There’s a reason it’s commonly referred to, in the copious literature devoted to it, as an elixir. One (I repeat, ONE) well-mixed martini can cure headaches and transform a foul mood into one of calm, focused joviality. In its proper context, it’s about aesthetics more than alcohol content. It’s a cocktail with symbolic power: elegant, worldly, associated with the high-class aspirations of the jazz age and the “three martini” power lunches of Wall Street and Capitol Hill. The instantly recognizable inverted cone of its traditional serving glass is the international symbol for BAR.
So what’s up with the recent trend to screw it up?
For purists, the crux is whether vodka is an acceptable substitute for gin, and how dry the drink should be. The garnish debate revolves around how many olives and how much brine makes it appropriately dirty. Choosing a twist of lemon peel solves the dilemma, while simply substituting a cocktail onion makes it a different drink — the Gibson. It does not, however, make it an “Onion-tini”.
In recent years, shameless liquor distributors and bartenders have been bastardizing the pristine nature of the finest cocktail ever created in order to legitimize their products. I saw a book claiming 250 recipes for martinis. There are probably a few really good drinks in there, but there’s no such thing as 250 recipes for a martini. Candied violets and sake are just not part of the canon. Reducing the exquisite martini to a suffix — Apple-tini, Choco-tini, Sake-tini — is a cheap trick. If you’ve got a good drink, it deserves its own identity. I might try a cocktail of dry sherry, gin, and vermouth, but I would never call it a “Fino-tini.”
If you’re going to drink a martini, gin, with its complex juniper-berry infusion, is the issue. The whole point is to taste the individual flavors as they hit different parts of your mouth, and to enjoy the refined viscosity of the ice-cold liquid in the glass.
Yet even a strict interpreter can acknowledge that the original martini was sweet, which can actually be quite nice. Simply substitute sweet vermouth for dry. A better version is the “Perfect,” as served in the 1890s Waldorf Hotel, reproduced in William Grimes’ 1993 social history, Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink: 1 1/2 oz. gin, 1 oz. each sweet and dry vermouth, a dash of bitters and a twist of orange peel.
Conrad Barnaby III’s excellent 1995 book, The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic offers a pre-Prohibition dry martini of 2 oz. gin, 1 oz. dry vermouth, plus a dash of bitters — which is fantastic in a drier recipe.
And even I am seduced by the James Bond “Vesper,” named after the femme fatale in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. It combines 3 oz. gin and 1 oz. vodka, both of which are distinct on the palate, with 1/2 oz. of sweet, aromatic French Lillet lingering like perfume. Shake (of course), and garnish with a lemon twist.
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