This article originally appeared in the March 1989 issue of playboy magazine.
Since we baby boomers ran out of fads to foist on an unsuspecting American public, we’ve been doing a lot of cultural reduxing. This year’s renaissance is the American martini, and I personally can’t think of anything more civilized that has happened to us since the hasty return of Coke Classic.
Blame the martini’s demise on several factors. Like the V8 engine, it just didn’t fit the sensibilities of the baby boomers’ new world: It was too potent for the health-and-fitness lobby and not kookie enough to sate the eclectic tastes of the Yuppies. The martini was also the victim of vicious slander, propagated in large part by Jimmy Carter, that placed it at the center of all that was wrong with the American system of free enterprise. Remember Carter’s assault on the three-martini lunch? I, for one, wish he had picked something we truly could do without–such as the three-banana-daiquiri lunch.
Happily, we have finally discovered that a few things are just so good and right that they can’t be substituted, modified or, ultimately, denied. Hence, the martini’s triumphant return, in which I sense a yearning for a simpler, more elegant America. To consume a martini is not merely to have a drink. It is to immerse oneself in tradition and lore, to make a statement to the world of urbanity and class, to join a special fraternity. Sipping a martini is a kind of secular communion, a deceptively simple ritual steeped in subtleties and hidden meaning.
While some mixologists claim that the martini was created in London, most histories of the drink credit its inception to San Francisco bartender Jerry Thomas, who, legend has it, first mixed the libation in 1862 as a variation of the popular gin cocktail. Thomas supposedly mixed the following elixir for a weary traveler who was about to take a chilly boat ride across San Francisco Bay to the tiny town of Martinez: three or four dashes of gum syrup, one wineglass of gin, one or two dashes of curaçao, a dollop of bitters and one small piece of lemon peel, all shaken well over ice and strained into a glass.
This gin elixir was dubbed a martinez, later modified to martine and, finally, martini. (Folks in the town of Martinez, incidentally, claim that the traveler in question was going the other way across the bay, from Martinez to San Francisco, and that the potion was first mixed by one of their own, bartender Julio Richelieu.)
The martini as we know it today didn’t surface until the 1880s or so, after the introduction of vermouth to the States. Since then, it has become a complex, often contradictory liquid icon. As Lowell Edmunds, author of the definitive The Silver Bullet, points out, the martini can easily evoke images either of cozy middle-class America, as in the gin ads of the Thirties and Forties, or of abject alcoholism, as in the movie The Lost Weekend. It’s a tough, potent, uncivilized drink from one point of view; a civilized social aphrodisiac from another. Few drinks make a more powerful public statement, yet few cocktails may be consumed in private with as much social acceptance.
One thing all martini drinkers can agree on: The drink’s taste should be cold and dry, its appearance clear and pure. Beyond that, the first thing one learns when he joins the martini fraternity is that he had better be able to argue about the drink as well as he can hold it.
Since World War Two, the chief argument has been waged over its relative dryness: The accepted gin-to-vermouth ratio during prewar years was three to one; since then, the martini has grown steadily drier. The standard is supposed to be six to one, but most present-day aficionados prefer a ratio of at least twice that. A debate continues to rage over the proper garnish: The olive still holds sway, though I prefer the more classic twist of lemon. And some drinkers have become real garnish freaks, stuffing their olives with everything from anchovies to nuts to cocktail onions.
Disputes also continue over proper chilling procedure: Some mixologists insist that the gin or vodka must be prechilled in the freezer; others swear by chilling over ice. And last but not least, there are still plenty of purists who maintain that a martini is not a martini unless it is served stirred with ice and strained into the traditional stemmed glass.
Part of the magic of the martini is that it resists change–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But in its new life, the martini is also enjoying some experimentation. In the new, more flexible rules of martini mixology, vodka has taken a slight lead as the base liquor of choice. On the rocks seems to be more popular than straight up. Very dry is the rule, and substitutions for vermouth are increasingly accepted. Martinis are often requested with a drop of Scotch or with freshly ground pepper; there’s also a hybrid martini employing equal parts of gin and vodka (pretty good, too). And most recently, we have witnessed the emergence of a melon martini that calls for a drop or so of melon liqueur in place of vermouth. Nouveaux martinis? Well, there are limits, but the point is to cut enough of the bite off the gin or vodka to get past the first sip. One of the nice things about the martini is that it is resilient and tough, even immune to purist snobbery. Tampering a little isn’t going to sabotage the essence.
Atkinson’s Preferred Martini
My personal favorite is a kind of martini royale, mixed exquisitely by Tom Wittinger, the night bartender at the Mansion Hotel in Dallas.
• 2 or 3 ozs. gin or vodka
• Lemon twist
Shake or stir gin or vodka over ice. Rim chilled martini glass with brandy. Pour gin or vodka, strained, into glass and garnish with lemon twist.
Gotta go straight to the source here: that palace of power martini drinking, The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York.
• Cocktail olives or lemon twist
Put dash of vermouth in mixing glass and swirl; dump excess. Add gin or vodka and ice. Stir and pour, strained, over rocks. Add cocktail olive or lemon twist.
The James Bond Martin
I used to think James Bond was a closet wimp. But that was before I read Casino Royale and realized that the guy is truly superhuman–at least in terms of what he drinks. Double-Oh Seven’s version of the martini is a real killer. Let’s hope he doesn’t drive his Aston Martin DB 5 or four-and-a-half-liter Bentley after consuming one of these.
• 3 parts Gordon’s gin
• 1 part vodka
• 1 part Kina Lillet vermouth
• Lemon peel
Shake–don’t stir–gin, vodka and vermouth with crushed ice until ice begins to form on surface of liquid. Serve in deep champagne goblet garnished with large slice of lemon peel.
The Cajun Martini
My favorite experimental martini is the Cajun martini. The classic recipe, which calls for the drink to be made in bulk, comes from–where else?–K-Paul’s in New Orleans.
• 1 fifth gin or vodka
• 2 whole jalapeño peppers
• Lemon peel
Shake gin or vodka and splash of vermouth over rocks and pour, strained, into separate container. Quarter fresh jalapeño peppers, seed and add to martini mixture. Marinate in refrigerator for 2 to 4 days, then remove peppers.
Note: If you don’t want to wait 2 to 4 days or, for some reason, don’t want a fifth of martinis around the house, a similar effect may be accomplished by chilling 2 ozs. vodka or gin over rocks, adding vermouth and 1 or 2 dollops of jalapeño juice and pouring, strained, into martini glass.
Is the martini back for good? There are skeptics who rightfully wonder if this isn’t just one more cultural flirtation on the part of us baby boomers. But this revival has the resonance of the real thing. It says, more than anything else, that we perpetual kids have finally grown up. Now, if we could just get Detroit to start making V8 engines again….
MORE ON THE MARTINI AND ADDITIONAL COCKTAIL RECIPES