“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”
- –Dorothy Parker
I have the feeling I would have liked to party with Ms. Parker.
What is it about a martini?
Tequila’s a drug. Scotch is an obsession. Bourbon’s a statement. Vodka is for when you don’t really like booze.
A martini is a lifestyle.
I grew up drinking gin. It was what my mother drank. Gimlets — correct gimlets, which are made with gin and rose’s lime. Nothing else, and not vodka. I’d steal a sip when I made her drinks (I liked to make drinks for my folks). I loved the smell of it.
So when I was first old enough to get away with ordering drinks in bars, it was gimlets I’d order.
But that wasn’t what I drank to get drunk. Early, I’d drink beer or steal my father’s brandy. Later, when I started to party socially, it was again beer, or tequila. And to this day, I’m a huge fan of tequila.
I sort of quit with the gin in my 20’s. Drinking was about getting loaded so it was beer and shots, sometimes tequila, sometimes black jack or wild turkey, sometimes vodka. I didn’t do cocktails much, other than a long island iced tea phase, margaritas (Which I love), and the usual stupid starter drinks, daquris, orgasms, all that too-sweet shit. Oh, and kamikazis, which are called that for a reason. Sickest I’ve ever been from drinking was on kamikazis.
Now, I’m the child of alcoholics. Second generation actually, gramma was a drunk as well. My folks were not really problem drinkers, but they drank all the time. Every day, in the morning when they had an excuse (bloody marys, irish coffees). And I’m a drinker. I talk sometimes like a bukowski drunk; I’m not. For some reason, I’ve never had any issue with booze. I get bored with being drunk. So, once past my twenties, after my first kid was born, I mostly tapered off the serious fall-down drinking.
But I’m still a huge fan of Dionysian pleasures. Beer, which I used to make and still adore, wine, cocktails, port, scotch. I love the flavor of good booze, the social experience, and of course, what’s not to love about a good buzz.
Somewhere in my 30’s I started on the martinis. I ordered one as a lark, thinking it sounded like a good thing to order in some fancy restaurant when I didn’t want wine. And I remembered why I used to like gin.
Now, gin isn’t just gin. There’s some evil shit out there that’s called gin. Shit I won’t drink even for a buzz; gibleys, beefeater, a lot of cheap crap, and worse, well gins with off-brand labels. Bad shit.
Now, this isn’t like the current trend of top-shelf vodkas, most of which taste exactly the same, but are priced based on how fancy the bottle is. Because the essence of good vodka is to avoid flavor; you want as clean and pure taste as you can get, as close to the components (wanter and alcohol) as you can get. So there’s a limit to how much you can vary one to the next. Is Skyy different than Grey Goose? Yeah, maybe you can tell side by side, but mixed, who cares.
Gin is a different experience. Gin is essentially the same spirit as vodka, but flavored. The cheap shit, they just stir in some juniper-flavored extract. But the top-shelf gins are different.
There’s almost no limit to what you can use in gin; aside from juniper, there’s citrus peel, coriander, licorice almonds, all manner of seeds and grains and herbs, and one that also includes cucumber. Each maker has a unique, and usually secret, formula.
Good gin doesn’t put this stuff in the still; they pass the vapors over the botanicals to pick up only the aromatic flavor notes.
Good gin is more about scent than flavor. It’s in the nose where all this care comes alive.
Which brings me to the martini.
Martinis are not vodka. I’m gonna say this one again. You say “Martini” you mean gin. Vodka is the modifier. But what’s the point in a vodka martini? I like Vodka. It’s good served absolutely ice-cold in a shot glass, Russian style. But there’s not a lot to it. The martini is not about the mixer; it’s not about vermouth. Today we make martinis dry, very dry, extra-extra dry, bone dry. We don’t make martinis like the original, which was something like three parts gin to one part vermouth, often part dry and part sweet vermouth. Today we run on the idea that you want as little vermouth as possible in your drink. Bartenders will swirl it in the glass or shaker and dump it out, or use a shpritzer to mist the glass; or there’s old Winston’s recipe which included three parts gin and a bow in the direction of France.
So what’s the point in mixing a drink that’s designed around the delicate, aromatic character of gin, with vodka?
The martini is a drink with so much history. So much ambiance. You say “martinis” you have an image of certain lifestyles and times and places; of 1960’s cool, rat pack, Vegas. Of old sit-com people from shows like “Bewitched” sipping cocktails after work. Then there’s the flip side, the class-in-the-midst-of-squalor. Trapper John in Mash (The movie, not the show) saying “Yeah but without olives, a martini just doesn’t quite make it.”
I started to drink martinis as a cool-guy hipster thing. None of my friends drank martinis, they were all still working on shots and beers or cheap wine. I started ordering these classy grown-up cocktails because it sounded cool to me to say “Bombay martini, very dry, two olives.”
But I drink them now simply because I adore good gin. There are, finally, several really good, top-shelf gins available. Forget Tanqueray
, it’s crap. Bombay is your best known top shelf gin; don’t bother with the Sapphire, it’s stronger but no better (though the bottle’s pretty). Bombay is still my fall-back. But there are better gins. My recent favorite has been Junipero, a craft-made gin from Anchor Distilling, the same people who make Anchor Steam Beer. It’s not a delicate, subtle gin, it’s big and bold with intense flavors. It leaps out at you. Part of the reason I like this gin is that it’s local. Though lately I’ve taken more to subtler gins. Plymouth is great favorite for it’s understated, classic quality. I’ve recently found a new favorite; Hendrick’s. Distilled in Scotland, not a place one associates with gin, it is uniquely flavored with cucumber as well as the usual witches brew of botanicals.
Whatever the gin, though, it’s always dry; I’m ok with the true bone-dry Winston martini, or with the other minimalist variants. I’m a big fan of the Gibson, a martini with an onion replacing the olive. Forget the twist idea, who decided that was right?
Of late there’s a trend to call anything in a martini glass a martini. It’s a load of crap. A martini is a very specific drink. Chocolate martini? Fuck it, it’s a chocolate something, and maybe something good. But it ain’t a martini. They got it right with the cosmo; they could have called it cranberry martini but they didn’t. If it isn’t gin or vodka and pretty much just gin or vodka, it isn’t a damned martini.
So now, I’m going to contradict myself. Up until here, I’m a purist. There’s one way; it’s gin, it’s all about the gin, it’s just the gin.
But I was recently corrupted. I blame my friend Harley for this. He’s a barkeep by trade and a truly fine human being; he lives to make people happy, has a nearly unlimited capacity for beer, and is a damned good guy to hang with. But he did it to me.
“What are you drinking?”
“I could go for a martini”
“Right, I know, you’re a gin man, up, extra dry.”
“You got it.”
“Any… Dirtyness to that?”
“Ah, sure, what the fuck.”
A dirty martini is a martini, prepared as usual, with a dash of olive brine. Now, this sounded plain nasty to me when I first heard it, I’m not sure why. But Harley made me one such, and I was a convert.
My friend Andie made it worse. She likes ’em dirty. Extra dirty. “There’s no such thing as too dirty,” she said, bless her heart. And I found I liked ’em the same way. Filthy dirty. We order Filthy martinis now when we go out.
Where’s my purist heart now? Oh, I have fallen. But damn, a filthy, dirty martini does satisfy. I don’t even use vermouth now, what’s the point when you’re going to drown it in brine?
But I’m still a foodie. I’m still a gourmet, a geek. Because now I’ve found that nothing makes a dirty martini like brine from Miss Scarlett’s olives.
I’m still not going with the vodka martini. I just can’t do it, not even dirty. I’m a gin purist still. But I guess I’m a little less pure than I used to be.
Now, don’t mind me, I’m going to go over and ‘host’ someone, as Ms. Parker might say.