Monday, October 24, 2016

The Gin Game

I recently enjoyed an infrequent Martini—a drink sometimes called “Fred Astaire in a glass,” surrounded by a mystique of glamor, elegance, and mystery. The mystery consists largely in its origin and why it is called a “Martini.”

Made from London dry gin and dry vermouth, mixed in ice, with either an olive or a twist of lemon, and, in its earliest incarnations, other ingredients such as bitters and maraschino liqueur, the Martini originated in the 1880s, either in San Francisco or in New York, depending on which story you prefer. Its name may come from the brand of vermouth that was first used, Martini & Rossi, produced since 1863. Or it may have been born, under a slightly different name, in San Francisco, where the Occidental Hotel was serving a “Martinez cocktail” to patrons en route to the ferry to nearby Martinez, California. New Yorkers claim it originated at the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912, when the chief bartender was Martini di Arma di Taggia.

The Martini’s ambrosial potency has elicited rapturous comments from many literary figures. E. B. White called it the “elixir of quietude.” Bernard De Voto said, “The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived….It is the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “I never tasted anything so cool and clean…They make me feel civilized.” James Thurber opined, “One martini is all right, two are two many, and three are not enough.” 

The Martini has inspired poetry by Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker and generated much controversy over whether it should be shaken (James Bond and Nick Charles) or stirred (Graham Greene and Auntie Mame), not to mention whether any concoction other than gin-and-vermouth may properly be called a Martini just because it’s served in a V-shaped glass. (The correct answer to the last question is no.)

Among the many notables who were partial to Martinis—W. H. Auden, Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, Noël Coward, and Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush, to name a few—one of the most notable was Britain’s Queen Mother, who died at the age of 101, although she really preferred her gin laced with Dubonnet rather than vermouth. Once, when she was being served tea at an official gathering, her tactless host blurted, “I understand that you would really prefer gin.” The Queen Mum drew herself up with dignity and replied, “I did not realize I had such a reputation. But, as I do,” she continued, “would you kindly make it a large one.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t drink Martinis very often, as they do strange things to his libido, which is not a pretty sight.

            I always adore a Martini,
            That tang on the tongue till it tingles—
            But once, from my glass, came a genie
            Saying, “Barman, pour doubles, not singles.”

            The first drink he shook, then he stirred one,
            By then I was going full throttle.
            And when I had finished my third one,
            I said, “Hell, just hand me the bottle.”

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