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Martini Madness

All Hail the Martini, Civilization in a Glass
| By Barnaby Conrad III | From 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.

Traditionally, the Martini is imbibed in company, but (like the cigar) when consumed in solitude it can be a reflective respite from an ever-chattering world. M.F.K. Fisher, the great food writer, confided that "a well-made Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature."

On a recent rainy Monday evening, I lit a fire, put on a jazz CD by the John Jarvis Trio and thought about the world as I sipped a Silver Bullet. I lit up a clever little Dunhill, mixed another Martini, and in a few minutes I had concocted a historical theory about the Martini and its meaning to America. Here it is: The Martini is an extended metaphor for Euro-American culture itself! Gin was invented in Holland in the sixteenth century before heading to England, and these countries provided the first dominant ethnic groups that settled the eastern seaboard of North America, signed the Declaration of Independence and created the greatest capitalist society in the world. French vermouth was imported in Napoleonic times and calls to mind the Louisiana Purchase; indeed, this beverage entered the United States through New Orleans. Italian vermouth's modification from sweet to dry mirrors the Italian immigrant experience of assimilation at the turn of the century. (Bear with me here as I pour another.) The lemon twist represents the Caribbean or Latin American contribution, while the olive is Italian or Greek, and the pickled onion might be German or Jewish. The growing popularity of vodka represents the Slavic influence (and long predates Soviet glasnost). So where do the Irish, Scots or Spanish fit in, you rightly wonder? Just ask the name of your bartender.

A word of caution to neophyte Martini drinkers: When taken to excess, this perfectly civilized drink can lead directly to uncivilized behavior. "More people get their glasses broken, and arrested and divorced on account of Martinis than for any other reason," American journalist Westbrook Pegler said a half century ago. Watch your consumption, because for some people, as James Thurber noted, "One is alright, two is too many, and three is not enough." The purpose of the Martini is to enhance the evening, not to obliterate it. This poem by Dorothy Parker, who sailed frequently to Blottoland, described an out-of-control scenario:

I like to have a Martini

But only two at the most,

After three I'm under the table,

After four I'm under my host.

Traditionally at least, the Martini and the cigar rarely meet socially. The Martini typically is consumed before dinner, while the cigar appears afterwards with a Cognac, Port or some other liqueur. There's a good reason for this: As in the theater, the Martini is that strong first act that separates you from the stress of the day, so that your imagination expands and you are launched into an evening of good cheer. Then comes food and wine to enrich the blood and warm the stomach. Finally, in the third act, it's time for a smoke, possibly even a change of scenery as in, "Let's step into the library, gentlemen--and would, er, any smoking ladies care to join us?"

Note the word "traditionally." If you understand the rules, there's room to experiment. I never would have said that a year ago. I condemned heretics who tinkered with The Great Traditional Martini. In my book, The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, I excoriated "garnish perverts" who replaced an olive or lemon twist with things like pickled shrimp, midget corncobs or crystallized violets. Then, last fall, I served as master of ceremonies of the Fourth Annual Martini Classic Challenge in Seattle. The contestants were bartenders from two restaurants and two hotels. It was an elegant, black-tie affair with a tongue-in-cheek atmosphere--and six stretch limousines to keep the judges and their tipsy entourage from endangering anyone en route. Our first stop was the Metropolitan Grill, a large clubby steakhouse with a 40-foot-long bar. To add flair to the event, the chef had created a separate eight-foot-long bar carved from solid ice. Here we were offered a "Decadent" Martini made of Ketel One vodka, Tanqueray gin and a dash of Godiva chocolate liqueur. Not only was it better than it sounds, but I knew instantly that it would go well with a cigar, so I lit up a small Dunhill. Ah-sooooo! Later that night, at the Four Seasons Hotel, we were served their "Cardinal Sin" Martini made with two ounces of Ketel One vodka, one-half ounce of Janneau Grand Armagnac, one-half ounce of Fonseca Port and dashes of Cherry Heering liqueur and Kahlua, garnished with an air-dried orange twist. By no means a gin Martini, but again, it was a perfect counterpoint for the cigar, and I indulged.

These are not the only cigar friendly variations. Though not a traditional Martini (which must include vermouth and gin or vodka), the Hennessy Martini is a fine cocktail that might be seen as a sassy French cousin. It's Cognac served in an adventurous and thoroughly modern manner--shaken with ice and served straight up in a Martini glass with a lemon twist. Being a traditionalist, I was skeptical until one evening I found myself without a bottle of gin in the house. I mixed one up and voila! The chilled Cognac went very well indeed with an Onyx maduro. (In fact I drank a second.)

Being a civilized drink, the Martini should be consumed in a civilized environment, whether it be a swank restaurant or a good friend's home (but please--turn off the television and put on Miles Davis!). Likewise, a cigar deserves respect: Savor it in a place free from urgency or anxiety. The Martini drinker and the cigar smoker share personality traits; they tend to be a hybrid of the reflective outlaw and the hearty traditionalist--not as paradoxical as you might at first think. Both enjoy sanguine, witty conversation unpretentiously shared, but they aren't afraid to be alone with their own thoughts. And time must unfold around them in a salubrious manner or there's something amiss. No rush job, no furtive glances at the wristwatch, please.

When Frederick Henry, Hemingway's alter ego in A Farewell to Arms, left the barbaric carnage of the First World War, he went to the bar of a grand hotel and ordered a Martini. "The sandwiches came and I ate three and drank a couple more Martinis. I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized."

The modern working man or woman may feel similarly after a computer crash, a bleak day at the office or an encounter with a humorless traffic cop. A Martini will outperform Prozac anytime. But outside of your home, where can you find a place that mixes a great Martini and lets you savor a good cigar? In New York recently I was delighted to find Lexington Bar and Books, a cigar friendly bar whose wood paneling and bookshelves give it the appearance of the smoking lounge of a traditional club. (The only drawback was the loud rock music.) A friend and I settled into comfortable lounge chairs near the back. It was after dinner, but I ordered a "Bookmark" Martini made from Ketel One vodka with a dash of Chambord and garnished with a tomolive (a pickled green tomato); I then lit up a Dunhill and settled back to conversation with my Macanudo-smoking friend who drank a "Goldeneye 007" Martini, made with Smirnoff Black and garnished with an olive. In a taste test, my drink was better, because the Smirnoff seemed harsh. Bar and Books has another location near Beekman Place and one downtown on Hudson Street. What a luxury these days--to be able to smoke and drink in public!

While Martinis are popular once more with the younger bar crowd, surprisingly few bartenders care enough to make them well. It takes concentration and a bit of time to make a good Martini, and an overworked bartender doesn't have these to spare. But there are notable exceptions. One of Manhattan's great Martinis is made by Dale DeGroff, a nearly legendary bartender and beverage manager of the Rainbow Room crowning Rockefeller Plaza. Dale prefers to stir, but will happily shake if you ask. Spark's Steakhouse in midtown serves a good Martini, as do Marion's and the Temple Bar downtown, although Temple's glasses are too large. The '21' Club has a wonderful atmosphere for a Martini--with the right-sized old fashioned-style glasses--but strangely, they don't chill the glasses. Try the Oak Room at the Plaza where they do ice them down.

In spite of the teetotaling atmosphere of the Clinton White House, Martinis are on the upswing in Foggy Bottom haunts. You can get a good Martini at the rather hopping Capital Grille or at The Palm, where on any given night you might find James Carville or Ted Kennedy hoisting See-Throughs. The Martini is making a comeback in the Midwest, too. In Chicago, you can rely on the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel, Gibson's or Jilly's (named for Frank Sinatra's bodyguard and friend, Jilly Rizzo). In Milwaukee it's Elsa's, Egan's and Eddie Martini's. At the American Restaurant in Kansas City, Willie Grandison has been slipping pickled brussels sprouts into his Martinis since 1974; I forgive him for doing this because they taste good. Since Chasen's closed, Los Angeles has fewer harbors for earnest Martini drinkers, but I recommend Musso & Frank's and the Polo Lounge of the recently--and grandly--refurbished Beverly Hills Hotel.

San Francisco is arguably the most Martini-oriented city in the United States right now. At Bix Restaurant, the glasses are kept cold in a large bowl of ice (but Biederbeck has given up the humidor). At Stars, Jeremiah Tower serves a very cold Martini and offers a smoking room for cigars. For old-time elegance, try Harris' Steakhouse on Van Ness. Next would be Curtis Post's Occidental Grill, which is also the most cigar friendly restaurant in town, offering truly Bacchanalian "smokers" several times a year. Post insists that all Martinis are shaken and poured tableside. "You've got to shake until your hand hurts," Post says. "When you pour, it's so cold the glass looks like a miniature blizzard inside." Enrico's on Broadway has a good Martini and allows cigar smoking on the terrace. My all-time favorite for steaks and Martinis is an old-time place called Alfred's on the edge of North Beach, where veteran mixer Mike McMichael serves each Martini with its own miniature shaker that allows you to enjoy a "dividend."

It is rare to get a good Martini outside of the United States, but I recommend the Stafford Hotel in London, where the bartender, Charles, regularly serves the Queen Mum. During the liberation of Paris in 1944, Ernest Hemingway showed up at the Ritz with a squad of soldiers and ordered 73 dry Martinis; they still serve one well and true, but today it will cost you almost $20. Wherever you go, expect the best gin for your Martini: Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, Gordon's, Tanqueray.

You never know where you might find a good Martini. Recently I went to Cuba for research. I'd spent all day touring the tobacco fields of the Pinar del Río region, sharing a bus with 20 Turks who complained the whole way back because the pre-ordered lunch included pork, which they don't eat. "Refund! Refund! We are not slaves!" whined their leader to our Cuban guide. They squawked louder when two Italians, a Frenchman and I lit up our Montecristos. Back at the Hotel Nacional, we headed straight to the elegant bar, where the also non-drinking Turks dared not enter. Instead of ordering the customary local specialty, a mojito, or a Daiquiri, I asked the bartender for la bebida mas capitalista--a Martini. I didn't expect much in a run-down Communist country, but the bartender, a cheerful fellow named Antonio, smiled and said, "Si, señor." He didn't even ask me, "Gin or vodka?" which I took as the sign of a gin traditionalist. He loaded Gordon's gin into a glass shaker with ice, stirred it, then let it sit for a minute while he pulled an iced glass from the refrigerator--another good sign--dropped some vermouth into it, swirled it around and poured it out. This was an unusual technique, but obviously part of a well-practiced routine. He skewered a green olive. He poured, and dropped in the olive so that it now appeared as a fallen leaf in a miniature Zen pool.

I hoisted the Martini to my lips and muttered the revolutionary slogan, "Venceremos!" ("We shall overcome!"). It was drier than I would have made it, but it was excellent--What would we call it? Bay of Pigs Delight? High Fidel-ity? My friend Karl Francis, a British filmmaker, promptly dubbed it the "José Martí(ni)" after the great nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary whose name adorns Havana's airport and whose face appears on statues throughout the island. After a few sips, I reached in my breast pocket and pulled out a fresh Montecristo No. 4. Antonio was pleased by this, and produced a cutter and a match. The combination of Yanqui cocktail and Cuban tobacco was superb--and no health gestapo appeared to demand that I extinguish my cigar.

Barnaby Conrad III is the author of Absinthe: History In a Bottle, The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, and Ghost Hunting In Montana.