Ever since its invention, various writers have tried their hand at the martini. Drinking it and writing about it. Because I am new to both, I suppose I better have a go at it too. A thing has to be done properly after all. Besides, it’s New Year’s Eve.
The reason writers write about martinis can be summed up in single word: Gin. But all have used more words; one word essays don’t sell well. Here is 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 the dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth —
I think that perhaps it’s the Gin.
Winston Churchill famously knew it was not the vermouth. He did not mind making his martini in a room where there was a bottle of vermouth; just as long as the bottle was securely capped. Others of like mind hold the closed bottle of vermouth up to the light so that a few photons reaching the Gin have passed through vermouth.
Until quite recently my only experience with martinis was ordering one for Hugh Downs in the La Fonda bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was a friend of my uncle’s and we were at some family function there. I was a teenager but the bartender made one anyway when I told him who it was for. Never having tasted one before, I surreptitiously took a sip on the way back to the table. It was awful. Reminded me of the taste of wild fuel oil berries. Decades passed before I tried another. Not even James Bond tempted me to try again. Shaken? Stirred? I didn’t give a damn.
Recently though I was persuaded to try another and learn how to make the things. We have friends, both of whom drink martinis, and it was embarrassing not to offer them one when they came to dinner. I had no clue how to construct one and we didn’t own martini glasses. They took care of the problem one night, bringing a hostess gift of 4 martini glasses and giving me a lesson in making them. He made me a fine martini but it was a good thing that party was at my home. He makes professional size martinis and I needed an amateur’s.
Now either I’ve developed a taste for fuel oil or my palate is better educated. Martinis are pretty good, especially after the first few sips. But I’m still too uncivilized to opine on whether they should be shaken or stirred, contain an olive or be misted with a squeeze of lemon peel, or even assert which juniper-berried gin is the best. I can’t weigh in on whether Bernard de Voto’s science was right: He maintained that a precise ration of 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth was the correct mixture. Hemingway demanded 15 parts gin to one part vermouth and named his after Field Marshall Montgomery because, according to Hemingway, Monty would not attack unless he had a 15 to 1 numerical superiority. Patton agreed with Hemingway, both about Monty’s shyness and about the vermouth. Patton thought it appropriate to point the bottle of gin in the direction of Italy. MFK Fisher liked even less than 15 to 1. She used an eyedropper to measure the vermouth. On my recent Grand Canyon expedition one of us had what he called a martini each night of the trip: A few sips of straight gin out of a nalgene bottle. Some nights the gin was chilled to 48 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature of the Colorado River about 80 river miles downstream of the Damn Glen Canyon dam — and on others, when we weren’t near the river, the gin was the same temperature as the warm air. (That should give those of you who don’t backpack some idea of the hardships we endure.) Had Mae West been with us, I’m sure he would have jumped fully clothed into the Colorado just to hear her say, “You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
Dorothy Parker wasn’t with us either. Had she been, he might have offered her one of his martinis. Here is what she had to say:
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.
I am civilized enough to know that a martini must be prepared with ceremony. Here is Barbara Holland on that necessity: “A casual martini would be inappropriate, like reciting Keats while watching football.” Some authorities hold that it is appropriate to drink one while watching football but I am not sure about that: A martini is closer to poetry than to football.
Happy New Year.