Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dr. Silvius's revenge

No, they're not wine. However...

Martinis taste great. Lots of people drink them – even wine lovers - or what passes for martinis. Like vodka in a cold glass, which isn’t. Neither are the other concoctions put together by bartenders who these days often know little about the art of mixing and feel entitled to charge extra for simply picking up a shaker. The martini was favored traditionally by the upper class and attacked from the left as a vestige of imperialism, as if grain alcohol in a stemmed glass could be shamelessly mercenary while chardonnay in the same thing's a sign of enlightenment.

The benefits of a real martini are recognized: stimulated appetite, fluid tongue, uplifted psyche. A martini contains no more alcohol, and fewer calories, than a couple of healthy glasses of wine. Most everyone has an idea of when a martini should be drunk. To my mind the mood should be good, the present uncluttered, the future promising.

The deceased novelist, Robert Benchley, famously wrote the line, "Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini." Don’t know exactly what he was talking about but I don't think of martinis and bad weather as complementary. Ideally, they should be drunk on a fine evening, either at home as a prelude to lamb chops, say, or in a strange locale as a toast to the spirit of adventure, or in a comfortable old sock of a bar, preferably with a friend.

The real martini's cold and contains no ice cubes, which dilute both taste and punch. They should be violently shaken - yes, James - in a metal container with ice and then quickly poured into a flared glass that has spent half an hour in the freezer; they should have squeezed over them flat lemon rinds that imparts tiny globules of lemon oil on the clear skein of gin and ice shards and are then discarded.

Sip, don't gulp. Success, as always, depends upon quality: the real thing's gin and white vermouth from a bottle that didn't belong to your father and is kept in the frig. Gin was a Dutch invention by a Dr. Sylvius, in the 17th-century, and hailed as a diuretic. He used pure grain spirits and the oil of the juniper berry, which gives gin its unique flavor. The Dutch never realized that preparing to pee could be so much fun. Within a few years all Holland found itself suffering from ills that could be cured only by gin, which crossed the Channel and became the national drink of England, setting back economic development by more than a century.

English gin's drier and less aromatic than the Dutch variety. Good ones are Tanquery, Beefeaters, Boodles, even the aromatic Bombay that's flavored not only with juniper but also with coriander, orris, and almonds and almost makes vermouth almost superfluous. Vermouth surfaced about a century after gin, in Italy and France, both versions blends of wine and stronger spirits aged in contact with as many as 50 different herbs, the Italian one slightly sweeter.

The earliest incarnation of a martini appeared in a 19th-century book of recipes as the "Martinez" - a concoction of mostly vermouth mixed with a shot of gin and some bitters. By 1900 it had become known as the martini, half gin and half vermouth. By the end of World War II it was 15 parts gin to one of vermouth, and has evolved today into what is often a glass of straight gin or vodka filled with ice cubes, olives, pimento, onions, toothpicks, little plastic swords, straws, old rinds and assorted junk.

"The martini's a complicated cultural artifact," the head of Johns Hopkins's classics department, Lowell Edmonds, once told me. The author of The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization, he added, "It means so many different things to different people: civilized and uncivilized. Classical and individual. Sensitive and tough... People have always thought the martini belonged to the past, even when it was invented."

For user rules I offer the wisdom of Dorothy Parker:

I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I'm under the table,

After four I'm under my host.


  1. Thank you Jim: A worthy tribute to the refinement of a derving monument to the social life.
    When I was sixteen, my fater took me to the Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel in Balimore. A refuge for the enlightened. I was a bit tentative but he insisted that we sit at the bar.
    He explained to the barman that I was to be introduced to life that day, and procceded to order two Hendrick's martinis: up,dry,cold,twist,NOW!

    The barman approached us with the two drinks, but was cradeling them in his warm hands....not the stem/ He only made it two paces before being rejected.
    on the third attempt they were accepted. I knew as the aroma acosted my sences...that I understood. Could not have been genetic, since this was my step father.

    The signal came from a higher place.

    After we finished the first round, my father explained that if I could appreciate a Martini, speak French and sail, I could accomplish anything in life.

    I bought a 53 foot sloop, maried a French speaking woman, and the rest is history.

    By the way, Benchley had just finished shooting a lifeboat scene in a tank on the set, and when retrieved utterith the famous line. I try to adhere to this lesson after each spring shower.

    And thank you for reiforcing my basic beleif.

  2. For those of us in our cups, spell check would be most welcome.