Death of the Martini?

“I'd like a dry martini, Mr. Quoc, a very dry martini. A very dry, arid, barren, desiccated, veritable dustbowl of a Martini. I want a Martini that could be declared a disaster area. Mix me just such a Martini.”- Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H 

I sat uncharacteristically quiet at the bar of a brand-new restaurant in San Jose, California, taking in the scent of new polyurethane on the bar and fresh paint on the walls, admiring the gleam of surfaces that would become dull and worn all too soon. It was a new steakhouse and, despite most steakhouses being wastelands of culinary originality and creativity, my carnivore urges were calling. The portions are insane and no vegetable “side” is served without being violated in some way, but I must respect a place that focuses so purely on flesh.

I was also after a cocktail; a Martini, to be exact. It is the iconic, quintessential cocktail. Just the shape of the glass sculpted in neon is enough to signal where cocktails are being served.

I've never quite understood why Martinis and steaks go together so well. Perhaps because each is a celebration of a single “master” ingredient enhanced only by extreme temperature and a dash of other ingredients to hone and enhance that core flavor. In the case of beef, a bit of salt, pepper and the right combination of high and low heat to create a scarcely-cooked collagen-softened interior and a complex, crusty, charred exterior; the perfect marriage of raw and cooked. Likewise, a Martini is Gin or Vodka (a much bigger discussion), vermouth, and a dash or two of bitters.  That combination of minimal ingredients, like salt and pepper on a steak, don't need to be present in abundant quantities, but they do need to be present.

I ordered a Martini made with Ketel One vodka. The bartender poured what seemed like 11 ounces of vodka into a cocktail shaker, filled with ice, capped it, shook it for a whopping third of a second, then removed an enormous Martini glass from a freezer and poured my “Martini” into it. I'd been in the restaurant for all of 4 minutes, and already two things had gone terribly wrong.

First of all, the only universally-agreed upon ingredient in a Martini is cold. Shaking alcohol from a room-temperature bottle (outside of the Ice Hotels) for anything less than 5 seconds in ice will not lower the temperature sufficiently nor dilute the spirit adequately. Some claim Martinis are best made in sterling silver cocktail shakers “because silver is a good conductor of heat”. This is a ludicrous theory given that the ice is providing the cold from the inside and a good conductor of heat simply means your hands are warming the shaker. Knowing little about physics, I still know that cold is not leaving the shaker, heat is entering it. However, because of that heat transfer, silver also conveniently and coincidentally tells you when the Martini is ready by becoming too cold to handle. Silver also manages to develop frost on the outside while stainless usually just gathers condensation. Regardless of the material used, he needed to shake that drink longer. Much longer.

Secondly, he didn't put any Vermouth in the shaker or in the glass. Vermouth wasn't even involved, discussed, or mentioned. Somehow, this single ingredient has been gradually reduced to the point of extinction. Having omitted one of the only two (or three) tangible ingredients from a delicate, century-old recipe, one can hardly consider it the same thing.

In the glass before me, fresh from the freezer, was a bowl of vodka, served with a bit of flair and a pair of skewered olives. He stood with his hands on his hips and gave a slight nod to acknowledge that the ceremony was over. Unfortunately, I then had to ask him where the hell my Martini was. He seemed puzzled.

“What you have there is four shots of lightly chilled vodka which is hardly a ‘cocktail’.”

To his credit and despite his youth, he instantly understood what I meant. The twin-decade gap in our ages was quickly bridged by our mutual understanding that a cocktail is the careful blending of several ingredients, not the preponderance of a single one. Then, he said something that terrified me.

“So many people these days like a really dry Martini. In fact, the official recipe for a Morton's Martini calls for no vermouth.” I nearly fell out of my chair.

My first awareness that Martinis existed was on the show M*A*S*H and their in-tent distiller. Thinking back, what they made was unlikely to resemble gin but may have been closer to vodka. Regardless, it was the ceremony surrounding it and their constant quest for the “driest” Martini possible (though I had no idea what that meant at the time.)

I'm not sure if MASH was somehow to blame or if bartenders simply got lazy or the drinking public became indifferent, but somewhere along the line, the goal has become to put as little vermouth as possible in a Martini while still retaining its “cocktail” status. This generated such useless products as vermouth spray misters and silly (and messy) procedures like swirling Vermouth in the glass and discarding the rest (often, in a restaurant, on the floor.) I'll grant that the original recipe (something like 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth) was a tad heavy, but I'm a firm believer that a good recipe is born out of thoughtful testing and consideration, not stumbled upon. Something just short of magic happens when the balance between vodka or gin and vermouth is achieved with bitters stepping in to add that extra level of complexity. Done correctly, the individual ingredients cease to exist and a new substance created.

How am I to proceed then? Will I forever need to watch every single bartender to make sure they have some concept of what makes a Martini? I suspect that, despite the revival of “pre-prohibition” cocktails, there is no guarantee that the person crafting my Martini isn't just throwing booze in a glass, and that is a shame.


R-Co said…
Vodka has become a trendy liquor in the past few years and it has also become the default liquor for a martini. But there's a reason James Bond always ordered a "vodka martini" -- to differentiate it from a regular martini, which is made with gin. But nowadays you have to tell the bartender you want gin or they automatically pour vodka.

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