About the Martini

I am lukewarm on martinis. Before you object: I know exactly the sort of “butbutbut!” response it would elicit if something similar were said to me about wine or Punjabi food or Station Eleven. And yet, I’m still not sure about the classic cocktail.

I have both made and had martinis made for me. They are always with gin, most often with a twist rather than olives. Yet, despite being someone who happily and regularly drinks whisky neat, I often find martinis too harsh, obstreperous even. They seem good for getting sloshed and (cos)playing out Mad Men fantasies, but I have the same odd question for the martini that I do for a lot of prestige TV: ok, what is it actually trying to do?

Somehow, though, I am completely enamoured with writing about martinis. I began experimenting with them after reading the famous Roger Angell piece about the drink from 2002. It’s a glorious bit of writing, full of momentum and verve. Whether or not you’ve ever had a martini is entirely besides the point:

Dryness was all, dryness was the main debate, and through the peacetime nineteen-forties and fifties we new suburbanites tilted the Noilly Prat bottle with increasing parsimony, as the Martini recipe went up from three parts gin and one part dry vermouth to four and five to one, halted briefly at six to one, and rose again from there.

It also contains a “recipe,” though arriving as it does at the end of the piece, it seems somehow more than that:

But if there’s a friend tonight with the old predilection, I’ll mix up a Martini for the two of us, in the way we like it, filling a small glass pitcher with ice cubes that I’ve cracked into quarters with my little pincers. Don’t smash or shatter the ice: it’ll become watery in a moment. Put three or four more cracked cubes into our glasses, to begin the chill. Put the gin or the vodka into the pitcher, then wet the neck of the vermouth bottle with a quickly amputated trickle. Stir the Martini vigorously but without sloshing. When the side of the pitcher is misted like a January windowpane pour the drink into the glasses. Don’t allow any of the ice in the pitcher to join the awaiting, unmelted ice in the glass… Now stir the drink inside the iced glass, just once around. Squeeze the lemon peel across the surface—you’ve already pared it, from a fat, bright new lemon—and then run the peel, skin-side down, around the rim of the glass before you drop it in. Serve. Smile.

It all sounds brilliant – until you remember that what you end up with is essentially straight gin, very cold. No thank you! And I like gin.

The ever-excellent Alicia Kennedy likes them made 50/50, half gin, half dry vermouth, with an olive, which is much more appealing to me. As to why the martini inspires writing and thought in a way that a mere Manhattan could not, she has said it much better than I could:

Now that martinis have gotten cool—or so they say—I haven’t noticed any changes in how bars or bartenders approach them. They’re still a way of measuring, a way of understanding a bar and how you’re perceived within it. Martinis can go in and out of fashion, but for those of us who’ve chosen it as our drink, it’s because of how it allows us to read and be read. It’s a cocktail not of judgment, but of analysis and perception. This is why the martini is eternally chic.

Fine, I guess I’ll give it another go.

Navneet Alang @navalang