by E.C. Fish on April 21, 2012

“Havin’ them martinis, havin’ them martinis…”
— the two year old Sam Fish’s version of “Frere Jacques” (“Fairer Jocker”), 2000

“Sounds much more fun than ringing morning bells.”
— Grandpa Dick Fish

Though I like martinis, it hardly ever occurs to me to have one. A happy confluence of events lately suggested getting out the shaker and glass and having a go. A very good friend of mine, hearing that Beefeater was my ancestral gin (favored by Fishes going back three generations and the subject of some of my father’s letters home from college), gifted me with a bottle, I had some Noilly Prat dry vermouth left over from braising chicken thighs, and putting the two together and getting them very cold just seemed like the thing to do.

One of the reasons I almost never have a martini is that for a rather simple two ingredient cocktail it has generated a dismaying amount of controversy and folklore. The process of assembling a martini is not so much a recipe as a cultural Rorschach test, a series of decisions that could result in a broadly varying array of beverages. This has been complicated in recent years by the adoption of the word “martini” (often shortened, God help us, to the suffix “tini”) to any cocktail served in one of those ever so chic classic martini glasses. Like many things in contemporary American culture, this is absolutely ridiculous. Anyone thinking that a crantini, chocotini, or cherry pomtini has anything to do with this discussion is invited to go outside and play for a bit– Uncle Fishy’s talking to the grown ups now.

Likewise it should be noted that the word “martini” always refers to a combination of gin and vermouth. A combination of vodka and vermouth is, in fact, a vodka martini, but the modifier “vodka” should always be used. It’s a modifier that denotes roughly the same relationship to the authentic item as the modifiers “choco”, “cran”, and “cherry pom”.

Having defined the ingredients, we now come to the question of proportion, and all hell breaks loose. According to the received doctrines of Martini Cool, as conveyed through such cultural icons as Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Ernest Hemingway, James Bond, Hawkeye Pierce, and many more, the standing order for the would be hipster’s martini contains the phrase “very dry”, meaning vermouth is treated as a sort of adulterant rather than an integral part of the cocktail. To this end, we find many martini recipes more reminiscent of the techniques of homeopathic medicine than those of mixology that introduce minute quantities of vermouth to the mix by washing the mixing vessel, ice, or glass with vermouth that is then tossed down the sink. For the truly hardcore– and this being largely a guy game, the competitive aspects of drinking your martinis drier than those of the rest of the pack come to the fore without much further ado– there are suggestions for preparing a glass of cold gin while thinking about, looking at a picture of, or whispering the word vermouth. It should be noted that such a concoction is sometimes referred to as an “Ernest Hemingway martini”, and that the twisted roots of the Cult of the Dry grow in the same fetid soil as the rest of his macho patriarchal horseshit.

Originally, the term “dry martini” didn’t refer to proportion at all. Back in the dark ages of mixology, there were actually martini recipes calling for sweet vermouth– less said the better– and a dry martini was a martini made with dry vermouth, often with a suggested proportion as high as five or even four to one. Note, however, that it was in fact made with vermouth. If you want to have a glass of gin, have a glass of gin– my granny’s favorite cocktail (and now one of mine) was Beefeater on the rocks with a lime or lemon wedge, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Tying having a glass of gin to the Cult of the Dry Martini, however, is pretense, and nothing more. A martini is a cocktail, not a shot. Vermouth is included. Mix to taste– I’m a half capfull to the jigger guy, myself– but please, mix.

Predictably, though, the mixing process itself brings us to yet another controversy– shaken or stirred? And predictably, one side of that controversy seems to me to be populated by a collection of pretentious purist poseurs. Insisting that they don’t want to “bruise their gin” (poor babies), the “stirred” crowd opts for a usually expensive collection of pitchers, special spoons, and strainers, which they often make a ritual of chilling in the freezer before mixing time. This is, of course, another variant of the Cult of the Dry, this time aimed not only at avoiding nasty gin boo-boos but also at keeping any and all water out of the mix– the special spoon is designed to avoid chipping the ice, the chilling ritual to avoid any undue melting of same, and the whole process designed to let you know that the cocktail is being mixed by an ever so discerning gentleman who can afford expensive barware. Feh. Gin and vermouth are largely composed of, you guessed it, water– a few ice chips one way or the other are unlikely to throw things off– and a shaken martini has the advantage of being considerably colder than a stirred one, in addition to emulsifying the oils in the vermouth with the gin. To my palate, superior, and far simpler to make.

Having made it through the civil wars required to actually produce a cocktail, one could engage further skirmishes over garnish (olives or a twist of lemon are traditional, while cocktail onions render your drink, strictly speaking, a Gibson, and if the cocktail onions are less than fresh, damn near undrinkable) and glassware (the traditional stemmed cone looks classy, but a glass is a glass). As for me, I’m tired, and thirsty, and would like to spend the rest of my evening in peace. Cheers, y’all.

E.C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen, and a former bartender

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

kirk June 16, 2012 at 2:36 am

Well Mr Fish this is terrific, and I say so with the confidence that I played some small part. (I believe “cult of the dry” might be a local coinage.) No matter: you nailed it several time here:
–vermouth is treated as a sort of adulterant
— a collection of pretentious purist poseurs
— macho patriarchal horseshit
— ever so discerning gentleman who can afford expensive barware

Here’s where I differ: there is no such thing as a ‘vodka martini’. Let them invent their own godamn word for it.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: