Calamity’s Corner: Martini Madness!

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Of all the drinks, in all the world, none holds quite the mystique, the elegance, and the image of the Martini. I’m not talking about your Appletinis, Chocotinis, fruity-fru-fru-vodka-and-liqueur in a stemmed glass, no. It takes more than a fancy martini glass to make a Martini. (These days I refer to those other drinks as ‘tinis, sort of giving them their own little category.) No, the Martini has a long and elusive history. It has been enjoyed by stars, politicians, and royalty. Martinis are the old, venerable star of the Bar Scene.

Perfect Hendricks

As with pretty much every single drink I’ve written about in this article, the origins of the Martini are not quite clear. There are recipes that are similar to the modern Martini that date back to the late 1800s. There are those who support the idea that the drink was originally called “The Martine.” It was served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, which was a popular stopping point for people taking the ferry t0 Martinez. Some say the drink was named for the city. Others say it was named that way because the bartender was from Martinez. They claim that eventually people began to shorten the name until it began to be known simply as “Martini.” The most bizarre claim to origin was told to me by a very sozzled lady at a bar, who claimed the drink was named by the bartenders disgruntled ex-girlfriend, who said that her ex, named Marty, was a very tiny man. I rather doubt that this is the case, but the lady who told me the story was quite amused at the whole thing.

What is a martini? Well, it’s actually one of the simpler drinks that exists. A Martini is a mixture of gin and vermouth, at a 2:1 ration. From there variations abound! Some recipes call for orange bitters, some for more or less vermouth. The style of vermouth is what determines a dry Martini from a sweet one. A Martini that uses both sweet and dry vermouth is a Perfect Martini. Add olive brine and you have a Dirty Martini. Using less vermouth results in an extra Dry Martini, then there’s the Sahara or Desert Dry, which means that no vermouth is used at all. From here the variations continue, and new names get attached to some of these, such as the Gibson, which is generally a dry Martini with little cocktail onions instead of olives. The most common garnish is the olive, but there are those (such as yours truly) who enjoy a nice twist, lemon or lime depending on the base gin. Martinis are often served up, that is neat in a martini glass, but they can also be served on the rocks in an old fashioned glass.

Martinis are made more interesting by the people who drink them. Of all the drinkers in all the world none are as specific as the Martini drinker. For example, you rarely ever get someone who bellies up to the bar and says, “Gimme a martini.” More than likely a bartender will hear “I’d like a Hendrick’s Martini, up, extra dry, with a twist of lime.” Martini drinkers will basically tell the bartender exactly how they want their drink. They name the brand of gin first, then the style, followed by the garnish of choice. Sometimes the Martini drinker will get even more eloquent in their requests: “I’d like a Martini, gin of course, Sapphire. Have the bartender briefly glance at the vermouth but not touch it, stir the drink 7 times. Strain, gently, into a well chilled martini glass over 3 olives, stuffed with bleu cheese.” (Note: I’ve never actually received an order phrased that way, and if it happens I may either hug the guest, or hit him with a muddler, I’m not sure which.) If a guest orders a Martini without specifying the gin I use what I have in the well. (And though I’d never show it there’s a slight chance I’ll be silently judging the guest.)

Parker Quote

The flavor of the Martini is for more complex than the simple ingredients might lead you to believe. Summerset Maugham (British playwright, novelist, and short story writer) was reported to have said, “a Martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.” The method that is used to make the Martini has an impact of the drink, at least to those who are dedicated Martini drinkers. Stirring is the most common way of making a Martini. Shaking leads to a cloudier drink, and to bruising the flavor. (I should note now that during the researching for this article I learned that a shaken Martini is actually called a Bradford.) The brand of vermouth used can have a huge impact on overall flavor. Cheap, low quality vermouths lead to muddier tasting Martinis. The layered flavoring of the Martini is based on the herbal components of the gin used, and the ingredients in the vermouth. Adding a touch of orange bitters further complicated the flavor palate.

How the Martini is made is, ultimately, up to the drinker and what they desire from the experience. If I’m looking for just some clean, crisp gin and no other bells or whistles, I’ll simple order a Sahara Dry Beefeaters (or other decent London Dry style) with an olive or lemon twist (depending on my mood.) When I want more layers I reach for other gins with more complex botanical mixtures. Order what appeals to you, and don’t be afraid to be super specific. If it slow at the bar try talking to her, or him, about the drink. If you’re lucky and your bartender is a Martini fan try ordering it the way they drink it. (I love when people do that!) Sip your Martini, it’s meant to be enjoyed and luxuriated in.

Here’s a recipe I’ve been enjoying of late:

3 oz Hendrick’s Gin

.5 oz Sweet Vermouth (try Dolin’s)

.5 oz Blanc (again Dolin’s is good)

2 dashes of orange bitters (right now I’m crushing on Bitter Truth bitters)

Fill a large martini glass with ice and water and set to the side. Fill a mixing glass or tin half to 2/3 full of ice. Pour ingredients into shaker, stir until well chilled. Dump the ice and water from the martini glass and shake the excess water out. Strain the drink into the martini glass, and garnish with a twist of lime.


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