Stuff you’ll learn from my book: James Bond is wrong. Here’s why you stir a martini, never shake

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 UKAmazon Canada; and if you live in Canada and aren’t into the whole Amazon thing, how about McNally Robinson

9780143111269People 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.

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Some easy drinks for New Year’s Eve

champagne-cup1

With New Year’s approaching, I’m already getting the annual round of requests over social media asking me to suggest drinks to prepare for friends and family (and foes?) over the holidays.

Here are some suggestions from years past, which still works this year … and will work next year, and the year after …

First, a big thingy of champagne cup (pictured) never fails. People love it; I think what grabs them is the beguiling hint of Grand Marnier and maraschino. Here’s the old Savoy Hotel recipe, lightly tweaked and modernized.

Champagne cup is terrific for cheapskates because you end up producing a lot of liquid for not a lot of money. As a general rule, cups (which are light punches) and cocktails are clever ways to stretch sparkling wine. Fix the hordes in your house a round of champagne cocktails, perhaps? Or how about one of these beauties? I’ve tested and proven all of these on actual human guests and they have no idea I’m just being economical.

About a year ago, meanwhile, I did a segment for The Social about holiday punches; while fun overall, the setup was a massive pain in the ass — you should have seen my kitchen at the end of prepping what seemed like 20 litres of punch to lug to the studio. Please do have a look, and make use of the recipes, so that the hassle was not in vain. Making vintage punch is simpler than you think, I promise. (Just don’t repeat my mistake and make four different ones in one day.)

Finally, the best stupidly easy winter cocktail is the powerful and minty-fresh action of a stinger. Official.

Update: Here’s my latest National Post column, which has more tips for entertaining on the cheap, including making a round of sparkling, tasty seelbach cocktails and jugloads of cheap-but-good Italian wine.

See you in 2016. Now leave me alone!

Drink sherry.

sherrySM

About once a year, I write a column in which I argue for the revival of sherry, which is probably not what you think it is, if indeed you ever think about it at all.

My excuse this time? Thanks to Talia Baiocchi, there’s a new book to serve as your guide to the surprisingly exciting world of one of the least-understood wines around. As she puts it, a wine “so misunderstood that one wonders whether it was the victim of an elaborate smear campaign involving all of the grandmas, everywhere.” I dare you to ignore the whole misguided sherry-is-for-grandmas notion and just try it.

A wine critic fights back.

So this past weekend I wrote a story about the limits of wine criticism for the National Post.

I received the following email from a wine critic whose name you’d likely recognize. I have decided not to identify the author.

Andy [sic] – You entered into this article with a clear bias against wine criticism and sucked and sculpted every supporting quote out of any willing wine critic you could find (and not the best in the land either except for Szabo). You were smart enough to give Szabo the only valid counter-point, but only on the superfluous issue of wine descriptors. C’mon man up; dare you and the Post to publish an article quoting bona fide, highly experienced and honest critics who make their living at this and who have saved thousands of Canadians millions of dollars by bringing true obejctivity, based on massive tasting experience, to their profession.  We are not all HappyHour/lifestyle columnists …

My response:

Dear [redacted],

You’re absolutely wrong about me bringing any bias to this story, first off.

As for your suggestion about a follow-up story, I’m not likely to get the Post to run one anytime soon. But if you really think your combination of insults and arrogance is persuasive — rather than characteristic of the sort of attitude that turns millions of Canadians off wine altogether, or at least makes them too timid to express opinions about it  — then by all means write to [letters at nationalpost dot com] and make your case.

Regards,

Adam (not Andy) McDowell

My ebook will tell you how to make cocktails (updated with links to buy)

On Dec. 4, my first e-book will be released.

UPDATE: Here’s where to buy it:

iTunes
Kobo
Amazon
Google
Barnes & Noble
OverDrive

Drink Different: A Refreshing Guide to Home Mixology is based on my columns in the National Post, but I rewrote stuff and added to it so that it functions as a primer on making cocktails at home. That’s fun and easier than you might think.

As a teaser, you can read the first chapter here.

Anyway, if you have a thirst, a thirst for knowledge, and an e-reader …

I told the Americans what to drink in Toronto

Imbibe is a quality magazine about drinks based in Portland, Ore.; in my opinion, it’s the most important publication on the subject of drinks that are not wine. Why? Because if you’re a good bartender or booze geek in North America, it’s how you keep on top of the trends, simple as that.

In the current issue, my Destination Toronto piece talks about the great things that have been happening for cocktail and beer drinkers in this burg over the past couple of years. I’m pretty proud of us, so it was really gratifying to do the story. Pick the issue up if you see it! There’s other great stuff in there, including a DIY spiced rum recipe that I plan to make very soon.

Buy Sharp’s Book for Men! (Scotchey Scotch Scotch)

Do you like Scotch? Do you think you would enjoy reading a tantalizing tale of one man’s whirlwind tour around Scotland to drink crazy delicious whisky, complete with an explanation of what it is and how it’s made? Scotchey Scotch Scotch?

Then pick up the fall/winter edition of Sharp’s Book for Men. No, you can’t read my piece online. But if you buy a copy, you’ll also learn about knifes and tuxedos and watches and stuff like that.