Food » Barfly

The Classic Martini

A brief history

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Most people think that anything served in a long-stemmed "V" shaped glass is a martini. To purists, a martini is gin and vermouth-nothing more, nothing less. Or is it?

The modern definition of a classic martini is gin or vodka, a splash of dry vermouth (French-white) and an olive or a lemon twist garnish. In the old days however, the origins of the martini were far different from what constitutes even the broad definition of a martini today.

One of the earliest creation stories comes to us from San Francisco's gold rush. Sometime during the 1870s at the Occidental Hotel, a bartender named Jerry Thomas, the Michael Jordan of mixology in his day, invented a drink for a miner who wanted something special in exchange for a gold nugget. The miner was heading back to Martinez, California, so Jerry named it for the city ... Martinez. The recipe-a dash of bitters, two dashes of maraschino (a cherry liquor), a wineglass of vermouth (most likely sweet vermouth), a pony of Old Tom gin (a sweetened gin) and a quarter slice of lemon-is nowhere near today's gin and vermouth definition of a martini.

By the turn of the century, some bar manuals had a listing for a martini recipe that was equal parts sweet vermouth and gin, sometimes with a dash of orange bitters. Again, nowhere near the modern classic variations.

The Italian immigrant bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City claimed to invent the drink before World War I. His recipe contained dry gin and dry vermouth, in equal parts, and orange bitters. Another legend of the martini claims that it was named for the Martini & Henry rifle used by the British Army for 20 years between 1870 and 1890. Both the rifle and the drink delivered a strong kick.

As the years passed, the proportion of dry vermouth to gin decreased. Martinis made with three parts gin and one part vermouth-an extremely "wet" martini, despite the large amount of "dry" vermouth-contrasts distinctly with a "dry" martini, whose modern recipe's proportion is 25 parts gin to one part vermouth. To purists, an extremely dry Martini may have the bottle of vermouth waved over the top of the glass.

Perhaps the popularity of the martini has more to do with the marketing of gin by liquor companies during the 1950s, and vodka in the 1970s. Product placement in movies and celebrity endorsements played an important role. When Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, David Niven and Humphrey Bogart were seen drinking martinis in public or on screen, everyone wanted to drink them as well. But perhaps no real or fictional character has done as much for the classic martini as James Bond.

Shocking to most Bond movie fans, in Ian Flemming's James Bond books, the agent only drank a martini variation once. In Casino Royale, a drink christened the Vesper-made of half gin and half vodka-symbolized the double agent Vesper Lynd, whom Bond was in love with. After she commits suicide he never drinks another. In future books, Bond drank everything from bourbon to champagne but it was only in the movies that he imbibed the martini and made famous the line, "Shaken, not stirred."

Stiff Martinis are not popular these days. Most bartenders are letting the delicate gin and vodkas marinate in ice for longer, both diluting the strength and softening the molecules. "Dirty" martinis are popular as well, a dilution of the drink with olive juice.

To some, the call of the martini falls on numb tongues. Those who dislike them, however, may not have ever had a proper one. Oftentimes, it's not the gin or vodka used, but the vermouth and the concentration of it. A proper French or dry vermouth should be fresh. Any opened bottle of vermouth should be used within the month and should be refrigerated upon opening. I'm always finding years-old bottles of vermouth tucked away behind the Jäegermeister in people's home liquor cabinets. It's a crime to use old, icky vermouth in a martini. Do yourself a favor and buy the smallest bottles of vermouth, so you can always have a fresh one on hand. It will make your homemade martinis great. Experiment with the amount of vermouth to find your perfect balance. Write it on the bottle or inside your liquor cabinet so you'll remember it.

Last, but not least, a martini should have a proper garnish. Both a twist of lemon peel (to moderate some of Gin's bitterness) and olives with pimentos are recommended.

Martini Mix-Off Update

The May Martini Mix-Off judging happens again this Thursday, May 5, with a trio of Boise's finest restaurants. Beginning at 7 p.m., Vanessa Fisher and company at Mosaic (a winner in previous years) will be serving up their top drinks. Last year the judges were treated to a speakeasy shootout. Of course, that had no influence upon how they judged, despite the implied gangster threats.

At 8 p.m., those judging still standing will saunter into the Melting Pot, a new competitor this year. Rumor is, bartender Joe Orchard will have a few surprises for the judges' taste buds.

On the final limo stop of the night, judges will make their way to the Piper Pub & Grill at 9 p.m. Piper Pub's Tim Kendal says that the competition ups the quality of bartending in Boise and he's excited about this year's sense of camaraderie among the competing bars. "All the egos that usually go with a group of restaurant people have been thrown out the window," he said.

Tim says Piper bartender Ryan Caulfield is excited about their specialty martini, the Zentini, which uses ginger-flavored vodka. They'll also be serving the Mochatini, an Absolute Vanilla and Starbuck's coffee liquor concoction. He says it's hard to do something new with the classic category, but they're having fun by calling the drink by an old slogan they used to use: The Everything Else is Street Level Martini, made with Level Vodka. They're also excited because Thursday is Cinco de Mayo, so the patio will have live jazz and Latin music to rock the joint.

Martini Mix-Off tickets are available for $60 at any participating restaurant. A ticket entitles you to one martini of your choice at all 12 bars and restaurants. Not only that, it gets you into the gala event on June 4 and a final 13th drink. Enjoy your martinis at each participating restaurant during the entire month of May or join the judges this Thursday night.

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