This truly American cocktail has a cloudy pedigree with plenty of twists
“Here in the South, we don’t hide crazy. We parade it on the porch and give it a cocktail,” said some person of great wisdom and observation whose name, unfortunately, has been lost in history. It was a noble nod to the importance of the truly American front porch.
Another, well-known and well-documented writer had a similar tribute. H.L. Mencken called it “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Mencken, however, was referring to the cocktail, not the porch.
And not just any cocktail, but the truly American martini, which, of course goes quite well with a front porch.
It is true there are few things that have more of a birthright claim on these United States than the humble front porch and the nothing-humble-about-it martini. Though loved around the world, the martini is a true son of Uncle Sam.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was known to love his martinis, even during Prohibition, presented Joseph Stalin his first during the 1943 Tehran conference with Winston Churchill, another martini lover. Also in attendance was Nikita Khrushchev, who later recalled the drink was so strong, he began calling it “America’s lethal weapon.”
With all its refined panache, the martini is a lot like most people whose blue-blood family histories stretch back for years in these United States. Its story is muddled, confused, totally false in places and full of olive-skewered skeletons in the closet.
In a fascinating and thoroughly well-researched article for The Daily Beast, David Wondrich follows an entire timeline for when and where mentions of the martini or martini-like cocktails appear from 1882 until 1898.
The article comes close to debunking all the popular stories of origin, indicating the martini evolved, most likely from the Manhattan, a whiskey and vermouth cocktail that made its appearance in New York in 1874 — made for the woman who eventually gave birth to Winston Churchill.
Murkier than its history, however, is just what makes a correct martini. What gin does one use? How much, if any, vermouth should be added? And finally, the age-old question, shaken or stirred? James Bond may have demanded shaken, but does being a nimble crime fighter and womanizer make one a mixologist?
Mixers from around Southeast Texas are no more in sync than the rest of the world on the making of a perfect martini, but they do agree on the point of making one.
The goal in making a martini is simply creating a “perfectly chilled cocktail made in the right order,” said Corey Petersheim, bartender at Galvez Bar & Grill.
Pasha Morshedi, one of the owners of the Rosewater at 1606 Clear Lake City Blvd., made it equally as simple.
“The ultimate goal is to bring joy and serenity to the person drinking it,” Morshedi said.
After this, the one answer everyone agrees on is there is no one answer.
Take the gin, for example. Certainly much has been written about it, but considering the number of new and different gins on the market these days, finding a perfect one is a challenge.
“I really don’t think there is a best gin for a martini, as long as it’s a well-made gin,” Morshedi said. “My personal preference when I’m ordering a dry martini is classic Beefeater. It’s a classic gin for a reason.”
Daniel Alcocer, supervisor and long-time bartender at The Rooftop Bar in Galveston’s Tremont House, suggests the perfect martini is in the taste of the imbiber.
“Everyone is different, and that goes the same for the gin,” Alcocer said. “Some have more earthy flavor profiles, to others that may be a little sweeter than usual. I always ask.”
Vermouth is the second key ingredient of a martini, yet its use is nearly as controversial as the shaken or stirred question.
Franklin Roosevelt, who hosted a daily “martini hour,” preferred a mixture leaning to more vermouth than gin. Brian Abrams, author of “Party Like a President,” wrote the drink was so bad, White House Counsel Samuel Rosenman routinely dumped his into a potted plant.
Playwright Noël Coward took his mixing in the opposite direction. He claimed a good martini involved “filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.”
“I’ll get dressed up and drink a bucket of frozen gin with anyone,” Morshedi said. “But to me, it’s not a martini just because it’s served in that classic V-shaped glass. It needs vermouth. And while the original martini prototypes in the 19th century may have used Italian-style dark, sweet vermouth, in the modern era it should probably be a bit on the lighter side. Although Martini & Rossi has an amber vermouth that makes a great 50:50 with Bombay Sapphire.”
The kind of vermouth does make a difference, especially when seeking the now-classic dry martini. That generally does better with a French vermouth like Noilly Prat, which is also more bitter than the well-known Italian Martini & Rossi, Morshedi said.
“A quick note on vermouth,” Morshedi said. “It’s pretty widely understood at this point in the world of cocktail and wine bars, but your vermouth needs to be fresh. It’s wine. It should never be stored at room temperature once it’s opened. Always in the fridge. And you should drink it as soon as possible. It absolutely astounds me that there are still bars and restaurants that store their open vermouths on the backbar for who knows how many weeks or, God forbid, months.”
Finally, there is the universal question of how a martini should be prepared — shaken or stirred?
With all due respect to James Bond, the proper name for his shaken martini is a Bradford. That’s not to say he was wrong in his preference, but shaking the cocktail is altering the original drink. Many lovers of the classic martini do not shake.
Romantic writer Somerset Maugham noted: “A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.”
From “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion,” 3rd edition, New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, by Jerry Thomas, who claimed to have invented the martini. This was printed in 1887, a year after the first printed reference to a drink called a martini was made in the Rock Island, Illinois Argus. That drink, however, was made with bitters, gin and a bit of absinthe.
1 dash Boker’s Bitters (a reformulation is available today)
2 dashes maraschino juice
1 pony (1 ounce) Old Tom gin (returned to the market in 2007)
1 wine-glass (2 ounces) vermouth (most likely Italian sweet vermouth)
2 small lumps of ice
Shake up thoroughly, and strain into a large cocktail glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If the guest prefers it very sweet, add two dashes of gum syrup.