Thursday, May 19, 2005

Liquid Lunch (Martini Manifesto)

It was recently asked, "If there's anything you can tell me about martinis that I don't already know, I want to hear it!" Well, Mr. Keefe, I'm afraid I don't know what you know or don't know about martinis, and I certainly have nothing to say about them that hasn't been said somewhere before, but I do love them, and I won't hesitate to prattle on about them if invited.

There are three reasons I like martinis:

  1. I like looking at them. They are certainly the most beautiful drink in existence. I feel no need to argue this point.
  2. I like drinking them. They taste delicious, and they make me feel warm and fuzzy.
  3. I like making them. The ingredients are so simple. The process is so elegant. And the result is so lovely.
The viewing and drinking of martinis is relatively intuitive, so I'll focus on their manufacture.

The booze:
I'll avoid any dogmatic proclamations about the best booze for a martini. Use whatever gin or vodka you like (actually, some purists would deny the existence of a vodka martini, but they're a bunch of blind-drunk gin-hounds so what do they know). I do, of course, have my personal favorites:

Gin: My standby is Beefeaters. It's what my aunt always drinks during our Sunday luncheons so I have a sense of familial loyalty to it. It's also quite tasty. Bombay tastes vaguely like gasoline to me. I tend to avoid the various fancy new varieties (Grey Goose, etc.) out of a perverse sense of reverse-snobbery. I tend to avoid the various cheap gins due to plain old traditional snobbery.

Vodka: I like Stoli. It tastes like vodka and it tastes good. Some of the fancy, ultra-pure vodkas such as Ketel One are too clean for me.
The vermouth:
Skip it for the vodka martini. Add it for the gin. Of course the meaining of the phrase "add it" has different, sometimes conceptually complicated, meanings in this context:

  • Old School - Time was when a martini was up to a third vermouth. Not my cup of tea but there you have it (my dear cousin, George, bless his heart, still tends to make them this way).
  • The Dry Martini - Add a hint, a tiny splash, a capful. Just line the glass (the In-and-Out Martini). There are various degrees and techniques.
  • The Extremely Dry Martini - This is where it gets interesting. The Extremely Dry Martini contains vermouth only in the sense that it actively contains the absence of vermouth. How much vermouth does it contain? An evanescently small amount - infinite parts gin to one part vermouth - less than a molecule - less than a quark - merely wave the vermouth bottle over the shaker - simply bow towards Paris. You get the idea.
All of that being said, I like a little vermouth.

Chilling the booze:
Chilling the booze is certainly the most critical step of the process, and is in essence quite simple (although it is also where bad martinis most frequently go wrong). Combine the booze and ice, and move them around* until everything is as icey as can be, the melted ice has comingled with the booze (a martini isn't actually all liquor although it's close), and a lovely layer of frost has formed on the outside. Pour into a well-chilled glass. Lovely.

Chilling the glass:
And that leads us to the chilling the glass. Fill it with ice to the top. Gently swirl until the glass feels like ice to the touch (this is the second most common place for martinis to go wrong - cold booze in a warm glass is a warm martini).

Some drinks have such a dominant flavor of their own that you can throw any old thing in them and it will hardly make a difference. With martinis though, the ingredients are so simple that the choice of garnish substantially effects the outcome.

Olives: I like olives, and I like olives in martinis. Put 2. Put 3. Put them on a toothpick. Put them on a sword. Pour the olive juice in (a "dirty" martini) until it turns bright green. Do what you desire.

A twist (of lemon): I like twists, and I like twists in martinis. I use to drink martinis with olives and a twist (an "oliver twist"), but have recently migrated to a twist only. Do what you desire. Of course, the twist has it's own lovely little process. The thin sliver of lemon peel is twisted over the surface of drink misting it with a fine spray of the lemon oils. The twist is then run around the rim of the glass, peel side down, to impart the lemon flavor to the rim.**

On the rocks:
Although purists in northern climes might be mortified, a "martini" here in New Orleans is, by default, a martini on the rocks. While certain advantages of the classic martini are lost, in particular the elegant appearance, at least it stays cold for more than two minutes on a hot summer afternoon. Only in recent decades has the "up" martini made significant in-roads here, and that, principally with younger people. When I bartended, if a person of a certain age ordered a martini I would simply serve it on the rocks automatically. Only if they were younger would I ask them to specify.

Chocolate martinis, green apple martinis, etc:
I've never had any of them. I have nothing to say about them. They may be wonderful (although I doubt it), but they do not posess the qualities of a martini that interest me.

The Lillet Martini:
The one true variation that I have had and liked is the Lillet martini (it's got some other name, but I don't know what it is). Lillet is an French apertif which by itself is a tad sweet for my taste, but it makes a wonderful ingredient in a cocktail. The martini is approximately 3 parts vodka to 1 part Lillet (vary the proportion depending on how sweet you like it - I prefer them relatively dry). Garnish with a twist. The result is very pretty - it's the color of a light, white wine - and has a crisp, citrus taste. Excellent for warm weather.

So, mercifully, we reach the end. I've said more then I intended to, and probably more than anyone wanted to hear. My apologies if I've bored you. Be careful what you ask for.

* Of course the precise means of moving the booze and ice is the subject of the well know Shaken vs. Stirred debate. Though I prefer stirring, I will, again, refrain from dogma. Shake if you will, but if you shake, shake it like you're trying to wake a deeply slumbering loved one, not like you're trying to kill a cat. We recently had dinner at restaurant that shall go nameless (although this is their website). The prices were such that everything really needed to be perfect to justify them, and the martini I had before dinner was, sadly, far from perfect. The bartender poured the contents in the shaker and then furiously shook it for the better part of a minute. When he poured the martini out into the glass it was cloudy and full of little ice chunks.

** The bartender who brutalized my martini also screwed up the twist, running it with the inner white side of the peel on the rim and then twisting it - the right steps but done wrong and in the wrong order largely defeating the purpose of the process. I would be more forgiving if I hadn't had to sell one of my children to pay for the damn thing.

Also my slightly tongue-in-cheek submission to Illustration Friday (subject: "Nourishment")


  1. Anonymous11:28 AM

    interesting, well thought-out, informative commentary. and it would be particularly helpful if i enjoyed drinking, which i don't, but your entry almost made me want to :)

  2. If you don't do it already, don't start now.

  3. Thanks for telling me what you know! I know about a quarter as much, meaning that, like your cousin George, I make three-to-one cocktails with gin. The quality of the gin is not terribly important, but the vermouth must be Noilly-Prat Original French Dry.

    A vigorous shaker, I like those little shards of ice when they filter through occasionally. I've never poured a cloudy drink, though.

    Thanks again!

  4. Anonymous6:35 AM

    I hope you know the poem by Ogden Nash?

    There is something about a martini
    A tingle remarkably pleasant
    A yellow, a mellow, martini
    I wish that I had one at present
    There is something about a martini
    Ere the dining and dancing begin
    And to tell you the truth
    It's not the vermouth
    I think that perhaps it's the gin.

    (I'm a gibson drinker myself.) Came here via the Everyday Matters list. Great drawing!

  5. I didn't know it, but I'm glad to have made its acquaintance.

  6. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I've just discovered your blog and have enjoyed laughing alone in my office for the past 30 minutes as I got caught up. Love your ear for overheard bits of conversation and your ability to be short and funny......but I loved the piece about going to New Mexico.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. I know this is late to the party, but I have stepped by to applaud.

    You have the Martini exactly right - except you've not mentioned what is to me one of the definitive attributes of a Martini: its plumpy silkiness.

    This is why we ever so gently move the ice through the gin (and its requisite vermouth), or even the gin through the ice, so that when we pour it ever so gently into the chilled and lightly zested glass it piles before it swirls.

    Tanqueray for me. I've tried many of the more exotic gins, with Hendrick's being the most interesting.

    But then Martinis aren't supposed to be interesting. They're supposed to be Lovely.