What’s in a martini? That which we call a cocktail by any other name would taste as sweet? Okay, so for you Shakespeare nerds, it doesn’t scan, and for you mixologists, I added a dash of Maraschino--bite me. The question is, what is a martini and why, like Shakespeare (you might as well get used to it because I’m carrying this metaphor all the way through this essay), has it stood the test of time?
Somethings are iconic and will live longer than you or I, and certainly longer than this article will trend. Fads come and go, and mixologists continue to play with Absinthes rinses and flaming walnuts to create the perfect amount of smoke to add something to a cocktail; however, when it is all said and done there are tried and true mixes that never go out of fashion.
There has been as much written about the proper Martini as there has been about who actually wrote Macbeth. The likes of Dorothy Parker and George Burns famously quipped about the drink far better than I and Pappa Hemingway himself once quipped, “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean… They made me feel civilized.”
While there is a myriad of recipes out there to concoct this libation, let us set a few things straight. First, for this article, let it be known we are talking about a Martini, a real Martini, and not a Kangaroo Cocktail (see vodka). Furthermore, just because your local bartender at Chili’s pours it into a chilled martini glass does not make that fruity concoction a proper cocktail. Second, while a dry martini can undoubtedly have as little or as much vermouth as you wish, let it be known that a “Dry Martini” is not, as Winston Churchill so eloquently put it, a glass of cold gin and a nod to the French. A cocktail is just that, a cocktail. A blend of ingredients to heighten the drinking experience. If you wish to sip on a shot of gin be my guest, but don’t order a martini, and if you dislike the taste of vermouth, odds are it is because you are drinking rancid vermouth that his been sitting on a bar shelf or in a fridge for more than a year. A martini is a drink that is one-hundred percent about the interplay between gin and vermouth. The two ingredients play off one another, the botanicals in the two spirits work to create something unique.
Lastly, throw out everything just written, because at the end of the day, order the drink you want, and never quote another man about what you should drink.
And yet, odds are if you are reading this article, and likely imbibing while you do, you are here because of one man, well, two actually--technically you could add eight more bringing the total to ten, but now we’re just getting in the weeds. James Bond did to the Martini what Miles Davis did to jazz. No man has even had a more monumental impact on a drink than 007, or rather, Ian Flemming. Yet, let it be noted here that the infamous, “Shaken, not stirred,” line was a creation of the films, hence the technically eight men aforementioned, as the Bond of the novel was a bourbon man. Still, ever since Sean Connery uttered those words in his Scottish-brogue, he launched an industry of drinkers who, like Hemingway, feel dapper and civilized.
There is no shame in taking a social cue for your drink order. God knows most Americans do. We fall in line for the Old Fashioned or the Caucasian each time a hit rolls out. Like Broadway churning out Hollywood musicals and remaking cult classics, drinks take a bit of marketing to find their niche. But long before Bond, the Martini was a staple of the cocktail hour.
Legend has it that the drink was created in Martinez, California, when a miner stopped in and ordered champagne, but the bartender did not have it. So, he concocted something with what he had and created a classic. While this could be a misnomer in the same way that Bob Kane invented Batman, the credit is given to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, the man who literally wrote the book on Bar-Tending, for first coining the recipe. With Old Tom’s gin, sweet vermouth, cherry liqueur, and orange bitters (a method that still holds up today and is dangerously close to Bond’s Vesper), the Marinez was born.
Multiple recipes exist before Thomas’s book and the story that goes with it, and the fact of the matter is that various recipes using gin, Old Tom, and Genever all existed around 1870. But when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Despite the quarrel over what marked the first Martini, the drink evolved overtime. It began as a dry martini, meaning using the London Dry style of gin over Genever or Old Tom, and was, probably, a 50/50 ratio of vermouth to gin. Then, over time, as the tastes changed, it moved more to a 2:1 ratio, which remains the standard today, although in most bars, if you want a “standard” Martini, you have to ask for a wet martini.
Personally, I love a 2:1 ratio with a dash or two of orange bitters and an absinthe rinse and lemon twist. I will throw in a bar spoon of Maraschino if I want something a tad sweeter, or go with a Vesper (I’ll use Cocci if I have it or add bitters to Lillet).
The process of crafting a cocktail is similar to the distillation process of wine. The poetry of the bottle comes out in the glass. The only difference is that to make a spirit shine, it takes another bard to speak the verse.
A martini is not about getting drunk, although it will certainly get you there. It is not about throwing back three-martini lunches or celebrating the final shot of the day--but it can be. Martinis, like all great things, are about slow enjoyment; they’re about time; they’re about mindfulness. Benjamin Franklin may have said that beer proved God loved us, but H.L Menken said, “Martinis are the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.”
Al took his sweat-stained Panama hat off and sat it on the bar. His ex-wife had given it to him, almost as a joke, seven Christmases ago. At first, he never wore it as the hat always seemed out of place wherever he was. But since he had let his beard grow and his choice of jacket had altered from tailored to deconstructed, the hat seemed to fit.
The bar was a respite from the humidity outside. Papa Hemingway may have called this place Heaven, but Al’s Yankee blood was far to thick for this climate. He took off the linen blazer revealing a sweat-soaked shirt and a surprising amount of tattoos up and down his arm, a reminder of his days chasing tail in Philadelphia. Al hardly noticed them at this point, but often when he was sitting in an airport or lounging in a hotel room, they would break the illusion of a sweet grandpa for some mother and her daughter.
Belly up to the bar, Al wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and tucked it back into his chinos as the bartender greeted him with a wry smile.
“What’ll it be?” said the bartender in perfect English.
Caught off-guard by the precision of the bartender’s speech, Al fumbled, for an order. He had wanted a bourbon smash, something sweet and slightly exotic, but the idea leaped out of his head once his presumption of what a Florida Keys bartender should sound like was shattered.
“Daiquiri,” answered Al, “a Hemingway,” he added.
The bartender hid a laugh and said, “Coming right up.”
For some reason, Al had always valued the opinion of bartenders, even when he was younger. As he hopped from one trend to the next, ordering Old Fashions when TV touted slick suits and nostalgia and switching back to martini’s when the latest spy film hit the theaters, Al always asked what the best way to make the drink was (it wasn’t until much later that he realized how obnoxious this must have seemed at the time).
In Philly, he learned that the secret to a proper Old Fashion was a mix of Angostura and Orange bitters. In New York, he learned that the best martini relies on the perfect balance of good (fresh) vermouth, the right gin, and a twist (fuck an olive). And now, here he was after all these years ordering the most cliche drink in the keys: a Hemingway Daiquiri. “Still,” he thought, “when in Rome. After all, this isn’t the rum-running Key West of Captain Callaway. Hell, the entire ecosystem down here is nostalgia.”
He looked around the bar taking in all the old photos of “pirates” and poets. A few he recognized, but most were nameless faces that decorated the wall, in the same way, Italian restaurants plaster photos of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra everywhere.
The cocktail was slid in front of him, an opaque white mixture of rum, lime, and sugar, and with one sip, Al understood why Papa loved these so much.
He pulled a cigar from his damp pocket, the tobacco a little more moist than when he bought it. Hanging over the bar, just to the left of Hemingway holding a fish, was Churchill chewing a cigar with some quote stenciled in Courier. Al’s eyes were too weak to make out what the poster said, but he was sure he’d read the Prime Minister’s quote before.
He clipped off the end of his cigar with a cutter he had bought many moons ago in some old lounge in Florida. While countless numbers of sunglasses and pocketknives had come and gone, this stainless steel cutter had hung around.
Sitting the cutter down on the table, Al reached for the matches in his pocket, but he couldn’t find them. Front left, back right, nowhere to be found. He lifted his blazer to see if he had placed the matches in his coat pocket, but alas, they were nowhere to be found. It was then, again, the bartender swooped in with a butane torch.
“Gracias,” said Al.
“De nada,” answered the bartender, “what kind of place would this be if I wasn’t quick with a joke, or could light up your smoke?”
Al smiled, catching the reference. Clearly, this was not the first time the young man had worked an old-timer this way.
“Someplace you’d rather be?” Answered Al puffing on the tobacco to light the cherry.
“And give up Heaven? No way.”
“Heaven,” asked Al, “or Hell?”
This time, the bartender’s laugh was genuine, “Don’t worry, amigo, you’ll get used to the heat.”
“One drink at a time.”
The bartender released the hammer from the torch, nodded, and walked back to tend to another customer.
And, as he embraced the spicy-sweet smoke on his tongue and washed down the toxic burn with a splash of rum, he relaxed.
There was a time when Al was more of a Steppenwolf, and all of this would have seemed trite: the drink, the smoke, the coat, even the witty bartender all would have been lost on his younger self. Yet now, all these years later, Al couldn’t help but see the joy in the sun salted island.
And just as an old habit began to creep in, a thought that punctured the moment and almost sent him careening into deep thought, he caught himself and ceased to look for any deeper meaning.
Instead, he puffed his cigar and quelled the thought, sending it back down to the depths from which it came. This was not a time for thinking. This was not a time for pontificating or understanding. This was a time to drink and to smoke, a time to enjoy the vices of life.
He spun around on the stool to face the ocean, not that he needed to see it from that particular angle, the bar was, after all, surrounded on all sides by water. But, he slumped in his chair and looked out at the crashing waves.
He took another sip of his drink and sat it back down on the bar. Then, he pulled a worn copy of a spy novel from his pocket. Al was about halfway through the thin thriller, an indulgence he finally allowed himself: trash fiction. He found them to be to his taste. After years of trudging through the annals of great thinkers, he thought he had earned a few years respite of popcorn fiction. And yet, it was not at all the experience he had thought. There was no self-mockery, no rolling of the eyes, or shaking of the head. No, Al enjoyed every second of the book, from the sex mastering mistress to the epically scarred villain, Al could not get enough of espionage and murder.
And as the sun moved on and the waves crashed around him keeping time, Al drifted away to one exotic place after another and sipped his cliche drink at his cliche bar.
The Egg sat inconspicuously enough in the sitting room, a decorative piece practically camouflaged in the corner, a mere accent to a painting by an artist the host had long forgotten.
Guests uninitiated to the art of antiques gave little regard to its unobtrusive placement. People came and went as the priceless artifact gathered dust.
Year after year, the Egg disappeared into the background: unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated. Until one night, a gentleman of an indiscriminate age sat alone, recoiled from the party one swizzle too deep into depression.
It was his custom to remove himself from social gatherings once his cloud set in, brought on by the spirit and years of practice. In his early days, he would try and mask his grey color. Eventually, he grew weary of the inevitable questions that would follow: what’s the matter? Are you alright? You look as if something is troubling you?
He could never explain to the inquirer that nothing was the matter, that he wasn’t drunk (although, sometimes he was), and he would be fine once the melancholy passed. It was on this fateful evening that he had found a guard against his pain, a shield he had picked up from a magazine or a blog or some indistinct article that had now molded into the abyss. And while the source had dissolved into nothingness, the point remained: name your pain.
If you can name something, you can control it. And so he had. And so he did. And while it did not lessen the sinking feeling of guilt, it provided him a safety net of sorts, softening his landing.
Now, he found himself, alone, in the sitting room of the vast Southern home. His hosts were gracious and warm, a pair of high school sweethearts that had grown into a success. While their budget had grown, their tastes had not.
The house was a hodgepodge of Southern living, the sort of tasteful collage of ideas that represented impulse and magazine ads. Everything looked right. The couch matched the carpet, matched the coffee table, matched the paintings. Unweathered books adorned the shelves, carefully crafted magazines littered the tables, but the entire setting was devoid of personality.
Still, no one seemed to mind, that is, except our hero. He found himself transfixed on this one decorative piece.
Did they know what they possessed?
It must be a fake.
He looked around to make sure no one was watching him and made his way to the Egg. At first, he dared not touch it. If it were real, the mere pressure of his hand could destroy the delicate porcelain, the thinnest layer of bone China and calcium phosphate.
The artisan had crafted the Egg to be admired, never handled. Part of the mystique of the antique was that it had to be carried from a ring at the top, which balanced the pressure evenly throughout the piece.
His face reflected back in the ivory between the delicate brushstrokes of blue. A scene of no importance played out along the equator, families moving about a small English countryside. Yet, hidden within the portrait was a series of puzzles that would rival the greatest alchemist’s codex.
Letters that transformed into mountains, symbols that morphed into faces, and accents that held untold treasures.
And yet, here was this masterpiece of myth in a sawgrass McMansion, owned by a pair of day-trippers who couldn’t distinguish between Monet and Manet.
His palms were sweaty, his shirt drenched. The house was cooled to a frigid degree, but his heart raced at the sight of the Egg.
Lust filled his heart. He had to have the Egg. They were not worthy of such art, which only served to accentuate a reprinted painting from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
At first, he thought he could undersell the couple, explain that he loved the antique, and had always wanted one. Offer them a substantial amount, far more than they paid for it at whatever roadside store they had picked it up from by accident, but far less than the items worth.
But what if he gave away his intention? What if he revealed the Egg’s real value? Far worse than the item sitting on this undeserving mantle would be this couple rushing to Antiques Roadshow and becoming overnight celebrities, the finders of the Lost LaRue.
No. For that, he would not stand. So he decided, in the moment, to steal the Egg. His hosts would not even notice it missing. It would not take any excellent planning, no heist worthy of Hollywood. He would simply walk out the front door with the Egg suspended from a hook.
“Edgar!” shrieked a voice behind a hand on his shoulder.
In his fantasy, he had lost all track of time. The voice pierced his dream like a bullet through glass. He turned to face the gracious face of his host, a fair featured woman of thirty.
“What are you doing here?”
Had she suspected? What right had she to ask such an invasive question.
“The party has moved outside.”
Relief plummeted through his body. She suspected nothing. She merely wished him to return to the others. A lie soaked in truth slipped from his mouth and put the host at ease. She offered to refill his drink and then said she would return him to the party.
He smiled and allowed her to take his glass, and as she walked from the room, his gaze returned to...the stone?
Where the lost LaRue had once stood, a Faberge egg of the most delicate race, was a crude mass-produced mantle topper.
What trick is this?
He looked around desperate to find a thief in his midst. Perhaps his host had distracted him, noticing his lustful gaze on her priceless artifact.
No, sank his mind. There never was a LaRue.
A hollow smile returned to his face as his host guided him back to the party. As they walked out the French doors, wine in hand, he cast one look back towards the Egg. For a blink, it was a LaRue again, an adventure thrusting him forward, casting him as a great cat burglar. In the next, the Egg dissolved into cold, hard plaster: reality.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.