Three and I'm under the table

It’s unusual, in this muddy imperfect world of ours, that we have the ability to conjure up perfection when the moment calls for it. Thank goodness, then, for the martini.

A simple enough thing: mix four parts gin and one part dry vermouth into a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake, and strain into a martini glass. (No need to rush; a tiny bit of dilution from the melting ice can help bring out the flavor.) Garnish with an olive or two. Simplicity is often a grace of perfection. Enjoy before dinner after a long day of solving equations, or later at night between sets at a smoky jazz club.

Really we should just stop there, and returning to our regularly scheduled string-theory-and-God blogging. But it is not in human nature to accept perfection in an appreciative stillness; we have to go mucking around, trying to make it even better. And thank goodness, or some enterprising bartender never would have invented the martini in the first place. Alas, mucking more often leads to tragedy than to triumph, and some wheat/chaff separation is in order.

martini The martini’s perfection is deceptive because of its near-inevitability. Every aspect of the cocktail manifests its individual degree of perfection, so we are hardly surprised (that is, not as much as we should be) when it all comes together so elegantly. Gin, originating in the Low Countries and elevated to iconic status in Britain, forms the foundation of this quintessentially American drink. The basic white grain spirit is enlivened by the slightly exotic flavors of juniper and other botanicals. It’s everything you want in a foundation: solid and agreeable, perfectly transparent without being empty or boring. Dry vermouth, a fortified wine that is quite acceptable as a separate aperitif, but only reaches toward divinity in its role as a secondary ingredient against the gin. And the olives, suggesting a touch of the Eastern Mediterranean, adding a worldly spiciness and lush green roundness to the austerity of the cocktail.

But the experience of a martini extends beyond the ingredients. We have, most obviously, the glass: a perfected artistic form, functional as well as attractive, borrowed shamelessly (and understandably) for a myriad of lesser purposes. We have also the mixing procedure itself; a proper metallic cocktail shaker is one of those accessories that is worth investing in. There is a myth going around, if you hang out on the wrong street corners, that shaking will “bruise” the gin. Rubbish, of course. But go ahead and stir if you like — you can avoid tiny bubbles that may cloud your drink, but you’ll miss out on the sensual pleasure of the act of shaking itself.

Now, let it never be said that I am a fundamentalist. A little deviation from orthodoxy can be a good thing. Indeed, replacing the traditional toothpick with an artistic metal pick can add a touch of class to the presentation. If you’d like to experiment with whimsical modifications of the traditionally-shaped glass, be my guest, although you’re operating at your own risk. It’s occasionally fun to use olives stuffed with blue cheese or garlic or — my favorite — a bit of jalapeno pepper. Heck, you could even replace the olives with a twist of lemon, although at that point you risk sacrificing taste for visual impact (a completely unnecessary compromise, in this instance).

But there are some roads that we have no good reason to walk down, and two of them have become all too well-traveled: dryness and vodka. Original martini recipes called for nearly equal proportions of gin and vermouth, and only later did experimentation reveal that a much smaller proportion of vermouth made for a more successful drink. Four-to-one is about right, although there is room for variations in taste. But this worthy discovery has devolved into a pointlessly macho competition about whose martini is the driest. Bartenders now regularly splash vermouth into their shakers and then pour it out before adding the gin, leaving behind a helplessly thin coating of the original spirit. The next step is to simply pour chilled gin into your glass while doing a Google image search for “vermouth.” There is a name for the resulting drink: it’s called “gin.” It’s not a cocktail, it’s just a straight spirit, one step removed from doing shooters of grain alcohol. The success of the martini comes from the symbiotic mixture of different spirits, as Fareed Zakaria has persuasively argued.

Vodka, of course, is a perfectly enjoyable spirit in its own right. It should be served as cold as possible, in shot glasses, alongside black bread and earthy Slavic accomaniments like caviar and pickles. The thing about vodka is that, in its purest form, it is basically tasteless. This makes vodka an excellent backdrop for all sorts of flavorings, which is why flavored vodka is so popular. (You’ll never walk into a liquor store and see flavored gin — at least, I hope not.) But it makes it useless for a martini, especially a dry one. Gin, dry vermouth, and olives all taste like something, and it is the miracle of those tastes working together that creates a transcendent cocktail.

And now we’ve come right up to the point where my inner cranky old man takes over from the face of youthful libertinism that I present to the world. Because, from replacing gin with vodka, it’s a short step to the multiple horrors foisted on the drinking public that appear on “martini lists” in many of our finest establishments. Look, you can drink whatever you want. And I have nothing against color or sweetness for its own sake. But if you mix together a concoction involving any sort of Kahlua or Frangelico or raspberry liqueur — call it what you want, but it’s not a martini. It doesn’t matter that it involves alcohol and is served in the traditional martini glass. It’s a mixed drink, but it’s not a martini. Just because you stick a tail on a watermelon, don’t make it a pig.

See, I like to think that words have meanings. And the word “martini” has a perfectly good referent — the above-discussed cocktail, worldwide symbol of elegance and sophistication. And this martini has certain qualities. And none of these qualities involves “fruitiness” or “sweetness.” Sorry. Martinis are astringent, challenging, an acquired taste of limitless reward. They are not fluorescent concoctions redolent of high-fructose corn syrup. Don’t get me wrong; some of these drinks can be quite enjoyable. I recently went to the Raw Bar here in Chicago and sampled the “Barry White martini,” which was appropriately dark and satiny and certainly not a martini. At Aquitaine in Boston I had something called the “Icicle,” made from Icelandic vodka and ice wine with a frozen grape — also enjoyable, also not a martini. Why use a perfectly precise word when you really mean something else?

sidecar The most successful non-martini cocktails take the lessons of the martini and use them in innovative ways. My personal favorite is the sidecar: three parts cognac, one part each Cointreau (orange liqueur) and lemon juice, decorate with a lemon twist. You can even put sugar on the rim without doing violence to the basic conception of the drink. Sidecars are a little sweet, but the fundamentally robust nature of the cognac provides an effective counterweight, and this would never be accused of being a frivolous drink. (Edging toward frivolity, we have the “between the sheets”: equal parts cognac, Cointreau, lime juice, and white rum, served with a twist. But it’s good, I have to admit.)

manhattan Still, the cocktail that in some ways is the most impressive is the Manhattan: three parts bourbon, one part sweet (red) vermouth, dash of bitters and a splash of cherry juice, served with a Maraschino cherry. You can see the basic similarity to the martini template: robust foundational spirit, secondary aperitif-oriented spirit, colorful garnish. But the martini, composed of ingredients of individual perfection, was destined to succeed. Meanwhile, the fact that the Manhattan works at all is a minor miracle. Its ingredients are individually barbaric — I mean, bourbon? cherry juice? — that work together in an impressive high-wire act, the coarseness of the bourbon playing off the sickly sweetness of the cherries. When it succeeds, it’s a feat worthy of our admiration.

These cocktails don’t try to sully the worthy martini name by pretending to be what they’re not; they succeed on their own terms. I’m even prepared to grant a place to the much-maligned Cosmopolitan (vodka, Cointreau, lime juice, cranberry juice), unless you try to call it a martini. The Sex in the City gals needed to be drinking something light and colorful — the transparent severity of a true martini would have undermined the mood.

Happy holidays. And if you can find a bartender that does right by you, tip well. You’ll feel good about yourself, and your status will be elevated in the eyes of persons of whatever sexual identification and preference you hope to impress.

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27 Responses to Three and I'm under the table

  1. weichi says:

    What about the Gin & Tonic?

    The best drink I’ve ever had was a Gin & Tonic in the bar on the top floor of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Absolutely stunning drink. Equally stunning was the view from the men’s bathroom. Not to mention the bill.

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  2. Shaken? No way. Stirred.

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  3. Moshe says:

    Very educational post…happy holidays Sean and everybody else.

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  4. Eugene says:

    Got to be shaken, after all the martini is standing on an Ian Fleming novel.
    What do I know though, I don’t drink.

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  5. Dissident says:

    Alcohol kills neurons. Having too few of them to start with, I stay away from the stuff.

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  6. Sheesh – Wine, cheese, Martinis. What is this, the middle class consumer one-upmanship blog?

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  7. spyder says:

    Having been forced, by my own body’s perfidies, to abstain from imbibing fine beverages for the last 15 years, i do recommend the drink that, while probably leading to the obvious issues, i enjoyed for many years. It is simple, elegant in the same joie de vie of the classics, and way too delicious. Take the stainless steel shaker, add one full cup of crushed, distilled-water ice, two ounces of
    Stolichnaya Russia 100 Proof, two ounces of 94.6 Proof Tanqueray No. Ten, and one ounce (maybe a touch less) of Roses’ finest quality sweetened lime juice. Slowly roll the shaker three or four times and pour strained into a martini glass. That would pretty much set you up for a good start on the entire evening. {there is a Polish buffalo grass vodka, hard to find that is really amazing in this as there are other great, high-proof gins–they substitute nicely}

    I must concur that the over abundance of “martini bars” with their plethora of new exotic flavors and mixes seems to indicate a willingness to sell the martini out to the worst fetishism. My gawd man, a chocolate martini??? What are people thinking?

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  8. collin says:

    A subject dear to my heart, though I tend to order gibsons more often than martinis. A few random thoughts:

    1. Well done on defending the martini from vodka.

    2. a Manhattan should be made with rye. I don’t care for them at all, but I once bought a bottle of rye and all I could think was, “man, this would make a good Manhattan.” Never bothered to make one though. Way too sweet. Never bothered to buy another bottle of rye either. And bourbon barbaric? Try the Hirsch 15yr old. Nothing barbaric about that.

    3. You know how Winston Churchill made his martinis, right? He’d introduce the gin to the vermouth from across the room and then pour the gin in the glass. We’ve come a long way if we’re now just googling vermouth.

    4. Myself, I tend to just pour a little vermouth in the glass, swirl around and pour out, leaving just a touch in the bottom of the glass. Fill with gin and you’re good to go. I tend to use Bombay Sapphire for the gin, and when I can find it, a vermouth called Stock. It’s more flavorful, if less refined, than Noilly Prat so it works better to cut through the gin and it’s much cheaper which always helps. It may even be cheaper than Martini and Rossi. What are your ingredients of choice?

    5. You know the best part of an olive? The martini around it…

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  9. Sean says:

    Collin, my favorite gin is Van Gogh when I can find it, Tanqueray Ten otherwise (although sapphire is quite good). I haven’t really explored around with vermouths, just sticking to Martini & Rossi. Maybe I should be more adventurous.

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  10. Clifford says:

    Sean, Tanqueray Ten is pretty good….But you have to try Hendricks gin, from Ayrshire, Scotland. You’ll never (or at least it is very hard to) go back to anything else after that.

    -cvj

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  11. erc says:

    Hello Sean (and others)

    Finally made it to the party – does this still count as fashionably late? I am very relieved to see that you are insisting on gin rather than vodka in your martini – I heartily concur. weichi is correct though, in that the G&T is a truely fabulous drink. Probably my favourite, providing it is made properly. However, I am going to deviate from the trend here and say that I have never been a fan of Tanqueray gin – I’d rather have Bombay Sapphire. I have never come across Van Gogh, or Hendricks as far as I can recall.

    Anyway, having had an exam yesterday I had a martini last night. The bartender put three olives in, and I discovered that this is too many. I had to remove them before I got to the bottom of the glass, as they were beginning to dominate the flavour entirely. So, a word of warning to martini-makers everywhere: one olive is enough, certainly no more than two. Thank you.

    I hope you had a good weekend preparing for this post!

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  12. John Farrell says:

    I’m still a Beefeater man when it comes to martinis and G&T’s. I tend to use slices of lime rather than olives because my wife thinks the olives make the martini taste too much like gasoline. On the other hand, too much lime makes it taste like a gimlet…(which is okay, if you’re in the mood for that).

    I also like Plymouth Gin, which seems to be making a big marketing push judging from the magazine ads I see for it.

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  13. John Farrell says:

    Sean, at some point you might want to follow up and blog a bit about the best foods to have with martinis, so that you are not under the table after only three.

    (one Irishman to another)

    :)

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  14. Steve Esser says:

    Great post, I’m in near complete agreement with everything. The exception: cherry juice?? I drain the cherry on a paper towel, but even if you don’t follow me in that…

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  15. serial catowner says:

    Here’s one for those with access to a lab: fill a glass 3/4 with milk, and the rest of the way with USP ethanol, 190 proof.

    Maybe not much of a drink, but one h**l of a glass of milk!

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  16. Caolionn says:

    To quote my boyfriend’s father — Martinis are like breasts: One is not enough and three’s too many.

    A lesson learned after one too many evenings under the table.

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  17. Sean says:

    I had heard that joke, but couldn’t figure out a good way to manipulate it into a post title. I presume everyone knows the origin of the one I used?

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  18. Joe says:

    My favorite over the last 30 years is a ‘pink’ gin: a simple G&T with a drop or two of angostura bitters.

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  19. Athena says:

    I wish I could drink like a lady
    I can take one or two at the most
    Three and I’m under the table
    Four and I’m under the host

    — Dorothy Parker

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  20. Clifford says:

    Good Ol’ Athena…..should have guessed you’d know!

    -cvj

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  21. Clifford says:

    Athena… If we were of the prize-giving persuation, you’d get a set of these.

    -cvj

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  22. Mark says:

    Had a couple of outstanding Hendricks martinis this evening to celebrate the end of teaching before Thanksgiving. Two olives, perfectly mixed – absolutely wonderful.

    John Farrell, your devotion to Beefeater is well noted. I have an emeritus colleague who refuses to drink anything other than Beefeater, and carries a little bottle of Campari everywhere because he insists on single drop in a small glass of Beefeater on the rocks as his perfect drink. We call it the ****** martini (***** is his name). I think it is almost the perfect idiosyncrasy.

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  23. nnyhav says:

    William Empson in ’56 reconsidering his poem _Bacchus_ (written ’33-’39):
    “The explosion of the planet Bacchus has now been dated, by iron from asteriods, to between two and four hundred million years ago; the idea that it would be visible for the emerging amphibia, and probably bad for them, might have come into the poem. I forgot, by the way, that the classical gods did not know about distilling; in fact the invention of gin was one of the first triumphs of industrial chemistry; but that suits the poem well enough.”
    (last words of the preface to _Collected Poems_)

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  24. John Farrell says:

    Mark, I sure like a Hendricks now and again, too!

    If you like vodka martinis, by the way, you might sample the new Irish vodka, Boru (named after the Irish hero Brian Boru). It goes down nice chilled. (When I asked recently at my local liquor store, the proprietor gave me a funny look. I said, dude, if the French can make vodka, then sure as hell so can the Irish.)

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  25. Mark says:

    Thanks John. I’m not a vodka martini fan (although I am a vodka fan). I should try the Boru though, given my bloodlines.

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  26. Athena says:

    Thanks, Clifford! You’re really too kind. And if I were of the prize-deserving persuasion, I would accept that perfectly appropriate prize. ; )

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  27. pooki says:

    seriously? may have missed the irony. A shaken martini? a bradford? as the classic?

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