Ode to the Martini The Making of an Icon

[07/04/14] 

Maybe you’re a beer drinker, or a wine sipper, but it can never hurt to know your way around both sides of a cocktail bar, and a working understanding of the iconic Martini is where your education should begin.

Never has the world witnessed such a potent symbol of sophistication, elegance, and power as the Martini. And yet to many people, especially the ‘Ale Club’, exactly what is in a Martini is still unknown. We all recognise it as the Dutch courage that kept James Bond spying, the delicate if not potent drink of celebrities in years gone by, and, being that it was sipped from Westminster to the White House, quite possibly the deciding factor in many political decisions. But its potency lies not only in its juniper extraction, but also in its timelessness; as a symbol that has survived while so many have fallen to the ranks of nostalgia.

For those too embarrassed to ask, contemporary Martinis are taken in two forms, their base spirits being either gin or vodka. Then add a dribble of vermouth and a little bit of magic, and you have the cocktail that has had the world glassy-eyed and smiling for decades. Of course, like all symbols that claim celebrity status, things suddenly become so much more complex, and the perfect dimensions, not to mention the ancestry of this elusive substance, are still in heated debate.

“The finest of all cocktails. Subtle, potent, and a wonderful aperitif – it even has good looks.” said Michael Jackson (not the one you’re thinking of) in his classic tome “The Bar & Cocktail Book”. In it, he claims the origins of the Martini lie in the hands of a bartender at New York City’s old Knickerbocker Hotel, who invented the drink for John D. Rockefeller back in 1911. Of course it’s no surprise that an American is attributed with such a discovery, although he does admit that Rockefeller preferred to use sickly sweet French vermouth, rather than the now fundamental dry Italian Martini.

Mixologist Alexander B. Struminger wasn’t so sure about America’s claims to the modern day Martini. He admits that while the US made the Martini famous, there are still claims of its inception from Germany, Italy, France, and of course, England, the home to ‘pompotory’.

“It seems therefore appropriate that the origins are obscured by the horizon of time and the story shrouded in myth and legend.” He concedes, in his book “Martini”, that the cocktail was probably born sickly sweet in Martinez, California in 1870, by a bartender with too much time on his hands. This town, like every in the state, has seized its opportunity for gratuity and claims itself the birthplace of the martini (and forever may it be a place of pilgrimage).

But whatever its origins, the Martini is ever-evolving. Old Tom Gin was replaced with dry London style gins such as Gordon’s or Tanqueray (Bombay sits in a style of its own), and Martini and Rossi extra dry became synonymous with the modern day ‘silver bullet’. Olives, lemon twists, cocktail onions, even jalapenos found themselves drenched in this socially rationalised inclination. The Martini became the Vodkatini, the Cosmopolitan, Dessert Martinis, Saketinis, Tequilatinis, and the Manhattan. Now, with small batch gin and vodka distillation en vogue, bartenders will continue to present new and exciting variations on the theme.

Everyone has their way of drinking this little piece of history, and none more so than Agent 007, James Bond. “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well made. I don’t like small portions of anything” says Bond in Casino Royal.

Whichever way you like your Martini - shaken, stirred, sweet or neat - the Martini will forever have a place in society, where sociality, politics, and sophistication can be summed into one 2oz. V-shaped glass, with a twist of ripe charisma.


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