One of the more noteworthy qualities of the martini, the quality that sets it apart from all the other drinks mixed at your local watering hole, is the disproportionate effect it’s had in inspiring witticisms.
Dorothy Parker, as usual, leads the way, with this bit of light poetry: “I like to have a martini/Two at the very most/Three, I’m under the table/Four, I’m under the host.”
James Thurber added, “One martini is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.”
Winston Churchill has a good one (maybe apocryphally) attributed to him, too: “Martinis are like breasts: One is not enough and three is too many.” Sure, whiskey may dominate country music, but the martini owns the bon mot.
Granted, all of those quotes are more than 50 years old. But even yet martinis are being ordered, quaffed, and (sometimes) regretted. You, yourself, may have ordered one recently, and if you have, you have no doubt noticed that it’s a drink that does not come without cost: at my local bar, a standard martini goes for $8.
That’s not an insignificant bit of money, but if you adhere to the wisdom of Parker, Thurber, et. al., then not a bank-breaker. But were the martinis they referenced the ones that could leave you under the host (or really anyone, between you and me) the same martinis that we drink now? And after we adjust for inflation, will we find that they cost more now—or less?
When we speak of martinis, we are of course speaking of gin. I know this and you know this. To be on the safe side, I polled friends, acquaintances and strangers, all employed in the cocktail-mixing and associated industries, and the responses were emphatic—martinis equals gin.
“A martini made with vodka is a vodka martini, which is in many martini drinkers’ eyes not a Martini,” said one respondent, a journalist who sometimes writes about food. And even the sole professional polled that admitted to preferring vodka martinis, a bartender in North Brooklyn, says that he “respects the old hardline Martinis are gin! that lots of old timers hold onto.” We will circle back to the vodka martini, but for our immediate purposes: Martinis are gin. Old-timers represent.
Fortunately, gin is fascinating. It’s about 800 years old, and it was first distilled in the Low Countries of Holland, Belgium, etc. It was first known as jenever, which is Dutch for juniper, as it was the juniper berries that gave it the distinctive taste. At the time, it was wine or brandy “cooked” with juniper, which were thought to have positive medicinal effect.
By the 17th century, grain spirits were being used to make jenever instead of wine, although the product (Anglicized into genever, or simply Geneva) resembled more of a whiskey in flavour than the clear, floral gin to which we’re accustomed. At about the same time, the Dutch East India Company came into prominence (and by prominence we mean prominence, as for a while the Dutch East India Company was basically one of the most powerful governments in the world), which meant that the local genever was being shipped all across the globe. The key to the first wave of popularity of gin? Distribution.
Gin as we know it now is a product of English ingenuity, or at least the English willingness to advance adult beverage science. As the Dutch East India Company circled the globe, “strong water” houses were popular in Britain, selling to customers aqua vitae (i.e., hooch).
While the rise of popularity of gin (an abbreviation of the Anglicization) may be difficult to divine in hindsight, there is one obvious proximate cause: the Glorious Revolution. In 1688, William of Orange, a Protestant gin-drinker from Holland, overthrew King James II, whereupon gin became the modish libation to demonstrate fealty to the crown.
Not long after the reign of William and Mary, gin became responsible for one of the first intoxicant epidemics to sweep an urban centre. According to Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, writing in
Gin: A Global History:
Blue Ruin, Ladies’ Delight, Cuckold’s Comfort. The sobriquets for the eighteenth-century drug of choice were legion. Never before had England been so mesmerized by a beverage; never again would the city of London be as consistently intoxicated as it was between 1720 and 1751.
Eventually, of course, the British sobered up (to some extent), but they had vigorously embraced gin, and modified the recipe to London dry gin, which is most likely the gin of your martini. It’s a distilled grain spirit, flavored with a large variety of botanicals and herbals, the most prominent of which is, of course, juniper, which is the source of the “icky” that some find in the spirit. This is the reason why gin is rarely drunk straight up, and is largely taken with tonic, or with vermouth.
This brings us to the martini, which is a relatively recent invention (compared to gin itself). Let’s not even pretend that we don’t all know a bit more about cocktails than we did five or 10 years ago—we are in the middle of a period of obsessive attention to all things foodie, be they the shoes of the horse that carried your heirloom tomatoes, or the mysterious origins of gussying up booze with additional ingredients, hand-crafted ice and oddly-shaped glasses. If you have sleeve garters that you slip on at home when filling the cocktail shaker, you can skip past this.
But for the benefit of those who take drink and have been up to now incurious, the story behind martinis goes something like this. The martini may have been invented in Martinez, California, during the Gold Rush, and then transported to San Francisco by a prospector who remembered the recipe of the “Martinez Special.” The martini may have sprang into being at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, whipped up by a recent immigrant by the name of Martini. The martini may have been invented by the father of the cocktail, “Professor” Jerry Thomas, a mid-Nineteenth Century mixologist who published the first recipe in his 1862 bartender’s manual, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, or, How To Mix Drinks.
It’s a matter of some conjecture, and bickering (as is whether or not “martini” should be capitalised). The martini is not, however, derived from Martini & Rossi, the vermouth and sparkling wine company. But here’s what a martini is: a bunch of gin, a bit of vermouth and/or bitters or other flavoring agent, chilled, and served with a garnish of a twist of lemon (later, maybe an olive).
The martini was very popular during Prohibition, as gin was easy to make surreptitiously (such as in the bathtub), and the vermouth was useful in masking the terrible taste of gin that’s been made in the bathtub. And it’s about this time that the martini began to become an idée fixe. See, for example, this early scene from the first Thin Man movie (1934), as we’re introduced to William Powell as Nick Charles, instructing gathered barmen in the proprieties of shaking a martini.
And we can start to discuss the price of martinis here. In 1936, at the Globe Copper Cocktail Lounge (not the bar that Nick Charles was in, FYI) in Los Angeles, you could order a Dry Martini for 25 cents. Adjusting that for inflation as we do, we arrive at the 2012 price of $4.14. And, hopefully, you got to see a movie star or two.
We again find the quarter martini a couple years later, in Chicago of 1940, at Gimbel’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, on a block of West Randolph Street not far from the Cook County Court House and Grant Park. Above the bar was a motto, “LIVE – LAUGH- LOVE – THE MUMMIES HAVEN’T HAD ANY FUN FOR 3000 YEARS.” Mummies! 20-five cents then translates into $4.11 now.
By this time we’re smack in the middle of the golden age of the martini, from the Jazz Age, moving through World War II and easing into the post-War boom, when a cocktail set—shaker, swizzle stick, etc.—was as mundane a household object as an ashtray.
And by now the martini had seeped so deep into the national consciousness that it becomes a fair topic for the writers. In 1948, Bernard DeVoto’s The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto was published. DeVoto was a widely published magazine writer and historian, and the book is exactly what it sounds like. Naturally, the martini is given its due course. An excerpt concerning the same was republished by the Claremont Review of Books, which posits that there are only two permissible drinks for the Happy Hour—the slug of whiskey and the other one:
With the other cocktail we reach a fine and noble art, and we reach too the wars over the gospel that have parted brothers, wrecked marriages, and made enemies of friends. It is here that the heresies burgeon and the schismatics bay.
Martinis had moved by that point from refreshment to obsession. Yes, the martini may be the province of the witticism, but it is also a volatile topic. While the recipe may be basically simple (two liquors and a garnish), the exacting preparations, the ratio of the gin to the vermouth and the identify of the garnish in question are not easy things for two people to agree upon, now as then.
Which is why, in the volumes written about the martini, the subject of the recipe for the Ideal Martini is either the main theme, or at least referenced. This makes, of course, for some fun reading, but it can get a little overwrought, especially when the Ideal Martini, as everyone knows, is the one that you’re thinking of in your own head.
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