On Beverage: From the Martinez to vodka in a glass, the history of the martini stirs interest

On Beverage: From the Martinez to vodka in a glass, the history of the martini stirs interest

One of the most fascinating presentations at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans was the one Robert “DrinkBoy” Hess hosted on the history of the martini.

History of the martini? Didn’t someone once simply fill a glass with gin, spritz some vermouth over the top and call it a very fine day? What’s so historic about that?

Were it true, not much. But fortunately for the story, there is significantly more to the development of what is now viewed as the archetypal cocktail, much of which was detailed by Hess. Better still, it’s a colorful history that includes an assortment of associated drinks, some of which are certainly worthy of revival.

One of those cocktails is the Martinez, from which the martini almost surely evolved. In fact several cocktail books of the late 1800s, Hess says, make use of the two names interchangeably.

Where the Martinez came from, on the other hand, is a matter of some conjecture. It may bear a connection with the town of Martinez, Calif., or with some fellow named Martinez, or with a San Francisco—then Yerba Buena—hotel and a bartender, neither named Martinez.

Regardless, the Martinez was a cocktail made with Old Tom gin, which was a sweetened gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and orange bitters. We know it was sweet, or Italian, vermouth, Hess says, because virtually any drink recipe written before Prohibition that called for vermouth was referring to the red kind.

The Pre-Prohibition “Dry” Martini

adapted from a recipe provided by Robert Hess

1.5 ounces ginhalf ounce dry vermouthdash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

Astute readers will have noticed a similarity between the Martinez and the Manhattan. Substitute whiskey for the gin and a maraschino cherry for the liqueur—a stretch, I know—mix up your bitters a bit and there you go, the West’s once-famous cocktail becomes that of the East. This relationship is not lost on Hess, who during his talk described the Martinez as the “male” and the Manhattan as the “Black Widow female,” who “mated with the Martinez and killed it.”

The spawn of that coupling arose and evolved in the early years of the 20th century, when London-style dry gin and French dry vermouth both appeared on the market and assumed their respective places in the newly defined martini. This was, for a time, known as a “dry martini,” meaning it contained dry rather than sweet vermouth. The recipe that Hess shared for this cocktail called for three parts gin to one part vermouth, hardly “dry” to our modern definition of the term.

The Martinez

adapted from a recipe provided by Robert Hess

1.5 ounces gin1.5 ounces sweet vermouthdash Maraschino liqueurdash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

Post-Prohibition, the martini lost its bitters and, over time, even its gin, the latter thanks to a vodka distiller’s clever marketing campaign. The vermouth became de rigueur dry and dramatically less significant as an ingredient, until a “dry martini” was redefined as one with a minimum of vermouth.

To Hess’ mind, the “shot of cold gin” that many people call a modern dry martini is not a martini at all, and neither is one made with vodka. Of the former, he suggests that a cocktail must contain at least two ingredients in order to qualify as such, and preferably three, which is where the long-forgotten orange bitters come into play. Try it: A light dash really does make all the difference.

On the vodka issue, Hess writes at his website, www.drinkboy.com , such a drink already has a name of its own: the Kangaroo cocktail.

So after all of the above, you might well ask what makes an ideal martini. Simply, good gin and good vermouth in proportions where, as Hess suggests “you can’t tell where the vermouth stops and the gin begins.” Add orange bitters to taste, adjust gin and vermouth to suit, and serve very cold.