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Friday Cocktail Blogging: The Martini Debate

with 19 comments

A cold one....

“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.”

— Dorothy Parker

Till a couple of years ago, when I was a poor graduate student, alcohol (the drinkable variety) was just alcohol – didn’t really matter what variety it came in: cheap, or preferably free with the fewest strings attached, and simply getting drunk was all that counted.

Martinis belonged to a separate planet. It was something James Bond sipped while impressing all those sexy women, and cost near about a dinner meal to order. I remember the first experience trying to order a Martini in the snappy Bond-ish style, but messing up as the bartender kept asking me all these questions about what brand of liquor etc till I was reduced to a blabbering slob. And then I didn’t even really like the drink that much !

Thanks to a better pay-check, strong personal interest in the art of mixology, and experimentation with many bottles of gin and vermouth, I am in a much better position today to appreciate the drink. Not only can I order without making a fool of myself, but I can fix Martinis (and quite a few cocktails) at home much better than many professional bartenders. Note that in enjoying your Martini, and I will stress this again later, ‘better’ often depends on your taste. Still, some bartenders mix the drink in manners that are Not Done. But I digress.

This sophistication has also meant that I now need to have a Position in the Martini Debate, namely what constitutes Martini ingredients, ‘vodka or gin’, how ‘dry’ and ‘shaken or stirred’ ? I have touched on this briefly before, but here is a more detailed analysis.

Ingredients: I am a purist (or, depending on which way you look at it, a snob) and insist that anything outside of gin, vermouth, perhaps bitters and garnishing, cannot constitute a martini. All those colorful drinks with fruit-juices and tropical rain forests hanging out that are part of a ‘martini menu’ just because they are served in Martini glasses, are simply cocktails, not Martinis. Period.

Vodka or gin: Gin – see above. Vodka martinis, supposedly popularized by Ian Fleming through James Bond, should be called vodkatinis. Case closed.

Dryness: This is where there is flexibility depending on personal taste. Dryness, which depends on the amount of vermouth used with less corresponding to dryer, is a slightly misleading term. Vermouth is an aromatic wine, and as such adds sweetness to the drink. So a dryer Martini will have less sweetness imparted from the vermouth.

The quest for dryness in Martini is stuff of legends and apocryphal stories. Sir Winston Churchill, perhaps the most famous of Martini-lovers apparently simply looked at France (or across the room, depending on the version of the story) – the birthplace of vermouth while mixing his martini.

‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, the sardonic surgeon from M.A.S.H, while not brewing the stuff in his tent was always in the quest for the driest of all Martinis: “I’d like a dry martini, Mr. Quoc, a very dry martini. A very dry, arid, barren, desiccated, veritable dustbowl of a martini. I want a martini that could be declared a disaster area. Mix me just such a martini.” he said.

The way I prefer it, I fill up roughly quarter of the vermouth bottle cap, add it to the glass portion of a shaker filled with ice. Swirl a bit so that the vermouth mixes with the ice and coats the inner surface of the glass and drain away the rest.

Shaken vs Stirred: Another one that can be debated endlessly and as one web-site calls it, a question on the theological level. Shaking the gin/vermouth mix with ice obviously cools it much faster than gentle stirring. Proponents of stirring however (the ‘Bond got it all wrong’ camp) are fond of saying that shaking causes the gin to ‘bruise’. What that means is anyone’s guess – because I am not sure the gin’s feelings are being hurt either way. Somerset Maugham, another famous Martini-lover, apparently made this intriguing statement on the topic: “Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other”. Maugham’s way with words is unparalleled, but I am not sure how sound this statement was chemically. However, shaking does introduce fine chips of ice and tiny air bubbles into the drink. The ice-chips cause dilution of the drink with water which affects taste. The bubbles make the drink look cloudy, not an aesthetically pleasing outcome and according to some, screws the taste as well.

Personally, I prefer stirred. Its not a big difference, but overall seems to provide a more pleasing sensory experience.

Garnishing: They can range from one to three olives to onions to lemon twists. Some people also prefer a splash of olive juice (making it a dirty Martini) to make the drink saltier. I personally frown on the practice, and prefer two olives.

Lost in these debates is the most important factor, and I have noticed it is often missed even at regular bars, that is to make sure that the drink is cold, cold and cold. Warmth kills the taste of the martini. I really get irritated when they forget this basic principle at bars (happened just this week at a fairly classy restaurant). While some people actually keep their gin in the freezer, it is not necessary as long as you pre-chill your glass (by keeping it in a freezer or filling with ice and soda) and properly mix the drink in ice. Speaking of ice, always use good quality – not the ice that has been lying in your freezer for the last few years under the fish and the pile of steaks you forgot to cook. If possible fresh ice made with filtered water. You could go overboard and use bottled water for making ice – but unnecessary.

Hopefully, armed with these tools, you will be able to pass yourself as a snobbish sophisticated man/woman about the town while ordering a Martini, or making one for your guests. Not to mention enjoying the cold one at the end of the week at home.

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Also of interest, a New York Times article on Martini tasting – they talk of similar gin-snobbery, and this helpful FAQ on Martinis.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

May 4, 2007 at 11:03 am

Posted in Martinis

Tagged with , , , ,