I can’t say I have ever been a fan of the martini. It’s just too boozy for me. I like gin, but I like it mixed with something. Serving gin straight up with a little extra booze in there just isn’t my style unless I want to take an express train to Tipsyland. Nonetheless, it’s an iconic cocktail that deserves celebration so I was up for the challenge today.
You naturally hear about martinis growing up, even at a young age. They make their way into so all kinds of books, movies, television shows, songs and more. They are part of pop culture. Obviously the most iconic martini image is the James Bond one. Shaken, not stirred. In truth, if James was a true connoisseur of the martini, he would prefer it stirred. Shaking a martini makes the ice melt quicker so it adds a hint of water to the mix. Stirring a martini mixes and chills it but doesn’t melt as much of the ice. Personally though, I’m Team James on this one. I want it shaken so it’s perfectly chilled and slightly cut with the melted ice. But martinis go well beyond 007. Martinis are everywhere,
The origin of the martini is not exactly known. One popular story says it was created in the 1870s at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco by a famous mixologist Jerry Thomas who created a drink for a miner who wanted something special to celebrate his recent discovery of gold. The miner was heading back to Martinez, California, so Jerry named it for the city (Martinez) and because people get lazy, it was eventually shortened to Martini. Another story says it was invented at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City by a bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia. Yet another claim says the martini was named for the Martini & Henry rifle used by the British Army in the late 1800s as both the rifle and the drink delivered a strong kick. As often is the case, the origin story may never be definitively known. All we know is it was created in the 1870s and it would become a cocktail of universal renown.
The first time I learned to bartend, I had to learn how to make martinis. For a greenhorn at the bar, it’s an intimidating drink. You feel that anyone ordering one is an expert (they are not) so you don’t want to screw it up. But what is really difficult is the line of questioning you have to go down. Gin or Vodka? Rocks or straight up? Twist or olives? Dry or regular? You feel like Lenny Briscoe interrogating a suspect, but you really do need to know the answers. Then they throw curves at you too like make it dirty (I spit into it – that’s dirty) or can I have mine with onions (my god that sounds awful). They were always fun to make though, like you were crafting something special. The challenge was always getting the straight up martinis perfect so when you strain it into the glass it is the perfect amount and doesn’t come up short. Then you’d watch the cocktail waitress carry it away trying to balance it. In reality, we never got too many orders for them, but they were always a challenge.
Nowadays the martini selection is incredibly broad and I would argue that many of the drinks identified as martinis are really not martinis. It feels like any drink served in a martini glass is considered a martini and that’s simply not true. There are all kinds of flavors out there and all kind of craft cocktails devoted to new tastes and trends. The only “new” martini I ever took a hankering to is the espresso martini. Those are good. I can swig those back any day. I use them more for a little energy boost at the end of a meal, but they can be dangerous. All the other flavors never really interest me. Lola will indulge sometimes. She likes good drinks with special flavors. I like Miller High Life.
For my martini today, I decided to go the classic route. That means I would go gin because I prefer it to vodka and because gin is the original liquor in a martini. I would also go straight up because that’s more fun. I would go twist over olives because I hate olives. And I would shake it because of what I said before. Easy peasy. I had a martini glass that I had put in the freezer to get nice and frosty. I got a strip of lemon peel and then squeezed it into the glass to let the oils of the rind release into the glass. Plus I rubbed the edge of the glass with the twist to get more of the lemon essence into the mix. Then I made the martini in a shaker. I used up the last of our gin and then I went searching for some vermouth. I found some in the back of our liquor cabinet which may have been older than Lola. Still, it’s vermouth – does vermouth go bad? As a side note, always use dry vermouth for a martini. Sweet vermouth is for Manhattans. I mixed up my martini then poured it out into the glass.
When I was putting down the cocktail shaker and tidying up, I asked Lola if she wanted a sip. When I turned around I noticed that she had taken a sip and she was not enjoying what went down. She was making a face as if she had just ingested a glass of urine. She was not a fan and she wanted that taste out of her mouth. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be a fan. I tasted it next. There were two things wrong with it. While I was pouring, I ended up using the last of my gin and that threw off my portioning. I probably used too much vermouth and not enough gin. But the other factor was I don’t think the vermouth was very good. It hadn’t aged well. What happened was the vermouth overtook the whole drink. It was almost perfume-y in taste. It wiped out the favor of the gin. My last sip had more gin taste to it, but by then, I had decided it was an awful drink. I don’t mean that martinis are awful drinks, but this particular one was and I’ll take the blame for that. This one would have made 007 weep.
The martini really is the upper-crust of all cocktails. The fancy pants. The Don Draper. When made correctly, it’s really not bad, you just have to like the taste of gin (or vodka). Plus I suggest using decent vermouth too. There are tons of possibilities with a martini. It is adventure. It is indulgence. It is celebration. All that makes it the perfect drink to celebrate. Whether you like it shaken or stirred, olives or twists or straight up or on the rocks, it can be worth the effort. At the end of the day, there are few better ways to toast the day too and I mean that literally because the glass itself is as festive as the drink. Sure, it’s not my favorite drink, but I’m always game for a little celebration in a glass.
Next up: National Vanilla Milkshake Day