“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”–F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
For many people, the spring is defined by the thundering hoofbeat of the Mint Julep; summer equals the sharp and sweet citrus snap of the Mojito; autumn leaves are reflected in the orange, gold, and maraschino red hues of the Old Fashioned; and winter is incomplete without the stomach coating warmth of Egg Nog. Each season, I embrace all these drinks like friends long gone met again unexpectedly, but with tenderest affection.
But there is a drink that, like Sir Thomas More, is the drink of all seasons, the drink that is synonymous with cocktails, the drink of dissipates, socialites, detectives, authors, actors, and collected zanies, and that drink is THE MARTINI. To paraphrase another American literary icon, if god were a cocktail, he’d be a Martini.
To begin with, let me make this perfectly clear: if it’s not made with gin, it ain’t a fucking Martini, with all due apologies to lovers of grammar and haters of blue language. Contrary to popular apocrypha, Martinis are not made from vodka. A cocktail made from vodka and vermouth (usually offered a soupcon of olive brine) is called a Kangaroo–look it up if you don’t believe me. I really don’t care if people prefer vodka in their martinis to gin–the general populace also prefers McDonald’s hamburgers replete with pink slime to lovingly home-ground beef, perfectly seasoned and grilled to perfection, and I feel little but contempt for humanity at large. But a real Martini, shaken into icy submission, with just a bat squeak (thank you, Evelyn Waugh) of brine, is a truly ambrosial experience.
So, the question is, what kind of gin should be used in a Martini? Gin is derived from the Dutch jenever, and is a spirit derived primarily from the juniper berry. Many other botanicals are added to the spirit, all of which add to the complexity, perfume and tongue-feel of the drink. There are two types of gin, London (dry) gin and Plymouth gin, which is produced only by the Blackfriar Monks in Plymouth, England–interestingly, the pilgrims slumbered at the Plymouth distilleries before setting forth across the Atlantic to what became Massachusetts; perhaps if they imbibed, America might be a less strictured culture. Be that as it may, Plymouth Gin is a milder and, some might say, smoother alternative to London Dry Gin, but one should adhere to the aforementioned warning of doyenne inebriate Dorothy Parker:
“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.”
Or, as our honoree said, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” Gin was the opiate of the masses in Dickensian London and beyond: “Gin was mother’s milk to her,” says Edwardian cockney Eliza Doolitle in Pygmalion (or was it My Fair Lady?) It was not until the wonderfully American invention of the cocktail (take that, you damn, dirty Puritans) that gin became the province of the posh, and today, it is looked upon by many as a “rich, old person’s drink.”
I would certainly never suggest that I learned my love of gin at my grandmother’s breast, but I will say I began mixing Martinis for her as a teenager (my parents have always favoured bourbon), and between her dictates and those of Auntie Mame, I spent my formative years in fear of bruising the gin. I stirred my martinis for many years, until I finally listened to the dulcet, if inebriated tones of Nick Charles and began to shake my Martinis to waltz time. (Bronx cocktails to the two-step and Manhattans to the Foxtrot.) If you’re not sure about the tempo, simply hum “Send in the Clowns” while you’re shaking. Think of Kate Hepburn around the time of On Golden Pond.
But what gin should you use in mixing a Martini? More than anything, it’s about taste. (In so many ways, tongue-wise, brain-wise, bottle-wise.) While I love Plymouth gin, it’s as deadly as Tadzio, Lady Macbeth, Mordred, and Bellatrix LeStrange on a bender. Seriously, DO NOT drink more than three Plymouth Gin Martinis. Unless the host is Cillian Murphy. Or Anderson Cooper. Tanqueray is a delightful basic gin. Everyone loves it, but like Snookie of the infamous shore, everyone’s had it. Probably more than once.
Bombay Sapphire prides itself upon its botanicals: it combines juniper, lemon peel, coriander, angelica, orris, grains of paradise, caheb berries, cassia bark, almonds and liquorice: I can’t claim to know what all that means, but I just love it!
Hendrick’s gin postulates that it is an uncommon gin, and with its hints of cucumber and rose, it’s certainly not for everyone. I, however, appreciate its perfumy nature–perhaps I’m reminded of flower girl Eliza Doolittle’s aunt–and I adore it, and buy it whenever I have $25 to plop down for a bottle.
All this begs the question of how to make Martini. You will need a cocktail shaker (I like my Martinis shaken, I don’t care who says they should be stirred–at Musso’s[seriously the best Martini in Los Angeles] they make them in a shake blender), ice, gin, vermouth, ice, a cocktail pick, and olives. And, of course, a cocktail glass. I prefer the Zie Cocktail Glass, newly arrived at Crate and Barrel: it’s 5 oz, which is just the perfect size to drink the Martini before it gets warm. Nothing is worse than warm gin.
Of course, there are worse things, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, the holocaust, but not much is nastier in the mouth…
It’s perfectly easy to make a good martini, but it’s also terribly easy to ruin. You will need the following:
- 3-4 oz of good gin
- 4 Manzanilla olives
Unless you have room in your freezer/refrigerator to store your cocktail glasses, fill a cocktail glass with ice and water to chill. Rinse your cocktail shaker (I really don’t give a flying fuck what anyone says, I like my martinis shaken) with good vermouth (just use Noilly Pratt, don’t question me) and shake out as much vermouth as you possibly can. Fill the shaker with ice and add gin. Shake at waltz time until your hands burn with the cold. Empty your martini glass and strain shaker into the glass. Garnish with olives and drink as quickly as possible.