Toward the Wet Martini

Feb. 18 1998 3:30 AM

Toward the Wet Martini

Why vermouth makes the drink.

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It's your senior year in college. You walk into a New York bar with friends. It's a swell place--a gleaming bar, rows of twinkling glasses, the buzz of jazz and conversation mingling softly. You decide to order a martini. The bartender nods appreciatively. You smile and settle onto the bar stool. A Cole Porter tune wafts through the air. You are cool. Then your friend--the Princeton guy--says to the bartender: "Martini for me as well. Bombay Sapphire, straight up, lemon twist--and make it dry, ve-rrr-y dry." You gulp. You can feel your coolness melting like an ice cube in warm tea. You might as well have ordered white zinfandel. Of the many paeans to the dry martini, the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel's is the most fanciful. He begins with his suggested ratio of gin to vermouth:

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"Connoisseurs suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through the bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin." He elaborates: The making of the dry martini should resemble the immaculate conception, for as Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin's hymen 'like a ray of sunshine through a window--leaving it unbroken.'

Now, this sounds divine, but Buñuel makes two common errors. First, he gets the Immaculate Conception, which refers to the conception not of Jesus but of his mother, Mary, wrong. Second, the idea of making a martini with no vermouth in it is absurd. It is, to put it theologically, contra naturum. The martini is a mixed drink. A goodly portion of vermouth rests in its very essence.

To be fair, Buñuel is not alone in his fixation. As far as martinis go, dry is cool. Connoisseurs boast that they make their martinis using droppers to measure out the vermouth. Bartenders will tell you that they barely coat the bottom of the cocktail shaker with the stuff. Some even make it à la Buñuel (not literally; his third error was not to recognize that most martinis are made after the sun sets). One of the variations on Buñuel's story is that of Winston Churchill, who is said to have made martinis by glancing at a bottle of vermouth while pouring the gin. The story is probably apocryphal, because Churchill drank mostly whiskey, champagne, wine, and cognac (well, he drank a lot). Besides, what has the world come to when an Englishman and a Spaniard are held up as authorities on an American cocktail?

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This sorry state of affairs is quite recent. As Max Rudin relates in his fine history of the drink (American Heritage, July/August 1997), the first published recipes for the martini, around the 1890s, consisted of one hefty portion of sweet gin, one hefty portion of sweet vermouth (the red one), a few dashes of gum syrup (more sweetness), Curaçao, and bitters. (Remember that in the 19th century cocktails were "eye openers," drunk in the morning.) I have a cocktail shaker from the 1930s that has a martini recipe engraved on it. This was the martini's heyday. More than anything else, that one drink symbolized the jazz age. Made surreptitiously during Prohibition, it acquired an air of mystery and glamour. It was drunk by the most debonair men of the time: Cole Porter, Nick Charles (the Thin Man), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and FDR. And it was made with two parts gin, one part dry vermouth, half a part sweet vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters. FDR added to the standard recipes one teaspoon of olive brine. By the end of the war, the dry martini became a standard, made with dry gin and dry vermouth and the odd extra ingredient, but usually in a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 (gin to vermouth) ratio. If the late 1940s was the apogee of the American Century, it was also the precise moment that the martini was perfected. After years of trial and error, the country and its cocktail were ready for the world. It is no accident that the man who most embodied the image of an imperial, urbane America towering over the world, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, drank it as his preferred aperitif. In the postwar martini, power and idealism were mixed together--shaken, not stirred.

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Then came the fall. What happened? Like so much of the aesthetic ruin of American life, the martini was hollowed of its beauty by modernism. Initially the two prospered together. After all, the martini was the embodiment of modernism--cool, clean, pure. When Paul Desmond, the saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was asked how he developed the glistening, elegant sound often called '50s jazz or modern jazz, he explained, "I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini." But as modernism became purer and purer, and its buildings, art, and music all became simpler and shorn of any style, the martini had to follow suit. The dry martini had to get cooler, cleaner, starker--in short, drier. Thus began the race to the bottom, with vermouth levels falling precipitously, from a third to a fifth to a tenth to a splash of Martini & Rossi in a sea of Tanqueray. The superdry martini was the cocktail equivalent of Brutalist architecture, theoretically dazzling in its severity but in fact rather tasteless. Next, vodka began to replace gin as the preferred drink, endorsed by James Bond. Now, good, chilled vodka has a lovely, sinuous texture, but it doesn't mix particularly well with vermouth. Which became all the more reason to toss out the mixer. American culture has been moving away from the excesses of modernism. Architects have returned to classical styles and traditional proportions, art is rediscovering the figurative form, music is returning to harmony. But one trend remains ultramodernist, the ve-rrr-y dry martini (Bombay Sapphire gin or Stolichnaya Cristal vodka are the two preferred brands) served in those fancy martini glasses (an exaggerated, awkwardly angular version of the 1930s Art Deco glass, and holding about three times as much liquor). This dangerous trend must be stopped, and since cultural elites are doing nothing about it, we must all do our bit. So the next time you walk into a bar, tell the bartender you want your martini wet--the gin thoroughly impregnated with vermouth. After all, why mix cocktails with Christianity?

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.