All Hail the Martini, Civilization in a Glass
Barnaby Conrad III
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

The Martini is a cocktail distilled from the wink of a platinum blonde, the sweat of a polo horse, the blast of an ocean liner's horn, the Chrysler building at sunset, a lost Cole Porter tune and the aftershave of quipping detectives in natty double-breasted suits. It's a nostalgic passport to another era--when automobiles had curves like Mae West, when women were either ladies or dames, when men were gentlemen or cads and when a "relationship" was true romance or a steamy affair. Films were called movies then, the music was going from le jazz hot in Paris to nightclub cool in Vegas, and when a deal was done on a handshake, the wise guy who welched soon had a date with a snub-nosed thirty-eight. Love might have ended in a world war, but a kiss was still a kiss, a smile was still a smile, and until they dropped the atomic bomb there was no need to worry, schweetheart, as long as the vermouth was dry and the gin was wet. That was Martini Culture.

All right, maybe that era wasn't as wonderful as I imagine it, but standing at the Art Deco bar of, say, the Rainbow Room in Manhattan or the Clift Hotel's Redwood Bar in San Francisco with a dry Martini in hand, our present world of AIDS, rap music, sexual harassment cases and cyberspace mania seems awfully crude. This magic shimmering cocktail will banish the shabby preoccupations of the day and transport you to a better place. Whoever shall believe in the Silver Bullet (no, not Coors) shall have salvation--at least for an hour or two. That's part of the reason why the noted American author Bernard De Voto called the Martini "the supreme American gift to world culture." No doubt the De Voted One had already imbibed several See-Throughs when he said that. The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, declared it "the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet," while New Yorker humorist E.B. White called it the "elixir of quietude" and proudly admitted that he drank Martinis "the way other people take aspirin." Even Johnny Carson said in the 1960s that "happiness is finding two olives in your Martini when you're hungry."

You'll note that these quotes place the Martini in the recent past, far from the smoke-free, politically correct world that the American health gestapo is currently engineering for us. Some of us recall Jimmy Carter's phantom enemy, the legendary "three Martini lunch," which (perhaps for the better) has faded as a pastime due to changing work habits and Breathalyzer tests. Then came the Eighties, when Martinis were given up for white wine at the bar and cocaine sniffed in the bathroom--a dreadfully unsociable habit. But lo and behold, in the Nineties the clouds parted and there appeared unto us believers The Great Martini Revival (at least in the evening). "I like to think we helped spark the Martini revival when we opened in 1988," says Doug "Bix" Biederbeck, owner of Bix Restaurant, a 1930s-style supper club with live jazz in San Francisco. "We serve so many now that I'm dreading the first case of carpal tunnel syndrome from all the Martini shaking my bartenders do."

The Martini is to middle- and upper-class American society what peyote is to the Yaqui Indians: a sacred rite that affirms tribal identity, encourages fanciful thought and--let's be honest here--delivers a whoppingly nice high. So where did this supreme elixir come from? Some scholars--yes, there are great minds who ponder the pedigree--claim that it was invented by famed bartender "Professor" Jerry Thomas at the bar of the old Occidental Hotel in San Francisco as early as the 1860s. Reputedly Thomas made the drink for a gold miner on his way to the town of Martinez, some 40 miles to the east. But the recipe for the "Martinez Cocktail," as recorded by Thomas in his 1887 bartender's guide, called for Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, a dash of maraschino and bitters, as well as a slice (not a peel) of lemon and two dashes of gum syrup. Not exactly a modern dry Martini.

Still another story has a bartender named Julio Richelieu inventing the "Martinez" circa 1870 in Martinez itself, but there is no written record to support this. An Italian bartender in New York City named Martini di Arma di Taggia claimed to have concocted a "Martini" in 1912, and to have served it to John D. Rockefeller himself. A number of reputable cocktail histories still mention this--in spite of the fact that John D. was a devout Baptist, a lifelong teetotaler and never touched a drop. Additionally, the Martini had already become popular from coast to coast--Jack London wrote a novel (Burning Daylight) as early as 1910 in which his hero drank gallons of Martinis in San Francisco.

Some credit the drink's name to the venerable Italian vermouth maker Martini & Rossi, but its early brands were all sweet red vermouth, and the French dry vermouth maker Noilly-Prat had already been exporting to this country for decades. All we do know is that by 1900--the dawn of the Cocktail Age--the name Martini was known by bartenders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ironically, Prohibition enhanced the Martini's popularity; bathtub gin was easier to make than Scotch, so gin drinks--like the Martini--reigned supreme through the Roaring Twenties.

When Prohibition ended, Hollywood boosted the Martini legend. In The Thin Man (1934), William Powell plays suave detective Nick Charles, who instructs three New York bartenders at the elegant Normandie Hotel bar how to make a proper Martini. "You see, the important thing is the rhythm," he says. "You always have rhythm in your shaking. With a Manhattan you shake to fox trot time. A Bronx to two-step time. A dry Martini you always shake to waltz time."

Thirty years later, James Bond made the line, "Shaken, not stirred," a slogan for studly coolness, and superstitiously warned the mixer not to "bruise the gin." Agent 007 was directly contradicted by a countryman, novelist Somerset Maugham, who said, "Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another." (Get out the microscope, Somerset.)

How, then, to mix the perfect Martini? I prefer a shaken Martini for several reasons: For starters, I like cocktail shakers that come in every shape, from penguins and roosters to lighthouses and golf bags. I collect them and also use them. I like the gravel-like music of the shaking and the way the frost creeps up the side of the shaker. And I like the way shaking breaks off little splinters of very cold ice so that when the Martini is poured into the glass, it looks as cloudy as the run-off from a glacial river. Rule number one: The best Martini will always be the coldest Martini. Lukewarm presentations just don't cut it. If you can, put your glasses, your bottle of gin or vodka and your shaker in the freezer at least half an hour before your guests arrive. (The vermouth, which will freeze, should go only in the refrigerator.)

Mixing a Martini--a near religious ritual for some--is a straightforward affair. My recipe uses old-fashioned proportions--four parts gin to one part vermouth--in a silver shaker. (Silver will make your liquids colder than a glass shaker.) I toss in a dash of orange bitters (available from Fee Brothers in Rochester, New York), then shake. And I mean shake it! Then pour into glasses that hold no more than four ounces--avoid those giant birdbath glasses that seem to be everywhere. Garnish with a lemon peel, an unpitted olive on a toothpick or a pickled onion to create a Gibson.

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