The Rise and Fall of the Martini

The Schizoid Cocktail

There is perhaps no other cocktail that is better known, or less known, then the Martini. Talk with any patron at the bar about what a Martini is, and you most likely will receive a variety of responses, and sometimes a fight. The confusion is not helped any by cocktail lounges that produce “Martini Menus” that list off dozens of different Martinis that their bartenders can mix up for you. With such cocktails as the Cosmopolitan, Lemon Drop, and Manhattan all being categorized as types of Martini’s, it is no wonder that many patrons of the bar find it easier to order a Bud Light.

As you look in to the origins and evolution of the Martini, you soon see that it has suffered a sort of schizophrenia all of its life. Not only has its recipe been in a constant state of flux, even its name has been the source of serious confusion.

Martini Origins

Few will deny that the Martini appears to have evolved out of an older cocktail, the Martinez. There are several cocktail books just prior to the turn of the last century that use the name Martini and Martinez interchangeably. The common ingredients in those days for the Martinez was Old Tom Gin, Sweet Vermouth, a dash or two of Maraschino Liqueur and/or Orange CuraƧao, and a dash of Orange Bitters. I didn’t list the ratio of gin to vermouth since this varied quite a bit, but usually either in equal parts or with more vermouth than gin.

You might note that some modern-day historical descriptions of the Martinez would indicate the use of French (or dry) Vermouth, as well as Angostura bitters. This is because many of the older recipes simply listed “vermouth” and “bitters” as the ingredients, and while these days this translates to Dry Vermouth and Angostura Bitters, such was not always the case. In the 1800’s sweet vermouth was far more common in cocktails, and Angostura was only one of dozens of different bitters that were available. In older cocktail books that specify the type of vermouth used in a Martinez, it was always sweet, and the bitters were often (but not always) orange.

If you compare the ancient Martinez with today’s Martini, you will note that these two cocktails are worlds apart. But this was not always the case. Just prior to the 1900’s, there were several recipe books published that listed the recipe for the common Martinez, but gave it the name of Martini. While other books would label the drink Martinez, but in a footnote denote that it could also be called Martini (or the other way around). Exactly when and why this change of names occurred is unknown, and just adds to the mystique.

How Dry I Am

It was in the early years of the 1900’s that we began seeing the Martini recipe evolve to closer to what it is today. Several books would list the ingredients as gin, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, thus making it a simplified Martinez. Some of these books would also list a “dry” version of the Martini, in which they simply substituted dry vermouth for the sweet, and sometimes left out the orange bitters. In Harry Cradock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), he lists two different recipes for a “dry” Martini. He first lists the “Dry Martini Cocktail” (in the “D” section of the book), in which the recipe is equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters. Later in the book he lists a “Martini (dry) Cocktail”, using one part dry vermouth to two parts gin, without any orange bitters. The fact that in this one book we see two different recipes for a cocktail going by the name of Dry Martini illustrates some of the confusion that already existed as to how to properly make this legendary cocktail.

It is important to note that the original Dry Martini got its name from the fact that it included dry vermouth instead of sweet. This was (and still is) a common way of describing cocktails that include vermouth as either a primary or secondary ingredient. The most common cocktail today that continues this naming convention is the Manhattan. A Manhattan will be made with sweet vermouth, A dry Manhattan uses dry vermouth, and a perfect Manhattan uses equal parts of sweet and dry vermouth. This same naming convention also applied to the Martini, and then came prohibition.

The Really Dry Years

Prohibition, this strange and interesting time in American cocktail history was most likely the catalyst for many changes in the drinking habits of Americans, and in fact the world. Here in America, spirits, and the consumption thereof, went underground. While as Americans traveled abroad, their desire for cocktails in the bars they frequented brought about many interesting changes in an effort to cater to these American travelers. Up until this point, cocktails had been primarily an American pastime, but these thirsty travelers soon convinced foreign establishments to learn this arcane art form.

It was also during prohibition that America really became acquainted with Gin. Going into prohibition, American Whiskey appeared to be the most popular spirit. During prohibition however; it was far more difficult to properly distill, and age, Whiskey. Distilling a neutral grain spirit, which didn’t require aging, on the other hand was fairly easy. To this was then added some water to adjust the strength and soften the bite, and by adding a little juniper extract it not only turned it into a passable approximation of Gin, but it also helped to hide some of the remaining harshness or impurities. This made Gin one of the most widely available spirits of the cocktail underground in America. Which also turned it into the most popular.

I have been able to find few records of the sorts of abominations of cocktails were concocted during these days, but chances are that great effort was made to further hide any off tastes in illicitly distilled spirits by adding various juices and such to them.

Out The Other Side

Coming out of Prohibition, the evolution of the Martini appears to have almost been in hibernation. Only slight changes to the gin to vermouth ratio occurred during this time, but this was to quickly change. Through the 1940s and into the 50’s several major shifts in reality occurred. The use of bitters in Martinis disappeared, Vermouth became less and less important as an ingredient, and Smirnoff’s marketing department came up with the concept of substituting Vodka for Gin.

The Martini from this point forward would contain only dry Vermouth, never sweet. And a Dry Martini would be one in which the consumer wished for increasingly less and less vermouth.

Into the Modern Age

Coming out of the 60’s, the Martini appears to have fallen on hard times. While Martinis and other cocktails were still being ordered, they were taking a back seat to the lighter and fruitier “soda pop” wines that were suddenly popular amongst a new crop of drinkers. Entire volumes could be written about this time, and how the tastes of this new generation moved through the various stages of wine appreciation. But this site is dedicated to the cocktail, so I’ll let somebody else cover that aspect.

By the mid-80’s, people were starting to re-discover the Martini. The concept of the cocktail had maintained itself, but mostly as “shooters” or “silly” drinks. But it was again time to realize that a true cocktail had a certain level of refinement and distinction that had a drama all its own. The Martini led the pack; it served as an icon for all that embodied a cocktail. But just as the marketing engines of the past told us it was O.K. to substitute vodka for gin, the modern marketing establishments saw that everybody was wanting to drink a martini, so they began telling them that everything they were drinking was a martini.

Marketing the Martini

I distinctly remember being at a restaurant with a friend and I ordered a Martini. You could see the sparkle in his eye, a Martini, ooooh. He had never had one, but he wanted to have one. A Martini. That quintessential cocktail. The drink that James Bond always ordered. Tuxedos. Expensive cars. So I ordered one for him too. The drink came to the table, crystal clear, light beads of moisture forming on the sides of the glass. A single olive, pierced through its heart with a crystal clear pick. Up to the lips. A sip. BOING. His expression immediately changed too shock. Whoa! For somebody more accustomed to drinking wines, a modern Martini can represent a very rude awakening into what alcohol tastes like. He ended up leaving the drink at only a sip.

But he wanted a Martini, he really did. It represented something special to him. In the tradition of giving the customer what they want, the cocktail lounges across the country started providing “variations” on the Martini. Whether it was splashes of juice to soften the bite, or unusual ingredients to make them unique, suddenly there were “Martini Menus” popping up in cocktail lounges all over the place.

Existing cocktails such as the Lemon Drop, Cosmopolitan, and even the Manhattan (which greatly predates the Martini) were suddenly being categorized as a Martini. In many cases, any drink that might previously have been called a “Cocktail”, was now a type of Martini. Even to the point that a “cocktail glass”, is now referred to as a “Martini glass”. Entire books have been written which include hundreds of different Martini recipes. So it is no wonder that there is confusion about what a Martini really is.

Today’s Martini

The best way to account for what a Martini is at any point in time, is to try to conceptualize what drink would be served to you if you walked in to a lounge and asked for a Martini, no qualifiers, not brand names, no agendas. Originally, this would be a drink consisting of Sweet Vermouth, Gin, Bitters, Maraschino Liqueur, and probably garnished with a cherry. Today, if you ask for a Martini, you will most likely receive a drink consisting of cold Gin, and a cocktail pick laden with green olives.

I was talking with a bartender friend of mine the other day, who said he no longer included any vermouth in the Martini’s he made. It was an issue of cost. If a customer sent a Martini back saying it didn’t have enough vermouth, he could easily add it, but if they said it had too much vermouth, he couldn’t take it out. He said that even so, he occasionally gets a customer who claims his Martinis still have too much vermouth in them.

Then there are also the customers who order a Martini, without any qualifiers, and expect it to be made out of Vodka.

I expect we’ve pretty much hit the bottom of the barrel for where a Martini can go. Once you take everything out of the Martini except the Gin (or Vodka), there really isn’t anywhere left to go. I keep hoping that what we have now is similar to the “soda pop wine phase” of the 70’s, and customers will begin to realize that there is more to a fine Martini then just cold Gin. Perhaps eventually that Martini will again become a cocktail that takes skill and alchemy to construct. Yeah, right. And perhaps bartenders will stop filling my Old Fashioneds with soda.

Additional Links

A little searching on the web can come up with a fairly wide variety of pages that have been devoted to the Martini in one form or another. Here are some that I’ve located that might provide you with some additional information:

Article reprinted with permission from www.DrinkBoy.com

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