The following article appeared in the May 1995 issue of Hemispheres under the column, "Of Grape and Grain" by Bill Marsano. It has been transferred to electronic form without permission.

The Martini Mystique

The unshaken choice of the suave, debonair, and sophisticated, the martini is an icon--the classic supreme among cocktails. It is also, as you shall soon find out, notorious for stirring up debate among its enthusiastic fans.

One devotee said of the martini, "The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on Earth and one of the shortest lived." It is also the subject of enthusiastic debate and endless tinkering.

Personal preferences aside, cocktail fanciers everywhere can agree that the martini is the classic supreme. Long and lean, cool and sophisticated, it is the Fred Astaire of mixed drinks. It is an icon: Long before airport sign makers swapped words for symbols, bartenders knew that a large neon martini glass spoke volumes in any language.

So much for agreement. Disagreement is what martinis are about. Martini fans are famously disputatious, but even teetotalers sometimes join their arguments: Everyone's an expert.

And they argue about practically everything, as William Grimes notes in his witty history of drinking, Straight Up or On the Rocks? Its origin, for example. Some call martinis British, named for the fierce kick of the Martini-Henry rifle carried by Empire troops. Others say it's Italian, from Martini & Rossi vermouth. Pretty flimsy, eh?

Grimes says it's American, but he remains aloof from both East Coast and West Coast nativity theories. Which are: 1) a San Francisco bartender created the first martini for a traveler bound for nearby Martinez, 2) a Martinez barman made it for a man going to San Francisco, 3) it was born 'in New York City around 1880 or was invented there by a barman named Martini at the Hotel Knickerbocker in 1912.

Some clues support the Eastern claim, while the West's is weakened by others, like the notion that a bartender would slake a stranger's thirst by electing (out of the blue, as it were) to create a brand-new cocktail on the spot. But such minutiae are best suited to scholarly, dispassionate examination over drinks. Martinis, for example.

The drink flowered in the 1920s, boosted, ironically, by Prohibition, the United States' "great experiment" (1920-1933) in outlawing beverage alcohol. The citizenry grew mutinous; smugglers and bootleggers thrived; temperance did not. Cocktail parties became social alternatives to liquor parlors called "speakeasies" and "blind pigs."

Oddly, the martini was and is almost puritanically simple (gin, vermouth, and an olive garnish) and austerely pleasurable. Bracing as a dose of wind chill, a martini in its conical stemmed glass has the severe elegance of a Bauhaus masterpiece, like the cocktail shakers featured in the Design Collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Roman decadence soon followed. The lush prosperity of the 1950s fostered the infamous three-martini lunch among the expense-account set. The martini joined the Establishment. Rebellious youth adopted antiestablishment alternatives in the 1960s and '70s: rock'n'roll, bell-bottom trousers, and cheap wines--some made from apples, others carbonated, all ghastly. In the fitness-crazed '80s, Americans began drinking mineral water or, if in a daring mood, wine spritzers. Bartenders found themselves serving citrus-decked glasses of bubble water priced as high as the Beefeater martinis that had fallen into desuetude. People bought them anyway.

But resilience is any classic's backbone: You can't keep it down. The martini is back, suddenly and everywhere. There are even martini-making contests. In Seattle, Mike Rule of Oliver's won in the classic category for the second straight year. Miami Beach's John DeLuca scored for that Art Deco jewel, the Raleigh Hotel. At Martini's Restaurant in New York City, martini olives are stuffed with anchovy or prosciutto (for vodka martinis, stuffings are lemon and rosemary or chipotle chili pepper). Martini's customers choose their stuffings as they choose their steaks (beef or shark).

One reason for the martini comeback is that we drink smarter now, shunning excess and abstention both for moderation. We'll have, perhaps, just one drink before dinner, so let it be the best. Let it be a perfect martini.

Smart marketers have caught on. Tanqueray gin features a spokesman named Mr. Jenkins. Patrician but stylish, severe but hip, he exemplifies the martini mystique. Bombay Sapphire and Finlandia gins are pushing hard, and Beefeater's, of course, is the defending champion. In vodka martinis, Absolut and Stolichnaya compete spiritedly.

What is a perfect martini? Herman Wouk said it "sort of tastes like it isn't there at all, just a cold cloud." But he didn't say how to make one, probably because he was, at the time, writing The Winds of War, not trying to start one.

Therefore, in the interests of science we outline here the inflammatory questions and controversies. From sheer cowardice we remain strictly neutral. Afrer all, the perfect martini is your martini.

Gin or vodka. Gin is the original ingredient. Martini's owner Rick Krause says "gin is assumed, vodka must be specified" (but the '60s term "vodkatini" is, as the British say, "twee"). Still, vodka, the former USSR's sole successful invader of the United States, outsells gin 2 to 1.

Vermouth. Front-runners include Cinzano and Noilly Prat, but any top-drawer dry vermouth suffices. (Sweet vermouth, acceptable before World War II, hasn't been mooted in decades.)

Proportions. Holdouts insist on 3 to 1, but today's martini isn't really dry at less than 6, 12, or even 15 to 1. For truly Saharan aridity, add vermouth with an eye-dropper. Mr. Jenkins simply "coats the glass." Extremists "show the vermouth to the gin."

Garnish. Olive and lemon twist, like Man and Woman, have vociferous supporters and profound differences; the twain do not meet. Olivians split over regular and stuffed. Stuffed enthusiasts like imaginative stuffings and scorn mere pimento. Black olives are out, out, out. Toothpicks excite little furor; their use has declined since novelist Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing one. But frilly cellophane toothpics--well, what would Humphrey Bogart have said?

Mixing/chilling. James Bond said "shaken--not stirred." Shaking provides faster chilling with less dilution from melted ice. But the stir-crazy allege, seriously, that shaking "bruises the gin." As for martinis on the rocks, both factions laugh them to scorn. To minimize dilution, purists refrigerate gin or vodka, and Mr. Jenkins chills the glasses, too.

Finally, there's the unmartini. Bereft of gin and vodka, the Hennessy Martini is cognac with lemon juice. Delicious--but is it a martini? Is Seagram's and lemon a Canadian Martini, or Canatini? Is there a Bourbon Martini? Hard to say, actually, because perfect martinis include style and attitude as key ingredients. So maybe tossing an olive in your beer makes a Malt Martini--if it tastes like a cold cloud.

Bill Marsano says martinis leave him shaken, not stirred.