The great American wit and man of letters, H. L. Mencken, memorably described the martini as ‘the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet’. If the sonnet was the pinnacle of European cultural achievement, then the martini was the transatlantic equivalent. This is by no means the only literary link this iconic American drink can boast. Why is the martini such a popular and esteemed cocktail?
For many readers and cinema-goers, the martini cocktail conjures up the world of America in the 1920s – the ‘Jazz Age’ - so vividly portrayed in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Undoubtedly these associations go some way towards explaining the popularity of the drink in recent years. The Great Gatsby in particular, especially the recent film, with its party scenes, seems bound up inextricably with the image of the martini. However, martinis are never mentioned explicitly in the book, which is noteworthy given that less famous cocktails, such as mint juleps and gin rickeys, are mentioned by name in Fitzgerald’s novel. (Fitzgerald’s favourite cocktail appears to have been the gin fizz, which comprises gin, lemon juice, sugar, and tonic water, much like a Tom Collins cocktail.)
In fact, the one thing most people probably know about martinis isn’t true, or at least isn’t usually advised – that is, most cocktail guides and bartenders will advise against shaking a martini. The classic line associated with James Bond in relation to the vodka martini – ‘shaken, not stirred’ – flies in the face of what most martini drinkers would recommend. To get the best result, one should stir, rather than shake, the martini. W. Somerset Maugham certainly thought the martini should be stirred rather than shaken ‘so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another’.
The martini is a mixture of gin and vermouth, although vodka is sometimes used in place of gin. The two drinks are poured over ice, stirred, and then the liquid is strained into a glass (one of the distinctively shaped martini glasses) before being garnished, traditionally either with an olive (or an odd number of olives; for some reason the number has to be an odd one) on a cocktail stick, or a twist of lemon peel.
There is nothing quite so stimulating as a strong dry martini cocktail. - T. S. Eliot
It’s worth asking why the martini, above all other cocktails which came to prominence both before and during Prohibition during the US, has attained this status as somehow more than just a drink but as a perfect creation, as a work of art like the sonnet, as an icon of both refinement and decadence. The two key ingredients in a classic martini are, on the face of it, not inspiring: gin during Prohibition, at least, was notoriously bad in flavour and overall texture, since it was illegally distilled. Similarly, vermouth was a wine originally made from wormwood, the same bitter plant which made absinthe – though with less chance of hallucinatory side effects. Yet when these two indifferent ingredients were mixed together, they created something that somehow transcended the sum of their parts. Shrewd marketing, perhaps? The popularity of James Bond certainly helped, although Bond favoured the vodka martini rather than the classic made with gin, and drank fewer martinis than people might expect (whisky was a far more popular tipple for 007).
One thing is for sure, though: martinis have been popular with a great number of literary types, both in the US and elsewhere, for nearly a century now. And the drink has got steadily stronger, too: the original mixture would be roughly equal measures of gin and vermouth, but most modern recipes prescribe six parts gin to one part vermouth, meaning that a modern martini is close to being as strong as neat gin (though, inevitably, the ice with which the drink is mixed waters down the alcohol content a little). Noel Coward was a keen imbiber of the martini, and liked his made very dry indeed: the ideal one, he once quipped, should be made by ‘filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy’. Winston Churchill (who, people may forget, could list a Nobel Prize for Literature among his achievements) was another fan, and is said to have made his martinis by pouring a glass of gin and merely whispering the word ‘vermouth’ (or, alternatively, staring at a bottle of vermouth across the room as he drank down the gin). Now that‘s dry.
Image: Martini Splash, courtesy of Thor on Flickr.