Martini Madness

Is the Dry Martini “the Supreme American Gift to the World”?
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 14 2013 5:31 AM

Martini Madness

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The proper martini: the most symbolically freighted cocktail in the world.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

What Aristotle said of Greek tragedy in the Poetics is also true of the Martini. “Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form; and there it stopped.” …. I am not arguing that there is a natural recipe for the Martini, a natural proportion of gin to vermouth. I am arguing that there is a natural form, which comprises the essential qualities of the Martini… Its pleasure, which is not voluptuous but astringent, can only be expressed by oxymoron: sensuous coldness, opulent dryness, mysterious clarity, alluring purity.

The dry martini is a cold compound of gin and dry vermouth accented with lemon oil (ideally) and orange bitters (traditionally) and an amazing complex of ideas about tradition (always and for ever). According to the conventions of martini-ography, I am obliged to begin these brief remarks on its character by quoting, with the humble formality of a layman reciting the liturgy, certain psalms of praise. Custom demands a citation of H. L. Mencken, a nod to E.B. White, and a solemn extract from the Gospel of Bernard Augustine DeVoto, who regarded the dry martini as “the supreme American gift to the world.”

DeVoto’s remark seems a bit much, yes—but muchness is inherent to the discussion. When it comes to the martini, even light drinking has a subtext of heavy thinking. Whether the drink is actually very good is, at this point in history, quite beside the point. There is no use in denying the martini’s symbolic power.

Beyond the oxymorons described above by Lowell Edmunds and analyzed throughout his cultural-studies masterpiece (first published, in 1981, as The Silver Bullet)—and beyond the irony of low-class gin emerging as the basis of the definitive establishment quaff—there is a paradox at play in its iconic status: The most classic of the classic cocktails is the least representative. The old-fashioned would not be itself without a dollop of sugar, and the Manhattan, which is the martini’s closest soulmate, likewise requires a hint of sweetness. The daiquiri, the margarita, the sidecar—these and others rely on fruit juice. But the only famous cocktail that is a dry cocktail is the most famous cocktail. The martini stands alone and apart, clear and placidly severe. Among institutional American beverages, its only equal is its exact opposite: Coca-Cola.

A dry martini is an acquired taste, and more than a few acquisitors are inspired by an eagerness to collect a larger cultural inheritance. The drink’s mystique is self-perpetuating; its promises of sophistication resemble self-fulfilling prophecies; its desirability is intensely mass-mediated. There are contemporary martini drinkers whose romance of the drink began as kids watching Hawkeye savor it on syndicated reruns of M*A*S*H. They pledged then that the martini would be their drink and, year later, hazed themselves into the brotherhood.

Within the fraternity, we discover battling factions. A faculty-party scene in Randall Jarrell’s excellent Pictures From an Institution tells us something about the days when martini mixing was a national sport: “We were given drinks, and drank them, and talked while we drank them. But talked, here, is a euphemism: we had that conversation about how you make a Martini. The people in Hell, Dr. Rosenbaum had told me once, say nothing but What? Americans in Hell tell each other how to make Martinis.” Here we have a further defining irony: The drink’s midcentury popularity, which was partly a function of its simplicity, has inspired peerlessly complicated debates. This is classic narcissism-of-small-differences territory, and Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology carries an important word of caution for the professional bartender: “Always remember that the Martini is a purely American drink, and therefore people should be able to exercise freedom of speech when requesting one.” Never more so is the customer always right. What is more, the customer who does not insist on his rightness risks seeming wrong-headed. “I think it’s weird when someone comes in and orders a martini without specifying how they want it,” a bartender told me. “That means you’re not a real martini drinker.”

The 15 recipes here represent the holy texts of a variety of martini denominations. Please note that the relative stiffness of these drinks is the least meaningful difference among them. It has been six decades since David Embury crunched numbers to demonstrate that a martini made with 7 parts gin and 1 part vermouth contains only 3 percent more alcohol than a 3:1. But the balance matters in culinary terms—and the niceties of procedure have theological implications.

What do you believe? We encourage you to praise saints and denounce heretics by upvoting and downvoting the recipes below; the most popular will enter into Slate’s Martini Madness Tournament. (Voting ends Sunday, March 17 at 6 p.m. EDT; tipoff is Tuesday, March 19.)

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