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James Thurber, author, cartoonist and celebrated wit once famously stated:
“One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”
and in one breath captured the elusive mystery of the drink. Many men have chased her, and in smoky back rooms they will tell you they’ve had her. When presented with her elegance, however, you doubt she’d ever stoop to the lips of those thugs…but you just might have a chance!
The martini is the adventure queen of cocktails. She is an elegant mystery: slippery, coy and bold in the same breath. She is a perfume you can’t name that invokes a memory you cannot quite place. She has slapped the pencil-line moustache off the face of many a silent movie star, dined with the Queen following a single-handed transatlantic flight, and yet is always the first to be found dipping into the hotel pool wearing nothing but a couple of olives. Her figure is intoxicating, her banter witty and her touch long, lingering, cool. Her flavour is brash, naked and splashed in your face, yet somehow smooth and infinitely refined. You reach out to shake her hand, but slip through her fingers.
Yes, the martini is impossible to grasp, challenging to master, easy to drink. She has little patience for boring men and not much more than a night’s attention for the interesting ones. If you’re lucky you may get a taste, but she’ll be gone in the morning leaving nothing but a hole in your soul and foggy memories of what might have happened – a whole bodied ache that can only be cured by another taste! But your bar is stocked only with those ‘other girls.’ So you search her out everywhere, longing for reunion, however brief, however flitting, however unlikely. And though a perfect martini moment is elusive, the chase is thrillingly satisfying.
Perhaps no other cocktail is as iconic or as quixotic as the martini. Even those who have never had a cocktail have heard of a martini, and if they’ve had only one cocktail, it’s likely been her. In the multicolored hierarchy of bottles behind the bar, pyramided up like so many stripe-swimsuited muscle men, the martini rests alone at the top, standing on the shoulders of all other possible drink combinations: clear, poised, perfect, indomitable. Even to the seasoned cocktail connoisseur no other drink is as mysterious as the martini and trying to capture her allure here is intimidating. Not only is the intoxicating effect of her je ne sais quoi impossible to put a finger on, but just having her poured right can be maddeningly elusive.
Despite the infinite ease of ingredients in this concoction (gin, vermouth, salty accoutrement of your choice), there are invariable methods of approach… Even the slightest alteration, like the subtlest curve on a woman, means the difference between a Greta Garbo and a Betty Grable, a Marilyn Monroe and a Jane Russel. All are variations of perfection - but when you’re dealing with perfection, the smallest shifts are chasms of difference. Some of you like your martinis clean. Other wet. Some dirty. Some filthy. Bond likes them shaken, but it is also acceptable to have them stirred. Some even have them on the rocks (which is like taking the aforementioned Ms. Garbo to a Denny’s for a rendezvous, in my opinion). Asking a bartender to make you one is a lot like asking your friend to describe your perfect woman (or for my male-oriented readers, your perfect fireman). Even if you are up on the lingo and can ask exactly for what you desire, good luck finding the bartender who also speaks the language. Sadly, the best way to ensure you get the perfect martini is to make it at home - yet martinis were meant to be taken out on the town and for fast drives, so this somewhat dampens the experience. Still, the chase never proves to be uninteresting.
If I can recount a recent misadventure in pursuit of the perfect pour: While travelling in Turkey last summer, my wife and I found ourselves winding our through the midnight streets of Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet district. With visions of whirling dervishes spinning in our head, my wife suggested we stop into the Best Western next to our hotel for a martini. It seemed the perfect setting! Though it is a dry country and Best Westerns hardly the sophisticated drinker’s hotel chain of choice, the setting seemed right. Unlike Best Westerns at home, this place invited travelers in with a long red tongue to a gorgeously articulated lobby adorned with long couches, high ceilings and dim lights. The lounge was practically empty but a better setting for a Casablanca inspired encounter with inebriation I could not imagine.
There was no bartender in sight, however, and when he showed up some twenty minutes later he seemed somewhat out of sorts. I got the spidey-sense feeling that he wasn’t ‘the regular guy’. Maybe it was his awkward smile when we asked for martinis or the way he awkwardly surveyed the bottles behind the bar for five minutes afterwards as if looking for a drink called ‘martini’. My rapidly diminishing impression of this man’s ability to serve our drink was further encouraged when I heard him radioing someone on his walky-talky from behind the bar. I don’t understand Turkish, however I did recognize the words ‘martini’ peppered throughout the discussion. Who was at the other end of that line? All I could picture was a janitor leaning on a mop, or a laundry maid pinching the walky-talky between her fleshy neck and cheek while flapping out some linens.
Finally, however, the reassuring sound of ice rattling in a martini shaker set me at ease and my wife and I slunk back into conversation. A few minutes later our bartender returned with a bold smile and two martini glasses in which swam a small amount of chilled, yellowish liquid. We took the two glasses – now as our turn to be awkward - and took a sip, smiling convincingly. We had each been served two ounces each of shaken vermouth – Martini Blanco - straight for $13 a pop. There is no right way to make a martini, but there are wrong ones. I can hardly think of a wronger way to go about it, frankly, though the addition of a walky-talky was an unexpectedly whimsical touch. We kindly sucked down the drink and left, disappointed with our near-miss with the perfect martini but thankful, none-the-less, for an interesting moment.
Of course, I could tell fabled tales of missed connections all night, but let us get to the business of actually making a martini. To be honest, it feels silly to be writing down the ingredients here - the list of parts simply don’t do the drink justice. Like shopping in a store with no price tags, if you have to ask how much something costs, you cannot afford it. But we all have to start somewhere, and the least complicated part of a martini is how to make one, so I’ll share two recipes with you here.
First, the Contemporary Martini:
Combine 2 oz of gin
(Don’t let snobbery dictate your brand choice – it matters that it tastes good to you, not that it cost a lot of money.)
with .5 oz of dry vermouth
(Adjust to taste - I prefer a bit less – and don’t start with the bottle you inherited from your grandfather. Fresher tastes better.)
in a martini shaker and add several ice cubes.
(Err on the side of generous ice. Too little and you just risk watering down your luke-warm drink.)
Shake or stir.
(If shaking, 50 rapid shakes should do it. Some claim you can ‘bruise’ the martini by over-shaking. This is impossible, however you might get arm cramps if you get excessive, so just shake it until the shaker itself is quite cold to the touch.)
Strain into a martini glass (Yes, the glass is important, unless you wish to conjure up the image of looking like an asshole) and garnish with olives.
If you have a fancy cocktail spear for the olives, this adds elegance and keeps the olive from bopping you on the nose every time you take a sip. But it is not a requirement. For a cocktail snob I am perhaps a bit ‘loose’ when it comes to garnish. One olive? Two olives? Six? Gibsons? Gibson and olives intermingling? All are good. Some fancy joints use almond or even blue cheese stuffed olives which are delicious, but may muddy the bottom of your drink with unseemly floaters. The only thing that doesn’t go in a martini is vodka, and any garnish that is sweet in the drink is silly, like wearing a sweater to the beach: No matter how good it looks on your frame, the rest of the world will still consider you a half-wit.
Note: If you like your martinis dirty, slightly dirty or filthy, add a dash of the olive brine to the mix before shaking.
The Classic Martini
This is the original martini, popular until the 50s. If you prefer redheads, this is the martini for you. Follow the above steps however use:
3 oz gin
½ oz sweet vermouth
and 1 dash of orange bitters
before shaking or stirring. Add olives or a lemon twist.
More important than how to make a martini, however, or even how to talk about one, is how to drink one. You may think it is no big deal, yet many a martini drinker wannabe has caved after the first sip. If you are new to martinis, or aspire to my level of snobbery, here’s how to get started:
How to Drink a Martini:
Have one martini. You’ll probably dislike it.
Have another right after. You’ll think, this isn’t so bad, actually.
Seal the deal with a third. – You are now initiated…and quite drunk.
Enjoy the embrace of her arms while she’s around. Who knows when she will be back again. Remember, she may be bad for you, but she’s unlikely to stick around.