Until my upcoming book Drinks: A User’s Guide is officially released on Sept. 20, I’ll be previewing some tips, lessons and other bits of boozy knowhow contained therein. Am I trying to persuade you to preorder? You bet I am. Voilà some links to purchase Drinks through Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada; and if you live in Canada and aren’t into the whole Amazon thing, how about McNally Robinson?
People ask me why I stir a martini as opposed to shaking it, and the answer is simple: clarity. If you shake a cocktail, you end up with little bits of broken ice stuck in it. These cause cloudiness, and more tragically, they will quickly melt and dilute the drink. The person making the martini will have a difficult time taking this into account. The result: A minute or two after being served, the ice melts, and darn it all, your shaken martini is too watery.
Stirring, on the other hand, leads to a cocktail that won’t dilute any further once it’s poured into a glass. And it will remain transparent as a mountain stream every step of the way.
Clarity is the martini’s job. A well-made martini is clean and elegant like a Japanese sword; you might not even mind so much if it were the last thing you saw because it is such a beautiful way to die.
And it’s fitting that a martini ought to be clear as glass because culturally speaking, we use it as an empty vessel. It’s the generic cocktail in Western symbology, a blankness onto which we project countless ideas and aspirations. The martini is above all not just a cocktail, it’s a symbol for what cocktails mean. In the book Martini: Straight Up, the academic Lowell Edmunds enumerated a litany of messages that we’re all crystal clear about even if we never openly express them: The martini is sophisticated. It is optimistic. It is a drink of the past (and somehow always was a drink of the past). It stands for urban life, devil-may-care abandon, glamour. And unless the person holding it is James Bond — who was dead wrong about the whole matter of shaking versus stirring, you’ll note — the martini stands for Americanness.
Many people have a general familiarity with the idea of a martini without knowing what one tastes like. When they take that virgin sip, they discover that the martini is not just one of the best known cocktails, it’s also one of the least forgiving. The standard reaction is a recoil and a grimace. “It’s all booze!” the poor novice exclaims. (And what did you expect?)
But all of this is more useful to the screenwriter or novelist than it is to the drinker. Aren’t we concerned about the practical applications here? What is a martini really for?
Once again the answer is clarity. The martini is not softened by any sweetness — there’s no sweet vermouth, as in a Manhattan. Nor is there sugar, as in an old fashioned. So the first sip hits you like a cold block of ice to the face. Feeling clear yet? Science has yet to furnish us with a more efficient way to signal to your body that you mean to get down to serious business. It doesn’t matter what kind of business — flirting, sex, danger, or maybe actual, literal business — the martini will prepare you. Normally I pooh-pooh the notion that different alcoholic drinks affect the body in different ways, but I don’t know of any other cocktail that actually increases alertness like the martini seems to do.
Well, the first one does, anyway. Dorothy Parker had a terrific ditty about that:
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
Before we go further, we have to run over some definitions to make sure everyone’s absolutely clear on what we’re talking about when we discuss the martini.
A martini consists of gin and vermouth, is stirred until ice cold, and may contain orange bitters. Several garnishes are permitted, including an olive, lemon twist or pickled cocktail onion. You can draw an olive if you’re just doodling; I admit it looks better. But try a martini with a lemon twist and one with an olive and see which one actually tastes better. I’m willing to bet most of you end up on Team Lemon.
There is such thing as a vodka martini. But I mean, feh. It’s just cold ethanol in a glass. Tasteless. It’s like a chicken burger compared to the gin martini’s cheeseburger: second-best and everyone knows it.
All of which is to say this formula, my personal formula, is one of many possible “right” ways to make a martini. Use it as a starting point.
Recipe for a wet, correct martini
• 2 oz. quality gin
• generous 1/2 oz. of fresh dry vermouth, or more, to taste
• 1-2 dashes orange bitters
• lemon and vegetable peeler, to make a twist
Method: Fill a mixing glass around halfway with fresh-smelling ice and add the gin and vermouth. Do one dash of orange bitters for now, try two dashes next time around and take note of whether you prefer one or two. Stir until ice cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon peel.
Now, what to do for music? John Coltrane. Done.
Illustration, from the book, by Kagan McLeod.