One of the benefits of writing about food regions, is that I often find a food item or subject that’s relevant to that region which then leads me to discuss a related topic. So in the course of discussing the Piemonte region of Italy, I’ve discovered that the area is ripe with vermouth. If I’m going to talk about vermouth (and trust me, I will. Nothing gets between me and a reason to purchase liquor), I might as well talk about Martinis. We won’t even mention the olive angle, although I easily could.

If all of this sounds like a massive rationalization in order to tip back a few…well, you’d be right. Writing about food can be so taxing at times.

For the record, if you were to see me in a bar and wanted to buy me a martini, you’d have to make a dirty martini, as that’s my preference. But first you’d have to ensure that the barkeep makes a good one, because dirty martinis seem to be notoriously difficult to get correct. Either there’s too much olive juice, or not enough. Of course it could be stated that I simply like being a difficult…I’ll cop to that.

Second…an Appletini, or a Citrusini or any other drink that’s served in a Martini glass that does not have some combination of gin and vermouth is not only not a Martini, they aren’t even related to Martinis. Those of us who do like Martinis wish the rest of you would stop pretending that they are. I’m saying this as a fan of the Lemon Drop, the Cosmopolitan Martini, and the other lesser known “Sex in the City” type cocktails.

Now, you’re probably all wondering just where in the heck Martinis come from. One story, probably urban legened, is that sometime around 1870, a San Francisco miner stopped on his way home at a saloon in Martinez, CA, and used a sack of gold nuggets to pay for a bottle of whisky. The miner complained that this wasn’t quite enough for the amount of gold he had given, so the bartender made up the difference by mixing up a small drink of gin and vermouth, garnished with an olive. The miner inquired about the drink and was informed that it was “a Martinez cocktail”

Even though several variations of the drink have been around since about the mid to late 1800′s, the martini didn’t truly come to prominence until prohibition. There is a logical reason for this.

Whiskey, and it’s American brethern, bourbon, require time in order to become up to snuff. They have to age in their barrels in order to get their specific, recognizable tastes. During prohibition, the processes surrounding the making of whiskey illegally were very expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. It was far cheaper to make gin illegally than it was to make whiskey illegally. So gin became the spirit of choice at speakeasies and juke-joints throughout the nation.

However, cheap gin often means bad gin, as anyone who has ever tasted a pine-sol-esque cheap gin can tell you. So how do you change the flavor of an inferior spirit? You cut it with another beverage…in this case white vermouth, also relatively cheap and easy to come by. Absolutely there were gin and vermouth recipes before prohibition, but it took prohibition to make the drink popular and thereby to standardize it.

After prohibition was repealed, quality gin became available again, which led to a variety of “jokes” about what constitutes a “dry Martini”. A “martini with a kiss,” for example, is a drink in which gin is poured into a glass, along with a garnish, but the vermouth is omitted. The bottle is then tapped on the glass, hence the “kiss”. Other’s enjoy their Martinis poured with gin into a glass in the shadow of the vermouth bottle. General Patton suggested pointing the gin bottle in the general direction of Italy. Obviously what they are saying is that they prefer their Gin straight.

As far as the proper ratio for a Martini? It’s entirely your preference. Anywhere from a 4 parts vermouth to 1 part gin ratio to a 15 parts gin 1 part vermouth (called a Montgomery) have all been noted at some point as a Martini recipe in history.

Shaken or stirred? Again, it’s personal preference. But here’s the what happens when you shake a martini (not a vodka martini, by the way) from the folks at the Stright Dope: a shaken martini is usually colder than one stirred, since the ice has had a chance to swish around the drink more. Second, shaking a martini dissolves air into the mix; this is the “bruising” of the gin you may have heard seasoned martini drinkers complain about–it makes a martini taste too “sharp.” Third, a shaken martini will more completely dissolve the vermouth, giving a less oily mouth feel to the drink.

My own belief? If you’re having a vodka martini, go for the shaken, as cold vodka is good vodka. If you’re having a regular martini, head towards the stirred, as the various flavors are meant to be tasted. But this is merely my own preference.

This is why I typically avoid drinking martinis when out and about…if you’re that anal about your drink (and I have had my moments in the past), you tend to piss off the bartender, unless they know you very well. Imagine yourself behind the bar at a busy restaurant. You’ve got 14 orders to fill, when one comes across with the following instructions.. 1 dirty martini, 8 parts gin to 2 parts vermouth and 1 part olive brine. Pour into a slightly chilled glass, but not too cold. Stir.

Yeah, I’d slap me if I was behind the bar.

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