After All, It Almost Rhymes With Bikini


I like to drink martinis.
Two at the most.
Three I’m under the table,
Four I’m under the host.

–Dorothy Parker

Roger Angell, in a lovely little essay titled “Dry Martini” and published in The New Yorker about a decade ago, quotes Ogden Nash’s “A Drink with Something in It”:

There’s something about a Martini,
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini;
I wish I had one at present.
There is something about a Martini,
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth—
I think that perhaps it’s the gin.

And later he quotes Harper’s columnist Bernard De Voto: “You can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there. 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.”

I know this not because I keep back issues of The New Yorker (I subscribe with the irregularity of a nonagenarian suffering from large-bowel complaints) but because I have in my possession Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick. It’s a book that in my house gets left out a lot, now here, now there, moving just enough from table to table to convince anyone uncharacteristically seized by a tidy fit that it’s currently being read by someone and ought therefore to be left alone.

It’s not such a book. It’s a book occasionally being reread—as in, say, last Wednesday, when I came home from work to the Thanksgiving break, exiled the children to the basement with threats of dismemberment should they disturb me, built myself a sky-high drink, put on a mile-long piano concerto, and sat down to read something I wasn’t going to have to explain to sophomores flummoxed by the Puritans and outraged that anyone would make them sit through an explanation of TULIP.

And I read again Angell’s piece, and a few others, before the growling of young stomachs called me to the kitchen and such intrusive parental duties as feeding children. (“But father,” you can almost hear them say as they step out of some nineteenth-century sentimental novel, “we’re cold and hungry.”)

But ere those creatures summoned me to more joyous tasks, I was at leisure, if only briefly, to think about this most civilized of drinks, the martini (which almost rhymes with a noble sartorial combo), and about my own somewhat embattled relation to it.

If we put at one end of things the very thirsty man who fills his glass with a roaring torrent of tap water and then chugs it down, and at the other end of things the host who, before his guests arrive, has placed his martini glasses in the freezer to chill them and who has stabbed his olives (or onions or capers or who has shaved his lemon), and who, once his guests arrive, shakes or stirs his gin and vermouth and at last lovingly pours drinks all the way around, you have in bold relief the thing that distinguishes the martini from chugged water—and also from every drink in between them, for in between the thirsty man and the martini drinker stand all other drinks and all other drinkers, all of whom dwell on a kind of continuum that excludes no one. The weekend beer drinker who pulls a tab or twists off a cap is nearer the thirsty man. Mind you, he is no less noble than anyone on the continuum, but the distance between his lips and his elixir is not so great as that between the host’s and his gin. In the one case preparation reduces to opening a can or a bottle. And that is preparation only in the sense that rapidly undressing your lover is foreplay.

But the host who thinks ahead and chills his glasses and who at the end of a lengthy process enjoys (with his guests) a martini has submitted himself to a kind of discipline. He has given himself time to anticipate. Or, to extend the analogy, he has demonstrated a degree of respect, as it were, for the function of snaps and buttons. Drinking a martini is a desideratum, like arriving at a moment of crisis. The crisis itself is an end, certainly, but the anticipation and preparation participate in that end, which is an end because of all that precedes it. The thirsty man at the tap knows nothing of this. He doesn’t have making love on his mind. (Not yet, anyway.)

And that is quite alright. He is thirsty. He wants water. He wants what water will do for him, which is satisfy his thirst. But the host and his guests are not thirsty. They do not want water. They want martinis. They want what martinis will do for them, which is satisfy their great longing for common ground, a place where sweet sweet talk, which is the basis of friendship, can enjoy its beginning, move toward its middle, and anticipate its end.

Space and time alike also provide that common ground, and so do other potables, like Tang or buttermilk, but space and time are given, given that we are creatures of space and time, whereas the drink is not. The drink must be decided upon. And, to state only the most obvious fact, the martini is a much more efficient catalyst for conversation than buttermilk. No one ever parted with a nasty and delicious secret under the influence of buttermilk.

Now I would no more be mistaken on the matter of preparation than on foreplay: time is not the transcendent value here. There are drinks that take longer to make than a good crisp clean clear martini, and some of them are worth the investment of time. You drinkers of Manhattans and cocktail-style Margaritas (and especially you connoisseurs of those eccentricities invented by bartenders in establishments where the men have “hairstyles” and the women peer through designer eyeglasses at obsessively thumbed DumbPhones) know whereof I speak.

But some drinks are not worth the investment in time. I, for one, will spend considerable care on a pomegranate martini for my own goddess excellently bright, or for a friend’s wife, but not a minute on one for myself. There is no such drink in my future.

So the value at stake here is preparation itself, preparation as such.

One thing that makes a martini a martini is the chilling of the glass, whatever your preferred method. (I myself do not care for the iced glass; I prefer to put the glass in the icebox, as, tonight, I have done.) There is a certain something, a certain je ne sais quoi, about a piece of delicate stemware silently submitting itself in the dark to the secret ministry of frost. It’s like knowing that there is a beautiful woman at home waiting for you to walk through the door of a Friday evening and reassure her with one of your wonted wanton and well-placed pats. (And, again, to extend the analogy, a really fine martini glass chilling in the icebox is like the expectant woman, ready with her smile and her incomparable kiss, who doesn’t expect you to tell her about your day—as if, even bidden, you could feign sufficient interest in it actually to rehearse the desultory affair.)

But there is more that makes the martini: measuring the vermouth, for example. And it is worth saying that some men are precise about this and some are not, just as some golfers read a putt deliberately and others play it by feel. And then there’s the shaking or stirring, either one recommended by certain aesthetic considerations or dispositions about “bruising” the gin, and then there’s the garnish, to say nothing of the martini glass itself.

Let us consider the glass. The stemless martini glasses that you sometimes see used in postmodern establishments—you know: places of precise geometric designs packed with people consciously living out their “lifestyles”—have a very limited appeal. As a novelty they satisfy something, but they will never manage to compare to that eternal shape of the martini glass, which Remnick calls “the slim narcissus stalk rising to a 1939 World’s Fair triangle above.” The stainless steel variation on that classic design is, I warrant, very nice. (I won’t drink pomegranate martinis, but I grant that they look lovely in stainless martini glasses.) The crooked (pronounced as one syllable) or zig-zag stem is interesting enough, I suppose, and there are others as well, of course, but the best departure from the straight stem I’ve ever seen is the stem in the shape of a treble clef sign. If you can find one of those, you have a premium martini in your future.

But what is meant by “premium”?

That begins first with the condition of your soul, which subsequently, and of necessity, points toward your gin. First you must have something really fine on your mind, like Elgar, or the Petrarchan sonnet, or a book of dirty limericks, and then you must honor that intellectual or spiritual disposition with something commensurate to it. No one is saying there is no place for the run-of-the-gin-mill martini made with ten-dollar swill. Sometimes Sibelius and Seagram’s are in your future: not the brightest future imaginable, granted, but a future nonetheless. It just so happens that at present we are concerned with something other than a dim future.

We are concerned, that is, with gin, for this drink, the martini, has evolved to the point at which the vermouth is hardly a concern at all. You may, if you like, purchase an expensive vermouth so that you can say you use an expensive vermouth in your martini, but vermouth is not the point. It isn’t even beside the point. Was it Churchill who famously said that you make a martini by shaking the gin while facing France and whispering the word “vermouth”? I have heard that it is so, and am ready to believe it, but the point is that a martini is a drink composed mainly of gin and only slightly altered by vermouth, ice, and a garnish. I hear tell of some folk who swirl vermouth merely to coat their martini glass and then pour the vermouth back into the bottle. That’s a way never to run out of vermouth (unless you’ve got a real problem). I myself allow as many as, but no more than, three drops of dry vermouth in a martini. They go directly into the shaker (or pitcher), but their pedigree is no concern of mine. I’ll spend less on them so that I can spend more on the gin, which brings us back to what is meant by “premium.”

For many years I preferred Beefeater because I could get it very cheap and because it seemed to me a clean uncomplicated gin, which it is.

But it also messes with me a tiny bit, for what reason(s) I cannot divine. So, although I haven’t left off drinking it, I drink it less frequently, and rarely (at my age) risk a second Beefeater martini. (I think it was James Thurber who said, “One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”) Something about Beefeater doesn’t reciprocate my admiration.

I like Tanqueray, mainly out of respect for David Brower, the great Archdruid, for whom Tanqueray was the gin of choice and who believed in the “preventive martini,” and I’ll buy Tanqueray now and then. I like Hendrick’s but rarely spring for it. I like Citadelle and sometimes buy it. But my gin of choice, in some measure influenced by a friend who knows his way around a shaker, is Bombay Sapphire. About it I’ll say—and leave it at that—that Sapphire is fruity but clean, complex but uncomplicated—at least for this Teutonic palate. It satisfies my nose and tongue and doesn’t mess with me on Saturday mornings.

Now I wouldn’t be mistaken for one of those wankish cosmopolitan critics here, one of Those Sophisticates who pronounce upon the “subtle notes of vanilla” in the bourbon or the “implications of anise in the robust finish” of this or that liqueur. I want to say nothing more than that Sapphire really satisfies, that it satisfies in all the ways that the lesser objects of our longings satisfy. A premium martini requires a premium gin. I have no need of anything premiuimer than Sapphire.

Garnishes are another matter, however. Brower, who said that only a madman would put an olive in a martini and displace three cubic centimeters of gin, didn’t like how the olive changed the taste of his martini, and I incline to agree with him. (What he would think of the so-called “dirty” martini—an abomination unto the Lord if anything is—is not difficult to imagine.)

Now I like an olive or two fine. I especially like a blue-cheese-stuffed olive, or an almond- or a garlic-stuffed olive. But I will usually stab and then suck the olive before dropping it into the glass. I don’t want too much olive interfering with the gin. I also like a pearl onion garnish or a caper garnish. But these, too, I will also stab and then suck the residue from. Gin should taste like gin not gin plus olive or caper juice. Even the vermouth, finally, is a gesture in the direction of tradition only. No martini drinker would refuse a martini simply because you’re out of vermouth—or olives, for that matter. Any martini drinker who says otherwise is a damned liar and ought to be forced to read Adrienne Rich’s later poetry for a whole afternoon.

(And, briefly to revisit the matter of the gin itself, if you fancy a martini, then 99 times out of a hundred you will drink a martini made from shitty gin rather than not drink one at all. Deny it and we’ll force Charles Bukowski, Robert Southey, or Sylvia Plath on you–or all three at once.)

My garnish of choice, if given the choice, is a lemon twist. I like the look of it. I also like the suggestion of citrus, less assertive than the olive, which, as Brower said, displaces too much gin. I don’t lace the rim of the glass with lemon or do any of that nonsense. I like a crisp clean clear martini: three drops of vermouth lost in a sea of Bombay Sapphire gin, shaken vigorously over ice and drained into a cold and frosty martini glass, where swims a thin lemon twist.

(Coldness matters. Time was I could keep the gin in the freezer and take it without the cut of ice. Not any more, thank God.)

My guests have arrived. They sit on the stools at the counter. My goddess excellently bright has prepared an attractive, not to mention delicious, hors d’oeuvres. The smell of something simple and delectable—onions sautéed in butter, say—hangs in the air and promises a meal fit for puns and irony and campus gossip. Above it all a little Mozart floats in the dim Chablis glow of under-cabinet lighting. The noble bottles, blue and green, stand ceremoniously to the side, near which awaits a stately shaker, a bowl of ice, and the garnishes.

An overture of ice crashes into the shaker. Over the ice rolls a torrent of Sapphire and a trickle of nameless vermouth. I shake and shake some more. From the icebox I retrieve the chilled glasses, into which go the garnishes—to each his own—and then, at last, as if from an ancient laver of regeneration, I baptize the evening properly.

And to think that some poor sods persist in saying there is no God! What fools these mortals be!

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