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Stirrings of a Better Martini

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.

Then, let's revisit what the martini was like before Prohibition.

In the beginning, there was a lot of vermouth in a martini. In fact, it was sweet vermouth from Italy. The Martini brand of sweet vermouth (now marketed in the United States as Martini & Rossi) had been available since at least the early 1860s. There's a lot of debate in cocktail-geek circles about the origin of the martini. Here's my two cents' worth: It probably came about because people called for a specific brand of vermouth -- Martini -- to mix with their gin. Probably no different from the way people order a "Ketel One martini" or "Maker's Mark Manhattan" at a bar today.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the martini and its cousins the Martine, the Martinez, the Turf Club and the Fourth Degree were basically differing ratios of gin and vermouth, with numerous variations of dashing in bitters (orange or aromatic), sugar syrup, curacao, maraschino or even absinthe. And the gin was different. The predominant martini ingredient was Old Tom, a brand of sweetened gin.

In the 1900s, there was a turn toward dry vermouth and dry martinis, and that is the first time we see "dry" becoming a code word for sophistication. In "Imbibe!," his history of early American cocktails, Wondrich quotes from an 1897 newspaper interview with a New York bartender: "When a customer comes in and orders a sweet drink . . . I know at once he's from the country."

During Prohibition, of course, the martini took a bad turn. Vermouth from Europe became scarce, as did certain liqueurs, bitters and Old Tom Gin, and people started going for maximum alcohol. "Who was bootlegging vermouth?" says Wondrich. But there was plenty of gin: You could make it in your bathtub.

Today, we are lucky that many of the original 19th-century ingredients have been resurrected. Hayman's Distillers, for instance, has reintroduced Old Tom gin to the United States, its first appearance here in nearly a century. Several brands of orange and aromatic bitters are widely available. I would encourage drinkers to try a martini with Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, with a dash of bitters.

Many high-quality gins have come on the market in recent years. One of my new favorites is G'Vine Nouaison, a gin distilled in Cognac, France, with a botanical formula that includes green grape flowers. This is the second effort from G'Vine, and while the first had a more gentle, floral character, this one has a real juniper kick that is delicious, especially in a sort of French martini that substitutes Lillet Blanc for dry vermouth.

And there have been big recent developments in the world of vermouth. For one, the gold-standard dry vermouth Noilly Prat has a new recipe. Actually, the company has gone back to selling its original European recipe here; the Noilly Prat we enjoyed for years was a special recipe for Americans. I like the European-style Noilly Prat, which is more viscous and has more-pronounced floral and citrus notes. But of course this change has been a lightning rod for criticism. The conservative Wall Street Journal actually called the new-recipe Noilly Prat "evil" and a "fussy impostor" and termed a martini made with it "a mess." I completely disagree; it's just more of that Very Dry Martini bullying.

Derek Brown at the Gibson, a new speak-easy on U Street NW, is an advocate of the newly available Dolin vermouth, a high-end line from France (retailing for $18, as opposed to $9 for Noilly Prat or Martini & Rossi). In making his dry martinis, Brown goes for a 1-to-1 ratio of dry gin to Dolin dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters and a lemon twist. It might seem a tall order to win over Americans who grew up listening to Granddad warn them away from vermouth, but Brown says: "I've been pretty impressed with the number of people I've seen making the switch. When people finally experience a martini with unique and artisanal ingredients, it makes a world of difference."

He also has been using the newly available Old Tom and has resurrected the Martinez. Yet while Brown has nailed the historical accuracy, he also insists that the martini is not a historical document. "It's intellectually interesting," he says. "But on a certain level, who cares? Does it or does it not make a good cocktail?"

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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