Cocktail mixologist Dale DeGroff, hailed by The New York Times as “one of the world’s foremost cocktail experts,” along with restaurateur Francis Schott and Hendrick’s Gin ambassador for the Eastern region of the U.S., Erik Andersson, recently hosted a small martini symposium at Burwell’s Stonefire Grill. Over samples of the various forms the martini has taken in its 100+ year history, DeGroff and Schott gave a comprehensive overview of the formidable drink’s beginnings, cultural significance, and serviceability.
I chatted with restaurant manager Jason Davis of Columbia’s Bone-In Barbeque as we sipped our murky amber cocktails, made with a Hendrick’s smoky Orbium Gin (containing extracts of quinine, wormwood, and lotus blossom), and finished with a brandy cherry.
“I come for the networking,” says Davis, as the seasoned restaurant crowd slowly filters in.
It seems Rue de Jean bartender Michael Moore already knows the secret of a great martini. “You’re never supposed to shake a martini. When you shake it, you bruise it.” Apparently, James Bond had it wrong all along.
According to Schott, the first time we see a cocktail going by the name of the martini is in 1888. It was featured in Harry Johnson’s “New and Improved Bartender’s Manual” and was made with Old Tom Gin, vermouth, simple syrup, Boker’s bitters, and orange curacao. From there it has only evolved as a star in the universe of iconic cultural references. Indeed, its evolution tracks with its depiction in literature and film.
There was H.L Mencken, American journalist, essayist, satirist, and cultural critic, who famously declared: “Martinis are the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.”
And Hemingway, who in A Farewell to Arms rhapsodized “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean … they made me feel civilized.” Then there was Bond, who, Moore suggests, took his martini shaken so he could keep his wits about him. That was during the 1960s when, as Francis and Schott remind us, the three martini lunch at the Four Seasons became an emblem of New York City business culture a la Mad Men.
With its rise in prominence, perhaps it was only fated that the martini would become a mockery of itself. Its popularity ushered in the era of the Appletini, the Flirtini, the Lycheetini, and any other “tini” you are bound to find at your neighborhood Outback Steakhouse. It was that moment in the late 1990s where everything, as Schott notes, “with alcohol and a juice modifier was called a Martini.”
Then, of course, there came Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big, and martinis, with a lot of help from the Cosmopolitan, became de rigeur for any sleek New York sophisticate. Since then, every bartender worth their salt, says Francis, must know how to make a proper martini. Why is this at all important? Schott says it’s because “context matters.”
The context is interesting, at least. Like the fact that the progenitor of the martini, as we learn on our round the world tour of the cocktail, was actually the Manhattan.
In the mid 1800s, Americans had been importing beaucoup amounts of French vermouth into New Orleans — the vermouth cocktail was simply vermouth with ice. Understandably, bartenders decided what the cocktail really needed was a “stick in the vermouth,” to use bartender parlance. At that time whiskey was substituted for gin. But with the arrival of the 20th century, sweet drinks had become passé and the marketplace was looking for a dry cocktail.
America’s love affair with the martini really took hold with the publication, in 1905, of Charles S. Mahoney’s “Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide.” That version was mixed with gin, varying proportions of vermouth, and finished with orange bitters, served in a 4-ounce coupe glass. From there, cocktail makers and average Americans began personalizing the drink, garnished with an olive here, with a pearl onion there (a.k.a. a Gibson). And by the 1960s, vodka would surpass gin as the foundation of the martini.
“A good cocktail is a story,” says Schott, and today, this classic is experiencing a resurgence of interest in a world gone mad for craft cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients, mottled, bruised, and complex. It represents a return to basics, a nostalgia, perhaps, for simpler times and simpler drinks.
For at-home bartenders, Schott says that glassware is as essential to a good Martini as fresh vermouth. He suggests the elongated spout of a tall glass pitcher for maximum enjoyment at home. And don’t leave your vermouth to collect dust. It should be served fresh, within the first couple of months of purchase. And remember, whatever you do, make it stirred, not shaken, unless you want a watered down version of a true American original.