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Variations on a Theme

To the chagrin of purists the Martini has become a category of drinks



If you look at the evolutionary family tree of apes there are many branches and divergences resulting in a variety of primates, including humans. Some are extinct, such as the Neanderthal, while some are rapidly approaching extermination, like the orangutan. As the Martini evolved along its evolutionary tree, an entire branch broke off from the trunk and became the contemporary Martini. The differences were subtle at first—change the garnish, play with proportions of flavorings, but today what is called a Martini may stretch across all four flavor centers on the tongue.

I have given much thought over many a long-stemmed chalice regarding the edible garnish vs. the nonedible garnish—lemon twist vs. olives. What purpose does a garnish serve? Is it to flavor? Is it for looks? Is it to eat? These thoughts cross my mind as I nibble on my olive. Should you eat the coffee beans in your Sambuca? Should you chew up the cranberries in a properly made Cosmopolitan? It's something to think about.

"The man who first put the olive in the Martini should be shot."

— Esquire, 1934

For years, garnishes in Martinis had always varied between the olive and the lemon twist. For years, this was a happy disagreement among Martini purists, that they could agree to disagree with. So it is no wonder that one of the first major evolutionary changes that occurred in the Martini with the garnish—and the biggest lasting change—was the Gibson. Last week a local attorney sent me an anecdote regarding the Gibson and, coming from a lawyer, I naturally assumed he had experience drinking martinis. The creation legend goes like this. A state department officer in the 1920s named Gibson (of course) found he had a low tolerance for alcohol so he devised a plan when he was out socially to have the bartender make his drink with water, not gin. To differentiate the drink from others when serving, the bartenders put in a cocktail onion instead of an olive. His friends, astonished that Gibson's tolerance to alcohol had miraculously increased, attributed his newfound stamina to the magical qualities of the onion. Hence the Gibson was invented.

As with other cocktails, there is not just one creation myth. There are other stories about the Gibson. Purists know that Gibsons should be served with two cocktail onions. This is because twin sisters in Chicago hated olives but loved Martinis. When they went out on the town they would ask bartenders to substitute cocktail onions for the olives. The twins' last name? Gibson, of course. The most likely story, according to Barnaby Conrad III in his all-encompasing tome The Martini, is of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson's request to the bartender at The Players, a New York club, for a "better Martini." The bartender, Charley Connolly, substituted a cocktail onion for an olive and presto.

Further evolutionary changes came mostly as a result of marketing and Martini competitions. A black olive substituted for a green olive has been called a Midnight Martini or Buckeye Martini among other things. Seagram's suggested a drop of Sake for an oriental themed Martini in the 1970s. Restaurants such as Morton's in Chicago put forth a Martini-only menu with drinks divided into the classics, the contemporaries and the new contemporaries, further dividing the newer martini concoctions from the older evolutionary descendents. Marketing of flavored vodkas and ever-improved distilling techniques such as "distilled five times" or "filtered through quartz crystals, not charcoal" are common ways to entice drinkers to order not just a Martini, but a Stoli Martini, Absolute Martini, Sapphire Martini or any of the new boutique spirits. Dessert martinis, aperitif martinis, sweet, sour, bitter—today anything served in a martini glass is labeled as a Martini on bar menus worldwide. Salut.

The Martini Mix-Off

Last year's big winner at the May Martini Classic for food and martinis was The Red Feather Lounge. Dave Krick went over the top with not only the lounge, but with Bittercreek Ale House as well. This year, only The Red Feather Lounge entered the Martini Mix-Off and I'm relieved. Too much of a good thing can be tough. It will be difficult enough to see through the glitz and glamour Krick will throw at the judges. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, bartender Kevin Farney will be serving the Lounge Martini, the Kiss Immure and the Erotique Serenade. The martini appetizer is a terrine of foie gras and duck confit. Expect wonderful sights and sounds with an over-the-top production.

At 8 p.m. we move to Angell's Bar & Grill, a classic downtown bar. Bartender B.J. will serve the Pilgrim Classic, the Hell Cat and the Absolut Dream along with Angell's spring rolls. We love Angell's big plush seats and cozy comfortable atmosphere. It's sure to be a nice calm relief from the previous bar.

At 9 p.m. the limo takes us around the block to LIPS (formerly Bartime), the newest incarnation in the Idanha Hotel. Bartender Dustin Taylor will serve The Silver Bullit, the Candy Apple and Sex at Sunset, coincidentally just in time for sunset through the big windows. Served up for snacking is their Shrimp Juliano.

Martini Mix-Off tickets are available at any participating restaurant and entitle 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 commemorative glass. Go to each restaurant or bar by yourself or join the judges this Thursday night. It's all for a good cause too—proceeds go toward the Gene Harris Endowment scholarship fund. There's fun to be had by all.



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