As the traditional martini season in Boise slipped by without so much as a whimper—the annual Martini Mix-Off a casualty of scheduling conflicts and the loss of a liquor sponsor—die-hard martini lovers were left to wonder if it was time to hold a wake, mourning the loss of the drink in popular culture.
A quick pub-crawl around downtown can take you to a plethora of bars, each with its own character and clientele. Folks are still going out, frequenting bars and drinking, but something seems different. Have the martini and other classic cocktails given way under the tide of cheap, recession-induced hooch and tightening wallets?
I expected to ring the martini death bell. Much to my surprise, the cocktail is not just alive, but thriving in Boise.
It was a realization shared by one of Boise's best known bartenders, Pat Carden, who has taken the reins as head bartender at Chandlers in downtown Boise.
His gut instinct told him that people were drinking cheaper, calling for well brands instead of name brands as the recession moved on. But after recently looking at his numbers over the last three years, he was surprised to find out he was wrong.
"People's habits haven't changed," he said. "They're drinking the same things they were before."
It's the same story bartenders all across town are telling.
"No question, we are in a cocktail renaissance," said Michael Bowers, bartender at the Modern Hotel and Bar. "Liquor sales have skyrocketed thanks to the cosmo. The current wave is being driven by the food culture, by bold flavors, by people looking for new tastes and taste combinations.
"All those nine-headed beasts that the cosmo spawned, it introduced people to new drinks," he said.
And with that new interest, drinkers began to take a new look at the old, including the classic martini.
But not all bartenders agree that classic cocktails are where the action is.
"Young bartenders don't need to know the old school anymore," said Jen Kobel, head bartender at Pair. "Drinks are transcending the bartending manuals."
Kobel thinks that people still love their martinis but also believes that the classic bartending knowledge is going to fall by the wayside.
She described a customer who came in and asked for a trash can. Believing at first that he needed to throw something away, Kobel had to ask the customer to describe a drink he first encountered next door at Main Street Bistro, in which the crumpled can from the mixer is the garnish on top. Although these newly invented drinks and shots may be popular with the kids, she doesn't see them having any kind of staying power.
The reason some drinks are labeled "classic" is that they have staying power—especially considering that at the time many of them were invented, the country was not only going through the Great Depression but also a little thing called Prohibition.
Cheap liquor wasn't only the affordable choice, but in most cases, it was the only choice. Many books have been written about how drinks were created during this era with the dual purpose of disguising the taste of cheap liquor, and appealing to a new market of drinkers showing up at the speakeasies—women.
In the past decade, the martini has once again been bastardized into sweet, syrupy concoctions primarily attuned to more feminine tastes. Efforts to educate a new generation of bartenders and drinkers are under way.
The Modern's Bowers recently returned from a bartenders' convention and training seminar where he was afforded the pleasure of hobnobbing with living bartending greats such as Dale DeGroff and F. Paul Pacult. Going to seminars and talking to bartenders from the coasts clued him in as to what is to come. His opinion differs from Kobel's in that he feels it is even more important for young bartenders to know the history and the old school techniques.
Bowers feels that we are blessed in Boise at this time because we don't have to "keep up the bullshit" of the cocktail culture happening on the coasts. As an example, he describes a fad being adopted by many bartenders he encountered: the Japanese Bartending Technique. Involving ceremony, precision and a very specific way to shake a cocktail, the style is taken very seriously by bartenders on both coasts.
"Bartending is a form of theater," Bowers said. "You have an audience of 12 stools." He should know. Bowers has been known to grow mutton chops and dress as the famed 19th century bartender Jerry Thomas, a character known to perhaps 1 percent of his clientele. Nonetheless, Bowers definitely plays the part.
Lowell Edmunds, in his tome The Silver Bullet: The Martini In American Civilization said that "the mixing of a martini is a rite, whether performed by the host or by the bartender, either of whom may assume the role of priest."
Sharing a drink with Bowers one sunny afternoon, he said basically the same thing.
"I consider myself a cocktail evangelist," he said, sipping from his glass, a wry smile on his lips. "I am doing God's work."
Technique and flash is definitely part of being a good bartender, as is knowledge, repartee, a bit of psychology and a chemist's skill.
If Bowers is the new mad scientist behind the bar, then Carden is Albert Einstein. He is old school with a capital "O" and has seen the martini rise and fall several times.
"Thirty years ago people drank a lot of martinis," he said, adding that the trend then was on the rocks. He said the '80s saw a decline in martini sales, with the beginning of a resurgence about 15 years ago. He feels that the martini has been enjoying a renaissance for the last 10 years, with the recession just getting in the way for a few years.
Recently, he sees people rediscovering gin as the spirit of choice in the martini, "which they never should have given up on," he said.
Younger drinkers attracted to cocktail culture during the last decade have matured in their tastes and are now drinking less-sweet drinks, Carden said. This, he feels, will lead to a new era of the martini.
Drinking Fiscally Irresponsibly
The liquor business has had its ups and downs over the last century and a half, with one big notable 13-year down between 1920 and 1933. Ironically, while the legal liquor business was down during those years, on the other side of the law it was big business. Some of the era still say it was easier to drink when liquor was illegal than after Prohibition, which brought new regulations.
And just like when the drinks still flowed relatively freely during the Great Depression, during this recession, it doesn't look like penny pinching is drying up the bottle.
Mark Allen, head bartender at Red Feather Lounge in downtown Boise, said liquor sales are on the rise, and it's not a move toward well drinks, either.
While it may be cheaper to drink at home, Allen said he "can't really see people making what we make at home."
Adapting to new trends has been a way for Red Feather to reach out to new customers. "The trickiest part has been localizing our inventory and picking up smaller craft spirits."
Looking at the restaurant's cocktail menu, one sees a mission and philosophy at Red Feather, one of craft, quality and trusting the bartender's experience. In fact, Allen said the bar just had one of its busiest weekends ever a few weeks ago.
Kobel agrees with Allen in that she's not seeing a decline in business due to the economy. She does say that there has been an increase in happy hour attendance at Pair.
Bowers sees a similar increase in happy hour patronage, but tends to attribute it to a cultural shift of people seeking out the after-work socialization rather than late-night dinner and drinks. His opinion is that there seems to be a return to the bar as a social scene. The fun is coming back.
These beliefs are backed up with some impressive stats. According to the Idaho State Liquor Division's annual reports from 1997 through 2009, liquor sales have increased at a pace equal to, or better than the population growth. Which means people are drinking more.
In fact, during the past decade, until 2006, sales of liquor in Idaho were increasing at a rate faster than the rest of the country. After 2007, it paced with the rest of the other states. In the last five years, the number of bottles sold increased from just more than 7.5 million to almost 10 million in Idaho. A closer look shows only Boise and Star decreasing slightly in liquor sales from 2008 to 2009, but the rest of Ada county more than makes up for it.
As with any trend, cocktail preferences will rise, plateau and then fall. To use an old cliche about history, those who don't know it are doomed to repeat it. That is an understatement when it comes to the martini. One of liquor's side effects is that memory tends to get a little foggy anyway, so we just might be doomed to repeat it. It's a curse.
As I sipped a martini (gin—very wet—shaken with three olives, always an odd number) one evening, I wondered how the last martini decade compared to those before it.
Many have announced the end of the martini, whether it was a slow death, much like cancer or a quick one like a car crash. Martini purists say that each generation, with the increasingly drier gin-to-vermouth ratio, was bringing the martini closer to its demise. Others claim that as we experienced the fear of communism in the '50s , the illicit vices of that culture made their way into our own melting pot, and vodka began replacing gin as our sacred American spirit, and that was actually the end of the martini. (Author Ian Fleming tried to play peacemaker with the vesper, a martini ordered by his famous British character James Bond that included both gin and vodka, but purists saw that as an abomination, too.)
The vodka era redefined the martini, and the illicit spirit allegedly imported from the evil empire (even though it was mostly made in America) made the martini rise to the top once again. Personally, I believe that vodka should never be used in a martini.
During the 1950s, the martini even made its way into the homes of the modern nuclear family. You would have been hard-pressed not to find a cocktail shaker and a set of martini glasses (albeit much smaller than today's monster stemware) in every suburban home. The after-work martini was synonymous with the two-car garage, meatloaf Mondays and a dog in the back yard pooping on the lid of the bomb shelter. But the children of the 1950s started smoking pot and taking acid, not sipping their fathers' drinks. The martini began a slow decline once again.
Even though the 1970s were known among bar geeks as a time when fern bars serving California's finest amber wine knocked the martini from its corner barstool, the final nail wasn't hammered in until Friday, Feb. 17, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter said, "As for the famous three-martini lunch, I don't care how many martinis anyone has with lunch, but I am concerned about who picks up the check."
This was not a denouncement of the martini per se, but one of the expense-account culture of corporate America run amok. With the nation's corporate movers and shakers no longer ordering three martinis for lunch, the drink fell out of favor.
Efforts by spirits companies in the late '70s tried to turn the tide. In an effort to expand the martini's cultural and ethnic reach (basically anything other than WASPy America) Seagram's advertised a handsome African-American couple in black evening clothes drinking a "midnight martini" garnished with a black olive. They also tried to reach out internationally with a kimono-clad woman stirring a pitcher of martinis and adding a drop of sake in what looked like a tea ceremony. Efforts did not keep the martini from that era's death. (It took 25 years for the saketini to make a comeback.)
The Martini is the Jesus Christ of Cocktails
Rather than calling the martini the phoenix of cocktails, it seems more appropriate to refer to the martini as a religious icon who dies and is resurrected. Who hasn't uttered a religious figure's name the morning after a martini binge? (The ancient Mayans believed that the hangover was a god's punishment for man pretending to be godlike while under the influence.) But as with any religious figure who is resurrected, while the soul might be the same, the eras are different, along with the new look of that time. The martini is no different.
Charles Bork for the National Review Online, Nov. 7, 2007, compared five martinis from different eras. He also recorded the gin-to-vermouth ratio and how each era differed.
"The Gilded Age" (c. 1895-1920): gin to vermouth--3:1
"The Jazz Age" (c. 1920-1940): gin to vermouth--5:1
"The Greatest Generation" (c. 1940-1965): gin to vermouth--7:1
"The Worst Generation" (c. 1965-1985): gin to vermouth--15:1
"The Postmodern Age" (c. 1985-present): gin and one merely whispers "vermouth" over the shaker.
No one challenges that all of these drinks are martinis, classic martinis at that. But they all differ in taste, character and essence. Bork also declares the 20th century as the "Martini Century." So as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, we are left to wonder how the drink will evolve compared to the last 120 years.
The current incarnation of the martini is what happened when siblings marry: The offspring may have some unique and horrifying mutations. The true, classic martini, however, has made a short-lived comeback due to television in the last few years. Stephen Whitlock, in an article from the telegraph.co.uk, states that Showtime's Mad Men, with its romanticized 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising culture, is helping to bring back at least one martini to Manhattan executives' lunchtime tables. Mad Men's martini popularity even found its way to Boise as the Modern hosted Man Men martini nights.
Efforts continue to bring the classic martini back through educating the masses. An April 16 essay by Karl Kozel on Huffington Post discussed how to order a martini the old-school way. But while he tries to educate newbies on the arcane art of ordering a proper cocktail, he also tells of a time during the late 1980s when a cocktail revival began, first on the coasts and then worked its way to the interior. The martini had been dead, but it rose from the ashes once again.
The cocktail revival got to Dallas sometime in the mid 1990s, about the time I started a magazine called Spirits & Cocktails. While the magazine lasted about as long as the cigar craze, cocktails and drinking liquor seemed to pick up speed through the big party of 1999 and on into the oughts. It waned with the seriousness of 9/11, but along came Sex and the City, bringing a new wave of popularity to drinking things in a V-shaped glass with a stiletto heel stem: namely, the cosmo era.
Bowers does not think we're at the critical-mass stage of a full-on cocktail culture in Boise quite yet, but he's excited about being at the beginning of our own cocktail renaissance.
"We can set the tone, and it doesn't have to be the snooty, overwrought tone of the coasts," he said with a sarcastic sneer.
When the popularity of specific cocktails wane, most of the time they fade away like an old soldier. But when the popularity of the martini wanes, heroes often step forward and pick up the fallen flag, hoisting it for a new generation of drinkers to rally to the front.
Bowers, for one, believes Boise is on the cusp of entering the big leagues of cocktails, especially since Boise drinkers' palates have slowly been improved by inventive bartenders. Maybe it's not so much about the classic cocktail in the future, but the neo-classic cocktail.
Along with input from Michael Bowers, Boise's own mixologist geek's geek, we developed a list of what we might see in Boise.
1. An emphasis on the understanding of classic cocktail repertoire, history and knowledge.
2. Freshly squeezed juice.
3. Uniquely shaped ice cubes, different types of ice for different cocktails.
4. Obscure ingredients. This trend is already here and includes house-made bitters and simple syrups unique to specific bars.
5. Bartenders in the kitchen, looking to food for inspiration.
6. Cocktail pairings with food.
8. Umami. A few years ago the Japanese discovered a new type of taste receptor on the tongue and labled it "Umami," loosely translated into English as savory. This discovery actually happened in 1908 but it took 100 years to lead to the atrocity of bacon-flavored vodka.
Uber Hot Trends
1. Aged cocktails. This trend sees some bartenders mixing up a batch of cocktails and storing them in wooden casks to mature.
2. Japanese bartending. Of all the hot trends on the coasts, it pains me to imagine a Boise bartender hand cutting a block of ice to perfectly fit my glass, pouring precise amounts to the milliliter and then stirring it an exact 13 and one-half times.
3. House-selected spirits. Some bar owners are traveling to far-off lands and buying a specific barrel from what is known as the "sweet spot" in an aging warehouse.
4. Smoke as a flavor. Imagine a smoke-flavored ice cube in your drink. I can only envision finding a cigarette butt at the bottom of my black Russian.
5. Mezcal. Once tequila's bastard cousin, it is now being produced by single-village distillation in the southern parts of Mexico.
6. Armagnac. You may have heard of Cognac, but its little brother is all grown up.
7. Gin. Well it's about time.
8. Aroma-cocktailing. See that wooden swizzle stick in your drink? Now smell it. It's been soaked in essential oils. More attention will be paid to how a drink smells at the beginning and end of a sip. After all, you taste more with your sinuses than your tongue.
9. Tiki. Yes, tiki.
Trends that are fast fading on the coasts, but we might still see filtering into the interior include:
2. House rules (dress codes).
3. Snootiness. The era of the bartender looking down his nose at you is over.
4. Molecular bartending. Foodies might remember the faddy foam and gelatin movement of a few years ago in high-end restaurants. It made its way into cocktails as well.
5. Carbonating drinks. Ever try a fizzy Manhattan? We hope you never have to.