There is a point at which the marriage of gin and vermouth is consummated. It varies a little with the constituents, but for a gin of 94.4 proof and a harmonious vermouth it may be generalized at about 3.7 to one. --Bernard DeVoto, (1946)
Human invention has launched untold thousands of cocktails, but only one has developed a genuine mystique: the martini. It is the quintessential cocktail, the standard by which all others are judged. Immune to shifting taste and fashion, the martini 'has not only endured, it has prospered. The Jack Rose, the Sidecar, the Bronx, where are they now? Those tasty mainstays of the 1930s and 1940s survive only as period pieces. Yet the martini maintains its steady course, a blue-chip investment paying out the same handsome dividend year after year.
Let the martini serve as a touchstone for this book, a North Star by which to navigate the bewildering world of mixed drinks. And just as surveys of Western art begin with an inspirational discourse on the Acropolis or Winged Victory, let this rambling tour of American drink begin with the epitome of cocktail perfection.
For the true martini believer, the combination of gin, vermouth, and olive is the Holy Trinity. And like any theological principle, it has given rise to doctrinal dispute. Put two worshipers together in the same room, and the arguments begin. Points of contention include, but are not limited to, the proper ingredients and their ideal proportions, the fastest way to achieve maximum coldness, and the merits of shaking versus stirring. Should a glass pitcher or a metal shaker be used? Should the olive have a pimento or not? These are matters of faith, not reason, for the martini is a cult, perhaps a religion. It even has its martyr, Sherwood Anderson, who succumbed to peritonitis after swallowing the toothpick from a martini olive. Consider him a sacrifice to the Egyptian god of thirst, Dri Mart Ini, whose cult was described by "Percival Slathers" in the New York Sun seventy-five years ago. The god, he wrote, was depicted by ancient artists as a priest of Isis, "shaking a drink in a covered urn of glass while the 15th pharaoh of the dynasty of Lush is shown with protruding cottony tongue quivering with pleasurable expectation."
Just how the martini got its name remains a mystery. Trying to solve it leads the hapless etymologist down one of the most meandering paths in the English language. The British long assumed that the drink originated with the Martini & Henry rifle, used throughout the Empire and known for its strong kick. Italians have argued, plausibly enough, that the name comes from Martini & Rossi vermouth. Both are wrong. The drink predates the rifle. And it was popular long before Martini & Rossi vermouth showed up on these shores. If the drink were named after a vermouth, Noilly Prat would be the one. Lowell Edmunds, in Martini, Straight Up, found that it was being exported to the United States as early as the 1850s.
Most Americans are wrong about the birth of the martini too; but somewhat more interestingly, they are wrong in two different ways. Over the years, two schools of thought on the time and place of the martini's origin have evolved, which, for convenience, we can label the West Coast and the East Coast hypotheses. Let us consider each in turn.
The West Coast hypothesis, to make matters more complicated, divides into two minor hypotheses, the San Francisco and the Martinez. The former holds that the renowned bartender Jerry Thomas, author of the first known cocktail book, mixed gin and vermouth for the first time at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel in the 1860s. His lucky customer, legend has it, was a traveler bound for nearby Martinez. With time, the Martinez cocktail became the martini. (The first recipe under the word "martini" appears in an 1888 bar guide by Harry Johnson.) The citizens of Martinez maintain that the first martini drinker was a gold miner who, in the 1870s, dropped by the bar of Julio Richelieu, a French immigrant whose improbable first name has never been explained. The traveler bought a bottle of whiskey for the road, paid with a gold nugget, and instead of change asked for a brand-new cocktail on the spot. He got it, and Richelieu called it the Martinez.
Both hypotheses rest on sand. For one thing, the Martinez makes its first appearance not in Jerry Thomas's book, published in 1862, but in an 1884 bar guide by O. H. Byron, who described the drink as a Manhattan in which gin is substituted for whiskey. If Thomas invented the drink, he mysteriously omitted it from the first edition of his How to Mix Drinks, subtitled The Bon-Vivant's Companion. It does not show up until the much-expanded 1887 edition of the book, and it's clear that no one arguing the San Francisco hypothesis has ever looked at the recipe. Thomas's Martinez cocktail called for one ounce of Old Tom gin, one wineglass (!) of vermouth, two dashes of maraschino, one dash of bitters, and two small lumps of ice, with sugar syrup added to taste.
Is this really a martini? True, there's vermouth, but Thomas had in mind the sweet red Italian variety. There's gin, but again, it's the wrong kind. Old Tom gin, a rarity nowadays, has sugar added during distillation. Thomas's martini is a molten gumdrop, although it must be remembered that many nineteenth-century cocktails reflect a national sweet tooth. Much closer to the mark is Thomas's 1862 recipe for a gin cocktail, which calls for gin, curaqao, bitters, and sugar syrup, garnished with a twist of lemon. Take away the syrup, add sweet vermouth, and you get the martini recipe that held sway into the early twentieth century. It is, in fact, the Martinez recipe we find in Byron's Modern Bartender's Guide (1884). To complicate the picture, two cocktails that seem to be close cousins of the dry martini show up in bar guides around the turn of the century, the Marguerite (Plymouth gin and French vermouth with a dash of orange bitters) and the Puritan (Plymouth gin, French vermouth, and orange bitters with a splash of yellow Chartreuse).
The East Coast hypothesis holds that Martini di Arma di Taggia, a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, created a drink using equal parts gin and dry vermouth sometime after arriving in America in 1912. That date would make di Taggia a straggler in the race, since several bar books and contemporary accounts show that the martini was already well established by the 1880s. But wait. Those early martinis, like Thomas's Martinez, used Italian vermouth. So di Taggia could be the man. On the other hand, William F. Mulhall, a veteran bartender, wrote of serving martinis at New York's swanky Hoffman House in the 1880s, and although he did not specify ingredients or proportions, he did refer to both sweet and dry martinis as among the most popular cocktails of the day.
By today's standards, which call for one part vermouth to anywhere between five and fifteen parts gin, the Knickerbocker martini was sickly sweet, but it definitely bears the distinctive markings of the breed. After all, a ratio of three parts vermouth to one part gin was typical as recently as the 1930s, when Esquire was recommending Italian vermouth for a medium martini and equal parts French and Italian vermouth for a semidry martini. One of the great cultural shocks still available in this age of jet travel and instant communication is the experience of ordering a martini in an English pub. The wretch who makes this mistake will receive a small glass of sweet vermouth. A request for a dry martini will elicit a small glass of French vermouth. The only fail-safe method is to ask for a "gin and French" with ice.
Copyright © 2001 William Grimes