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What Makes a Real Martini?

In Brief:

The Martini is America’s greatest contribution to the art of drinking, but there’s more nonsense in circulation about it than about any other drink in the world. Here Mr. DeVoto, an authority on the subject, gives you the facts.

This story originally appeared in February, 1954 edition of True: The Man’s Magazine.

Statistics—and why bring them in?—say that about half the people who drink cocktails drink Manhattans.

In the judgment of another group of drinkers they are not only solidifying their kidneys with the boiler scale that sweet vermouth deposits there but are a blemish on American culture. This critical group consists of people who drink Martinis, and statistics say that Martinis rank next to Manhattans in popularity at bars. So right here we throw the statisticians out of court, for they have been counting cocktails in the wrong places. At most bars the Martini drinker never ventures to order his favorite cocktail. If he knows a bar well, if he knows what it does with a Martini, okay. But in a strange bar he risks one or the other of two dangers that I’ll get round to describing in a moment, both of which scare him badly. So he orders a highball or whisky (bonded) on the rocks. He drinks Martinis in the home, where he can control the manufacturing process and where no statistician can check up on him. He drinks them in the home but he talks about them everywhere. In fact, he argues, disputes, quarrels and evangelizes about them. Martini drinkers regard all other cocktails as indistinguishable from the decoctions that native tribes make from the roots of trees and for the people who drink such blood conditioners they feel only an amused disdain. But they rage violently at other Martini drinkers —those who use different formulas or mix them with a different set of ceremonies.

For there are more sects, cults, splinter groups and partisan fellowships among Martini fans than there are in Los Angeles, and more folklore, mythology, superstition, and snobbery. From sea to sea you will hear anyone telling shaggy-dog stories about a Manhattan or a daiquiri. Nobody ever quarrels, or even talks, about how to mix one. Nobody cuts a friend or divorces a wife because they can’t agree on the right proportions. But you could fill a big book with Martini stories and a bigger one with principles of orthodoxy and procedure.

Everyone who discovers that gin and dry vermouth combine to make a drink far superior to either becomes at once a zealot, a bigot and a witch hunter. The true vision has been vouchsafed to him and you will stand on his principles or else. Do it the way he does or stay away from his door; you are a hick and a heretic and maybe the FBI had better go over your record. Everything about the Martini has been heavily ritualized, the ingredients, the formula, the accessories, the mixing.

This ritual, or vaudeville, goes back no further than about 1940, and the popularity of the Martini no further than Repeal. We have only lately moved into the Martini age and the drink itself is a comparatively recent invention. I have seen no allusion to Martinis in print earlier than about 1890. Learned friends of mine claim to have traced both the drink and its name almost as far back as the invention of printing, but somehow they never show me the sources they claim to have read. Gin cocktails, yes. You find them as early as you find metropolitan elegance gilded drinking palaces in American culture, which is to say twenty-five or thirty years before the Civil War. Gin cocktails were shaken till cold and lemon peel was frequently associated with them, and this may be prophetic hint of the Martini.

For the rest, gin was combined at the bartender’s whim with various bitters, some such cordial as Curacoa (the American stomach used to be made of porcelain), and a sugar syrup, which was frequently thickened with gum arabic. (Abominable as this was, it could become a crusta, which was worse. Before filling the glass, you rubbed the rim inside and out with lemon peel and inverted it in a saucer of powdered sugar, which adhered and dried.) Besides gin cocktails, the palatial drinking halls served scores, even hundreds of other kinds, practically all of them equivalent to an attack of acute gastro-enteritis. But there were none which brought gin and vermouth together. That glorious step was first taken, as I said, about 1890. The next step may have been to apply to the combination the name of a well-known brand of vermouth, and hence the Martini. Note that I say “may have been.” Any theory you may advance about the origin of the name will instantly produce an argument likely to end in a demand for a royalty check. Possibly the name came from one Martinez who practiced the bartender’s craft in New Orleans or Cincinnati or San Francisco, or it may have come to some fortunate and happy person in a dream. Anyway, by 1900 enough people liked the Martini so that all the manuals and treatises listed it. They listed it at first in two forms and presently in three. Any of them would get the perpetrator jailed today.

The Martini was thought of as a fifty-fifty mixture, half gin, half sweet vermouth.

In a “dry Martini”—today the adjective is obsolete, used only by antiquarians and people who run the risk of a strange bar—half of the vermouth was sweet and the rest dry. Presently someone who had caught a glimpse of the future made it fifty-fifty, gin and dry vermouth. That man was destined to become a national hero. He had started the Martini on its evolution.

Right here is one of the reasons why you have to be careful about bars. Let’s face it: the Martini is metropolitan and it wears a caste mark. It is a white-collar drink. Brawny types don’t like it. Puma hunters and working stiffs avoid it, so do tweedy people with dog and stick, so does the haymow set. Drop into a bar near the railroad station, on some back street, or in any town whose high school has drum majorettes and you will be on ground where the Martini is an alien. If you ask the bartender for one he will look it up in his manual and follow the instructions he finds there. The catch is that the manuals are still saying what they said in 1900 and half of what you get will be vermouth, probably sweet.

In order to work toward an urbane norm, let’s look first at the true believer, the purist who has the zeal of a fanatic in him. He has worked out more rules than a dean of women and more bylaws than a club, and I must say that there is sense in some of them.

Orthodoxy begins with the glassware— and it has got to be glass. Our man believes that the touch of metal takes the bloom off a Martini and gives it a strong taste of corrosive sublimate. Silver is out. The shaker (or the pitcher, which is what the purist will use) has got to be glass, and the glasses have got to have stems so that the heat of the hand will not be transmitted to the Martini. They have also got to be clear glass, not colored. (A house on Beacon Hill is no longer open to me because I served its owner a Martini in a green glass.) Furthermore, they must be chilled beforehand in the refrigerator; the purist says that filling them with cracked ice for a time won’t do. The end in view here is twofold. No cocktail should be diluted and all cocktails should be as cold as possible. This means a lot of ice, all the ice the pitcher or shaker will hold. Get the ingredients on and off the ice fast. The fanatic then throws the ice away and uses a fresh batch for the next round. He says that too much melt sticks on it to risk using it again. I don’t know if he would approve drying each individual piece with a cloth, but what the hell, ice is cheap.

Dilution is one of many things that are wrong with keeping dividend in the shaker. I don’t care who you are or how you were brought up, it is malpractice and a felony to serve anyone, even your little sister, a Martini that has stood around. Make one cocktail per person per round, no more. When it’s time for another round, start from scratch again. But let’s clear up one more high-church absurdity. It doesn’t make the slightest difference whether you shake Martinis or stir them in a pitcher. They aren’t beer; they won’t foam over the top. The folklore has it that shaking bruises the gin, (some say the vermouth) and that this gets you a dishonorable discharge. Horse feathers. You can’t hurt either of them by shaking it; you could wear yourself out without making them even sulky. It is true that small splinters of ice in a Martini are intolerable and stirring prevents them, but a bar strainer will keep them out too. I’m willing to horn in here with one of my own prejudices, for I can get just as pontifical as any true believer. One cult uses a shaker that is a thermos jar with a strainer top, on the ground that you can get the product two or three degrees colder. So you can, but when you do you have passed what I can only call the critical temperature. The Martini has become tasteless—like the ice cream that is kept in dry ice and has to be chipped with a chisel. I am also for the excommunication of men and women who refuse to dry cocktail glasses with a linen cloth when putting them away. If you use anything but linen, bits of lint will stick to the glass, and the next time you use them your Martini will look as if it was going to spawn polliwogs in a minute.

What to put into the Martini after you have poured it?

We can establish the permissible limits. It is all right to refrain from putting anything in, to squeeze a piece of lemon rind over it so that the essential oil freckles the surface, or to drop the lemon rind in, squeezed or unsqueezed. It is not all right, if you ask me, to use a green olive. The sooner the United States is rid of these people and Communists, the better for us all. Stuffed olives and ripe olives cannot be tolerated, pickled onions are for a delicatessen supper, and you wouldn’t believe how many other things are put into Martinis by untutored oafs and clods, things like pistachio nuts for instance.

Europeans, too, who regard the Martini as America’s greatest contribution to the art of drinking and drink vast quantities of what they call Martinis, don’t know what they are talking about. They completely misunderstand the simple but miracle-working principle that the Martini expresses. Scandinavians make Martinis—that’s what they call them—with aquavit (Scandinavian brandy). The English use sweet gin, even Old Tom gin, and serve the product tepid or at least no colder than you can get it by fanning it. The French use ice and proper ingredients but ruin the result by dropping in practically anything that is at hand and smaller than the glass. A while ago there was a Martini contest for bartenders in Paris. It was won by a provincial from Nice and guess what got him the gold medal. So help me God, he added violets to his Martinis.

Here somebody rises up and announces that he likes olives or pickled onions in Martinis. Okay, there is no answer to that; it is only sensible to drink what you like. But people who like these things in Martinis don’t like Martinis. The oil of lemon rind accents the Martini taste; olives, onions and the like change the taste. The same goes for such practices as adding a dash of absinthe, a dash of kirsch or creme de Cacao, or a dash of anything else, including any kind of bitters. If you like the product, you like it and that’s that, but it isn’t a Martini for it has not got the Martini taste. Play that straight across the board. Some people use sweet vermouth in some such outrageous proportion as ten or twelve to one. Others substitute sherry for vermouth and in my time I have been offered cocktails dreamed up by various schools of thought that used other wines and even some liqueurs. Bulletins from the West Coast inform me that recently a school of drinkers has sprung up out there that goes for the mixture of vodka and vermouth, calling the product a “Vodka Martini,” which is a contradiction in terms. Devotees of these potions presumably like them and I won’t quarrel on that count, but it is silly to call them Martinis.

Only one thing has the Martini taste and that is a cocktail made from dry gin and dry vermouth combined in a proper proportion and then kept undefiled. I have said that the evolution of the Martini began when some noble, adventurous soul combined gin and vermouth. Evolution proceeded by reducing the vermouth content till the miracle of modern times occurred spontaneously. And no question about it, in some quarters it has now proceeded too far. People who use such expressions as “chi-chi” think it is fashionable to talk about pouring the vermouth over the ice and then throwing it away, about waving the vermouth bottle over the pitcher to keep the gin from looking so ghastly pale, about the Gibson (a cocktail that is practically straight gin) and similar extreme mixtures. They are convinced that this is sophisticated and moderne, that it puts them in the know. It is merely wise-cracking and it puts them in the class of nervous dyspeptics who are bucking for an ulcer. And their conviction was wished on them by certain businessmen, mainly writers of advertising copy and people in radio or television, who have found that they need a quick kick before lunch. I don’t know why they can’t get a quicker kick from straight whisky, or from sterno strained through a handkerchief. But they prefer to do it with gin and so they have libeled a straightforward drink by calling it a Martini. It isn’t a Martini. Why? Because it has not got the Martini taste.

The whole cult ceremony, operatic aria, and accordion-pleated pose comes down to no more than just this: a Martini is the cocktail that has the Martini taste.

It is easy to make; in fact, making a good one is easier than making a bad one. A child can learn to make a Martini —and an excellent idea too, for it gives you a chance to comb your hair and it is training him in the culture he will inherit. All he has to learn is that gin has a taste of its own, vermouth has a taste of its own, and a Martini is a mixture of the two which has its own taste and not that of either ingredient. That is the mystery in full. Except that it must be diluted and it must be cold.

The limits within which it is safe to operate vary somewhat with the brands of gin and vermouth you use. Some gins are dryer than others, some have higher proof than others, some vermouths have a stronger flavor than others. In general this: the chemistry of combination works its miracle, suddenly, at about the point where the ratio becomes three and a half gin to one vermouth—and for no reason ever explained, not till that point is reached, no matter how light the flavor of the vermouth. In general again: the Martini taste disappears and the gin taste returns when the concentration rises above five to one—except when you use a vermouth of heavy flavor, which necessitates longer odds. My own formula is 3.7 to one, which is one of the reasons I prefer to do my Martini drinking in my own home.

These limits permit more variation and a less religious attitude than the purist will admit. In fact, they are the reasons why he can kid himself into believing that he is a born bartender, capable of achieving the right proportion by watching the color instead of measuring with a cocktail glass. If you want to spoil this sometimes annoying pose, switch vermouths on him.) Within the limits, the Martini is entirely a matter of individual preference. Dutch gins, which are liqueurs, cannot be used at all. English gins have snob appeal for some people but most of them are sweeter than most of ours and the product is mediocre. The wide variation in flavor of American gins is, due to differences in the aromatics that are added with the juniper. A good gin is one that has dryness without having also a bouquet that suggests Chanel.

It is harder to learn one’s way among the vermouths. French, Italian, South American, or American, a satisfactory vermouth must have a full-bodied flavor which is nevertheless a light one, and it must be reasonably uniform in flavor from case to case. Color has little relation to either flavor or uniformity. One vermouth that is popular among purists is remarkably uniform in color but varies in taste from moderately good to atrocious; the one I have preferred for years varies in color from pale yellow to dark brown but is remarkably uniform in taste. Since it is compounded with herbs, vermouth does not spoil as readily as other wines, but it can spoil. If the foil or paper round the cork is discolored, don’t buy it. Keep the bottle corked and in a reasonably cool place — and don’t keep it on hand too long. A good many professed Martini-lovers have never learned to judge vermouth by taste, but you have got to.

What you want is a blend, a gin and a vermouth whose combination suits your taste. The result is worth as much patience and experiment as it may require. It is a cocktail unlike any other, entirely without harshness and without sweetness, with marked overtones and aftertastes, a unity that is complex. It is also unique physiologically and physiologically. It produces effects faster than whisky does but it is less intoxicating; its descent is as smooth as its ascent; one comes out of it relaxed, not harried. The point of any cocktail is swift effect, an effect that will relax the body and soothe the jangled nerves and comfort the oppressed mind at the end of the day—that will restore to urbanity a man whom the day has progressively dehumanized, will engage his interest again in human association, dinner and the possibility of enjoying the evening that is to come. And will do this without cloying his palate, as sweet drinks do, and without assaulting his nervous system as undiluted whisky does.

That is a formidable set of specifications but the Martini meets them. Its essence is just that; it does meet them. The pretense and rituals of the fanatics are unnecessary but they harm no one and unquestionably delight their practitioners. They seem a waste of time. Make it fast and make it cold.