Stirrings of a Better Martini

Tiffany Short concocts martinis at the Gibson with equal parts gin and vermouth.
Tiffany Short concocts martinis at the Gibson with equal parts gin and vermouth. (Photo by Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"The martini evolves," says cocktail historian David Wondrich. "It has evolved since it was born." Sadly, it has become stunted and mutated in recent decades, and so to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, perhaps it's best to go back to the beginning and start the evolution all over again.

If the era of American exceptionalism truly is coming to a close, I sincerely hope the postwar-era dry martini goes with it. The Greatest Generation was great for many reasons. But can we finally, at long last, be honest about one crucial thing? That generation's taste in martinis is awful.

Does any cocktail invite more bloviation than the Very Dry Martini? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how you take your martini, Gramps: no vermouth. I should just whisper the word "vermouth" while I mix it? Never heard that one before!

"That generation was really aggressive at working the macho angle," Wondrich says. "People were afraid to say that they liked vermouth in their drink" because of the light sweetness it added. Thus the rise of martinis with a gin-vermouth ratio ranging from 7 to 1 all the way up to 15 to 1.

Robert Hess, who blogs at the popular DrinkBoy.com, suggests looking closely at those mid-20th-century luminaries who championed a nearly vermouth-free martini, such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and Humphrey Bogart. "The authors of many of these convoluted methodologies were borderline, if not full-blown, alcoholics. . . . They knew exactly how to best increase the amount of personal alcohol consumption," he writes in a recent article for Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail.

Bernard DeVoto (the crotchety mid-century columnist for Harper's) declared a dry martini the "supreme American gift to world culture." DeVoto also made a lot of sillier declarations, including assertions that there "are only two cocktails": a dry martini and a "slug of whiskey"; and that the Manhattan is "an offense against piety" and that any man who drinks one has "no spiritual dignity." Well, at least no one reads him anymore.

Come to think of it, in nearly every realm of art and culture, the grumpy old white male has been excised from the canon, except when it comes to cocktails and the Very Dry Martini. I still get e-mails from readers who suggest that vermouth is the handiwork of the devil. Well, I say we've been bullied far too long into believing there's only one way to make a martini, and that way is Very Dry. "It's pretty much undrinkable," Wondrich says. "It's not a pleasant drink. It's no wonder people turned to vodka."

Which brings me to this animal called a vodka martini. I hate to break it to you, but there simply is no such thing. The martini certainly is more a broad concept than a specific recipe, but there must be two constants: gin and vermouth. Beyond correctness, vodka and vermouth are just a terrible match. So call that drink whatever you'd like, but please don't call it a martini.

"James Bond did a lot of damage to martinis. He is the one who introduced vodka into the martini," says Philip Greene, an ambassador for the Museum of the American Cocktail who is based in Chevy Chase.

Ian Fleming's spy also introduced the ridiculous concept of shaking, not stirring, a martini. Look, I don't care how good Daniel Craig looks in his square-cut Speedo or whether you think Pierce Brosnan was a travesty, especially after the glory days of Sean Connery: A martini should be stirred. That's the only way you can achieve that silky-smooth texture (and its dry-martini clearness). In his classic 1948 bar guide, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," David A. Embury has a terse footnote: "If you shake the Martini, it becomes a Bradford."

Still, the idea of shaking never goes away. Every now and then, a decade-old study published in the British Medical Journal gets unearthed; that study suggests that a shaken martini provides more antioxidants than a stirred martini and therefore is more healthful. Okay, great. But really, who's drinking a martini to be healthy? If that's your concern, have a blueberry smoothie before dinner.

Because change is in the air, here's an idea: Let's put to rest both the mid-20th-century Very Dry Martini and the vodka martini. Let's pass a resolution stipulating that every dry martini should consist of a gin-vermouth ratio of at most 4 to 1 (okay, 5 to 1 in some cases) and offering incentives for those that move closer to 2 to 1 or equal parts. (Even DeVoto advocated a 3.7-to-1 ratio). And while we're at it, let's sign an executive order banning the torturous jokes about vermouth.

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