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A Drinking Master's Drink: The Martini

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A century ago the first martini was shaken (not stirred) at a hotel in New York. Jackie Hunter tours the bars, uptown and down, to see how it slips down now ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

There’s nothing like the first sip of your second martini, a fellow fan once told me. Why? “Because you already know what you’re in for.”

Perhaps it is this simple fidelity that has allowed the martini to endure for 100 years. Not only endure, but flourish. It was the recipe on which the literary stylists of the Jazz Age got elegantly wasted—Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and H.L. Mencken among them. More recently, it has re-entered the cultural consciousness via “Mad Men”, where its role is to ease Don Draper and Roger Sterling into evening mode after a hard day’s work on the Scotch.

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Like all legends, the martini has disputed origins. But a plausible version of events traces it to the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, known in its day as “the 42nd Street country club”, long-vanished now. It had a barman called Martini di Arma di Taggia, who is believed, in 1911, to have definitively married two-thirds London dry gin to one-third dry white vermouth. Whether the tale holds water or not, the martini reeks of New York, and I’m here to see if it can still serve a mean one.

“It’s a grown-up drink. Not one for amateurs,” says Gavin Fitzgibbon, a barman who has been serving sharp-suited ad executives and bored Park Avenue matrons at the King Cole Bar in the St Regis Hotel for 16 years. He’s two parts affability to one part formality, with a dash of wit. “A martini is something to which one graduates, and then loves for ever,” he says. I could certainly contemplate life-long devotion to the drink he’s put in front of me—a generous measure of ice-rinsed Tanqueray gin, with a dab of vermouth and a shard of zesty lemon peel that kick-starts my olfactory system before I even take a sip. It’s deliciously cold and instantly warming. The martinis here, Fitzgibbon says, are served “bone dry, unless we’re told otherwise”. The dryness he’s referring to increases when the proportion of vermouth to gin (or vodka, if, like James Bond, you insist) is reduced—some mixologists merely spritz the glass with a vermouth mist. Winston Churchill, who liked his martinis as dry as dust, said the way to get it right was to look at the vermouth bottle while pouring the gin.

Around a third of the drinks Fitzgibbon serves each day are martinis, he says, mostly during that formless early-evening period christened “the violet hour” by the American essayist Bernard DeVoto, a man who wrote an entire book in the late 1940s about how to drink cocktails. His prescriptions included a refusal to accept that martinis might be made in advance. “You can no more keep a martini in the refrigerator”, he snarled, “than you can keep a kiss there.”

I leave Fitzgibbon polishing his reflection in a glass and travel downtown. An inauspicious doorway on SoHo’s West Houston Street leads upstairs to the Pegu Club, a low-key lounge opened by Audrey Saunders, a bartender mentored by the master mixologist Dale DeGroff. After the buzzy King Cole, it seems quiet—downtown, a late-night scene prevails, and my only companions this early in the evening are some handsome Italian tourists and a 40-something woman having a first date with a man she met on Facebook; it doesn’t seem to be going smoothly.

In New York no one questions a woman’s motives for drinking alone. The bartender merely asks if I’d prefer Beefeater or Tanqueray, an olive or a twist. Here my martini is served in a small, shallow-bowled champagne coupe rather than the traditional conical cocktail glass; just as I’m thinking that the measure seems very small, the barman pours the rest of the contents of the shaker into a tiny carafe, which he submerges in a bowl of chipped ice and leaves on the bar. This means the second half of my drink will be as cold as the first, so I can linger over it. Good: a martini is meant to be sipped. By 8pm, a velvet curtain has gently fallen across my frontal lobe—time to stop, and think about dinner.

The following evening I pick up the downtown trail again. There’s a trend here for “speakeasy” bars, semi-covert venues that hark back to Prohibition. To find them, one has to be au courant. The fun factor is greatest at Please Don’t Tell, in St Mark’s Place. Walk the street a dozen times and you still won’t find it—unless you know to go to the hotdog joint Crif’s. Here, just inside the front door, is an old-fashioned phone booth; you step into this and dial a single number, whereupon the back wall of the booth magically opens, and you’re welcomed into a dark and bustling little bar. The martini mixed for me by John—red jeans, yellow braces, messy hair, friendly but no banter—is a decently dry Tanqueray version, though it seems the real point of coming here is to advertise your membership of a young and cliquey East Village scene. Not being part of it, I head uptown again.

Nearly as discreet, on the second floor above Grand Central Station, is the Campbell Apartment, a formal cocktail lounge with a reputation for a good martini. But I’m starting to realise that the quality of the beverage is less of a variable than the atmosphere and company. The white-jacketed waiters are the thing here, as well as the elderly barman with brilliantined hair, who tops off my drink with a perfect spiral of lemon peel.

Should I have another? I waver, and then remember Fitzgibbon’s comment, when told that I usually stick to two. “Two is enough. If a customer orders a third, my view of them becomes…jaundiced,” he said. Dryly, of course. 

A WORLD OF MARTINIS

Hemingway Bar, Paris
The bar where Papa Hemingway—famously fond of a martini—wooed his fourth wife, and where 25 of his original photos still hang on the walls. Its talented mixologist, Colin Field, is renowned for his fresh take on classic cocktails.

Dry Martini, Barcelona
This classy, relaxed city bar in the Eixample district is a shrine to the martini, with a long menu of different takes on the classic recipe. The interior oozes old-world charm, but the mixology is modern and innovative. 
 
M Bar, Hong Kong

A popular bar with the well-heeled. On the 25th floor, so the harbour views are as heady as the cocktails—almost. 

Plaza Bar, Buenos Aires

Exquisitely rendered classic cocktails, served in a hotel setting of presidential levels of luxury: traditional leather armchairs, tuxedo-clad waiters.

ECC Chinatown, London
You can pay as much as £150 for a martini at this London branch of the Paris-based Experimental Cocktail Club. But it’s fine to stick to the still-superb £10 versions—unless you’re made of money and turned on by rare, vintage spirits. 

Jackie Hunter is a writer based in Edinburgh. Illustration:  Bill Butcher; picture credit:TheCulinaryGeek (via Flickr)