martini

Where to start? The martini is perhaps the ultimate high-society cocktail. It is strongly associated with suaveness and James Bondage (in his case a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred). It is also likely the most legendary cocktail of the entertainment world. It has managed to work its way into more wit than just about any other drink. I think of Dorothy Parker:

I love to drink Martinis,
Two at the very most
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host.

George Burns said, “I never go jogging, it makes me spill my Martini.” Someone or other famous from the ’20s or ’30s (there are different attributions) said “I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini.” And then there’s the story of the man who walks into a bar and says, “I’ll have a martinus.” The bartender says, “You mean martini.” The man says, “If I’d wanted two, I would have said so.” (Ever wonder why we keep plural forms with borrowings but no other inflections, not even the possessive, and certainly not conjugations of verbs?)

But ordinary people drink martinis too. Salesmen used to go for “three-martini lunches.” Even Jack Torrance, who is taking care of a mountain resort hotel over the winter in The Shining by Stephen King, thirsts for martinis (which he calls “Martians”).

So why all this attention? The image of the conical glass helps give it good branding. The fact that it’s usually stronger than the average cocktail helps too (it’s the pale counterpart to a Manhattan: lotsa liquor plus vermouth). No doubt the fact that martinis are delicious can’t hurt.

But there’s certainly something about martinis that turns otherwise sensible adults in geeks having the kind of hair-splitting prescriptivist and categorizing arguments usually reserved for YouTube comment threads on heavy metal videos – or, of course, inane grammar assertions. Either shaking or stirring (depending on your source) is supposed to “bruise” the gin (really). There is an amazing amount of pretentiousness regarding the amount of vermouth to use: some people famously used to set a bottle of vermouth nearby, or whispered “vermouth” to their gin, or nodded in the direction of France or Italy (countries where vermouth is made). Arrant silliness: if you want a straight gin, just call it a straight gin.

And for some reason many people seem to assume vodka when one talks of martinis. James Bond drank vodka martinis, true. (And in one episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, Johnny Fever, sober, is said to have the reaction time of someone who has had “nine vodka martinis” – I would like to point out that gin martinis are the same strength.) Mind you, that’s still reasonably close to the standard form. There are many drinks called “martinis” in various bars now that are fruit juice with some liquor in a spilly glass – things we used to call highballs when they were served in non-spilly glasses. Of course they’re “built” by mixologists… It’s as though the word martini is a licence to be pretentious.

Not that I can make a reasonable plea for people to stick to the original. I don’t do that with words, after all. And, as it happens, nobody drinks the original now. Actually, nobody’s 100% sure what the original was, because there are different accounts, but it was made with sweet vermouth for sure, and perhaps maraschino cherry juice. My friend Reid has an old cocktail shaker with measures on it for different cocktails, one of which is a martini – and it gives half-and-half proportions of sweet and dry vermouth, and about three or four times as much gin as the total vermouth. But of course that’s why the dry-vermouth-only kind is specifically a dry martini.

Even the place of invention is up for dispute, though there are several stories putting it in or near San Franscisco around the time of the gold rush. One thing seems reasonably agreed on: the cocktail was first named Martínez, and the name was later modified probably under the influence of the Martini brand name of vermouth (now Martini & Rossi). Imagine its cultural position if it were still called Martínez. It would be thought of as Spanish, and you might be expected to have corn chips with it or to put a jalapeño in it.

Anyway, if you want as much martini geekery as you have time for – facts, opinions, recipes, all responsibly reported – I recommend The Martini FAQ by Brad Gadberry. (He doesn’t say so, but I think I can assert confidently that the name has no direct connection to the Latvian holiday of Mārtiņi on November 10, which marks the transition from the warm season to the cold one – yet another of the million good excuses for having a martini.)

And the name martini? It certainly is fluid, though it has that nice crisp edge with the /t/ in the middle – and since it’s on the stressed syllable, it has an extra puff of air on it. The mar doesn’t much seem to call to mind marring; rather, it has a purr as in Margarita, Marmaduke, marmalade, Martinique, marvellous… And the tini gives it a coy diminutiveness, like a “teehee” from a teeny-bopper in a bikini, perhaps. The high front sound of the /i/ vowels aids in the impression. As to echoes of other words – well, the cocktail has come to dominate the name, so that any other instance of the name (and it is a reasonably common Italian family name) will likely make you think of the drink.

By the way, I’m a bit of a weirdo when it comes to martinis: I keep my gin in the freezer and my vermouth in the fridge and simply pour vermouth, then gin, into a glass and swirl – no stir, no shake, no ice. Sometimes I add a drop of Cointreau or Chartreuse. And I usually use a wine glass. They spill less.

3 responses to “martini

  1. Monroe Thomas Clewis

    Very well written. Have a martini on me!

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