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The Martini – America’s Perfect Cocktail

I can hardly express how annoyed I get when I hear someone call a vodka-based drink a “Martini.” Sadly, even professional mixologists have co-opted the name for any cocktail that’s shaken and served “up.” Most of these drinks have absolutely no connection to the herbal elixir of the gods that is a real Martini. Fortunately, a resurgence of boutique gins in recent years is a boon for real martini drinkers.

The Martini celebrates alcohol and bold flavors, rather than masking them. It is quite possibly the perfect cocktail. The Martini employs two beverages built upon aromatic herbs – balancing elements that can be overwhelming on their own. The subtlety of the Martini is like factoring a quadratic equation; the combination of gin and vermouth cancels out similar elements in the base beverages. Pristinely simple, deeply mysterious, the Martini is perfectly balanced and definitively adult.

Vodka, on the other hand, adds nothing to a cocktail. It is intentionally neutral, making it perfect for fruity drinks, or when one wishes to consume alcohol without knowing it’s there. So, appending the name “vodka” to Martini is an admission that this version is an inferior imposter. But sadly, I have met bartenders who asked, “Which vodka do you prefer” when I simply ordered “a Martini.” That response should be punished by the immediate revocation of their Bartenders Guide, followed by corporal punishment with his cocktail strainer.

As much as I hate to say this, Gin is essentially flavored vodka. Modern gin is a clear distilled grain spirit infused with natural botanicals. These vary from brand to brand – all with juniper, of course, but other common ingredients include cardamom, coriander, sage, cassia, nutmeg, citrus peel and angelica root.

Gin originated in Holland in the mid 16th century when Franciscus Sylvius, set out to concoct a cure for stomach complaints using juniper berries. He called it Genever, the Dutch bastardization of the Latin word for juniper. Dutch gins were, and are, viscous and full-bodied with hints of fusel oil. Oregon’s Aviation Gin is a rye-based spirit that is a modern spin on a Dutch gin, that’s great for vintage Genever-based cocktails.

The migration of Dutch gin from Holland to the UK came about in the 17th century when troops returned from the “30 Years War” where British soldiers were given rations of gin before battle. Their so-called “Dutch courage” was enthusiastically embraced and brought back to the UK for consumption at home. The new London Dry gin took on a new style that was fresh, dry and light.

The expansion of the British Empire then made this gin an international remedy for whatever ailed you. Its original medicinal roots were applied to new maladies. Gin and lime was a favorite with the Royal Navy, served as a palatable combination for ingesting large quantities of sour lime juice as a countermeasure against scurvy. This is the spiritual godfather of the Gimlet.

When King William III – better known as William of Orange – came to the English throne, he enacted a series of statutes encouraging the distillation of English spirits. Anyone could legally distill their own hooch simply posting a public notice they intended to do so. Gin became so commonplace that it was distributed to workers as part of their wage, and gin sales volume exceeded beers and ales, which were more expensive at the time.

Gin was the perfect spirit for amateur distillers, because strong herbal favors cover the flaws in properly made booze and the poisons in improper ones. Things got so bad during the “Gin Craze” in the UK that actual poison became a flavor component. Unscrupulous distillers would add a little turpentine to increase the “juniper” character and maximize the alcoholic kick of their product.

The Gin Craze hangover ended following the Gin Act of 1751. This act encouraged “respectable” gin selling by requiring licensees and distilling “on premises.” Historians suggest that gin consumption was reduced not as a result of this legislation, but because of the rising cost of grain. This scarcity led to the resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era by the aristocratic class who could afford it.

Economics transformed gin from pauper to prince. Lavish bars appeared that sold “respectable” gin to well-heeled patrons. The “gin mill” or “dram shops” that sold gin mostly as take-out often to be consumed in the street, were supplanted by elegant “gin palaces.” These upscale shops served beverages in a social environment that later transferred their décor of gaslights, etched glass and mirrors to the late Victorian pubs. Here patrons drank their gin like whiskey, neat or with a splash of water.

This new image helped to fuel the most popular gin drink on the planet today, the gin and tonic. The humble G&T was originally put together in colonial India as an anti-malaria concoction. Quinine was added to carbonated water to create “Indian Tonic” water. This beverage was so bitter that Gin was added simply to mask the medicinal character of the tonic. Today, one might guess that the opposite was true. The resulting mix became the origin of the G&T, although modern tonic water contains only a trace of quinine.

However, the Martini did not begin as this perfect exercise in herbal subtlety. In it’s original form and called “The Martinez” was described in the first edition of The Bartenders Guide, as a full wine glass of sweet vermouth, one ounce of Old Tom Gin, two dashes maraschino liqueur, a dash of bitters, shaken, and served with a twist of lemon. Herbal yes, but the Martinez was a veritable “razzmatini” of syrupy sweetness.

The generally accepted origin of the Martini was circa 1865 at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel which was destroyed in the great 1906 earthquake. At the time, people drank at this hotel while waiting for the evening ferry across the bay to the town of Martinez. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Martinez used this as evidence that the “Martini” was first concocted right there first. They claim a bartender named Julio Richelieu served the first Martinez. As legend has it, Julio mixed the drink for a gold miner who was disappointed with his bar’s whisky. The miner purportedly placed a gold nugget on the bar and challenged Richelieu to create something delicious. He served up a glass of gin, sweet vermouth, orange, bitters and a local olive.

Given the Martini’s sophisticated aura, New Yorkers also insist it was created there. New York mythology has a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel inventing it in 1911 for John D. Rockefeller. While this origin is highly unlikely, Rockefeller did help the Martini make its way into big business lunches and backroom politicking. Franklin Roosevelt supposedly introduced the Martini back to the UK when he served one to the world’s most-famous drunken policy-maker – Sir Winston Churchill. The rest, as they say, is history.

Regardless of origin, once the 20th century rolled around, the Martini had become simpler and transparent; made from equal parts of gin and dry white vermouth with a couple of dashes of orange bitters. But, it was Prohibition and the relative abundance of illegal “bathtub gin” that really led to the Martini’s rise as the predominant cocktail of the jazz age. As refrigerators began to replace iceboxes, the drink became progressively dryer. Gin started to dominate the mix, but by just a ratio of 2:1, and the modern Martini was born.

By the mid-century, the drink’s aristocratic popularity put emphasis on excessive dryness that became an affectation of “sophistication.” By removing vermouth from the mix “super dry” Martinis with ratios sometime above 5:1 makes the cocktail a harsh, unbalanced drink, dominated by juniper and alcohol. Vermouth is a required element that takes the edge off, while adding floral top notes and a depth of citrus elements.

It is not surprising that the Rat Pack perpetuated the notion of dry sophistication with witty references to the dryness of their martinis and their act. In the 1958 movie Teacher’s Pet, Clark Gable mixes a martini by turning the bottle of vermouth upside-down and then running the moistened cork around the rim of the glass before filling it with gin. Surrealist director, Luis Buñuel, claimed that perfect dryness was achieved by allowing a ray of sunlight to pass through a bottle of vermouth, illuminating a glass of gin. Winston Churchill himself suggested that the perfect balance was achieved by pouring gin into a Martini glass and then bowing in the direction of France in homage to the vermouth.

But again, such excessive dryness undermines the depth of a Martini. The bitter balance of vermouth’s wormwood flowers, cloves and cardamom and gin’s coriander, citrus and juniper, topped off with briny olive essence, is magically deep and savory. Like perfume manufacturing, the perfect dry Martini is an exercise in balancing top notes, heart notes and bass notes. To replace the gin with vodka is to eviscerate the heart from the body. A vodka martini is devoid of the herbal “umami” that defines a real Martini.

Sadly the resurgence of the Martini was really inspired by Bombay Sapphire. This “premium” gin created a market for less juniper-dominated style that attracted a younger audience to what had long been seen as a middle-aged tipple. Bombay Dry, which is a less alcoholic 80 proof (Sapphire is 100) and more herbal, makes a superior martini. Fortunately the new wave of boutique gins is bucking the Sapphire trend. These more boldly flavored spirits celebrate the herbal heritage of gin. A few of the best are listed below.

When you mix your Martini be old-school about it. Be sure your gin and your shaker are freezer cold. Do not exceed the 5:1 ratio of gin to vermouth. Use French vermouth like Noilly Pratt. Add a dash of Fee Brothers Orange Bitters in homage to the Martinez. Mix all ingredients in the glass first and pour into an ice-filled shaker. Shake it vigorously enough to “bruise” the ice. Let it stand for 20 seconds. A hint of dilution smooth’s out the drink. If you drink dirty martinis, never put olive brine in the shaker as the salt melts too much ice. Pour the brine into your glass before you strain the shaker. The perfect martini will have ice crystals floating on the surface like stars in the night sky.

Junípero Gin, California, ±$40
Get the perfect gin-lover’s martini. Anchor Steam Brewing of San Francisco makes this small-batch gin in a copper pot still. As the name implies, if you hate gin for the juniper, you will loathe this. The bracing notes of juniper are buffered by clear supporting roles of citrus and spice (although the exact recipe remains a secret). The name is also a pun on the name of Father Junípero Serra, the Spanish padre who is best known for establishing the chain of Franciscan missions, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma along El Camino Real.

Death’s Door Gin, Wisconsin, ±$35
Add a hint of licorice to your Negroni. This is another small-batch gin that begins with a bright juniper bouquet. It has crisp pine flavor followed by a strong finish of fennel/licorice that reminds me of Pernod. It comes at no surprise really that the distillery also makes a mock absinthe. The name comes from the strait between the Door County Wisconsin peninsula and Washington Island in lake Michigan. This dangerous passage was known for its shipwrecks. The wild juniper berries used in this gin are hand harvested on Washington Island.

Bluecoat, Pennsylvania, ±$30
Leave the lime out of your G&T. Bluecoat is one of the latest arrivals on the US micro-distilling scene. Craft-distilled in Philadelphia, the recipe features organic juniper berries and is big on citrus, with three different kinds of peel being used. When launched, Bluecoat got rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Bucking the trends and opting for a really intense flavor profile, Bluecoat is complex, with a strong orange peel element and very spicy undertones. Produced by Philadelphia Distilling.

Suggestion for further reading:
The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, by Barnaby Conrad III
Martini, Straight Up, by Lowell Edmunds
Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason, by Jessica Warner
The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva, by Patrick Dillon

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