Entry 3: Exploring and explaining the extra-dry dry martini with your guide, Robert Bork.
On Wednesday I flew to Portland where I lectured in the evening and debated Robert Bork the next evening at Pacific University. Bork turned out to be an affable, fat, bearded man, and we got along pleasantly. Indeed, he reminded me that we had met before in the lounge at Yale Law School in 1962 or thereabouts, a meeting I now dimly recall. He seems very conservative. We had a couple of sessions with students, and at one of them we were asked what we saw as the greatest problems in the immediate future. I gave a banal answer—prevention of nuclear war, racial justice, renovation of the American economy. Bork said stoutly: “Soviet aggression. I don't think that Gorbachev has changed Soviet objectives in the slightest. He is just trying to make the Soviet Union more effective in attaining those objectives.” Bork is a chainsmoker, his belly swarms over his belt, and one feels that he may not be long for this world. Nor do I think he is terribly bright. His “original intent” argument makes less sense the more he explains it. But he is likable, and we agreed at least on the indispensability of the dry martini.
—The Journals of Arthur M. Schlesinger
Robert Heron Bork (1927-2012) was a major figure in American jurisprudence—a professor at Yale Law, a big deal in the antitrust field, a judge on the federal appeals court. Liberals will agree that Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden did fine work derailing his 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court, but if they want to be good citizens, they must force themselves to wonder whether the politicization of that process has served the greater interests of the commonwealth. And if they want to be good cocktailians, they must recognize Bork as a prominent scholar of the martini, a man always guided by a philosophy of originalism when associating at the bar.
When Bork was born, the dry martini was quite wet indeed. A 2-to-1 ratio of gin to vermouth was not considered perverse. By the time he graduated Hotchkiss and joined the Marines, a 3-to-1 ratio was common—and then the old standard very quickly began to loosen, and the drink slid toward stiffness. Why? Well, for one thing, the dry martini is called so because it relies on dry vermouth, which is also generically known as French vermouth, and France, in the first half of the 1940s, was struggling to manage certain very challenging supply-chain issues. The extra-dry dry martini—the martini made with very little dry vermouth—was on the rise.
Bork's years earning a B.A. and a J.D. at the University of Chicago—surely a formative drinking period, even (or especially) at an institution representing the antithesis of a party school—coincided with both the development of the dry martini as an institution and with the emergence of the extra-dry. It is clear from Bork’s writings on the subject that he understood the dominant martini recipe of that era as a founding document. (As we note elsewhere, truly original martinis would be on the sweet side, resembling the Emersons served at recent White House Christmas parties.) Regardless of this convenient misreading, and despite his silence on the matter of orange bitters (historically a necessity of the most correct dry martini), and no matter his frequent insistence to clerks and interns that martinis “are essential to cultural conservatism” (where “cultural classicism” is perhaps the more accurate phrase), Bork remains a useful guide to the drink.
In a 1996 National Review piece, he recommended that conservatives numb themselves against the pain of Clinton’s re-election (“perhaps the only pain that Clinton does not feel”) by partaking of his favored anesthetic. Agreeably undogmatic about proportions—far more open-minded than a garden-variety martini snob—he advised that “the proportion of gin to vermouth may range from 4:1 to 8:1. The upper end of that range is preferable, and one may even go to 10:1.” Hmmm …
Let us suppose that we cross the line into the realm of the extra-dry dry martini at about 7.5:1. In a martini any stiffer than this, the vermouth ceases to be a proper ingredient and instead takes on the character of a seasoning. But that seasoning is transformative—as M.F.K. Fisher writes, “Given the silly fillip of a scant driblet of vermouth, icy-cold gin can make a private and soul-satisfying drink indeed”—and so we remain in a realm governed by conventional values. Bork’s approach expresses approval for this practice while implicitly rebuking the cult of extreme dryness. Past a certain limit—maybe 11:1 (what Dale DeGroff calls a “Cold War Martini”), maybe about 20:1 (which Franny Glass hated), depending on the precise ingredients—you wander into a region where, to quote William Grimes, “dryness becomes a notion rather than an actual taste sensation.”
Upon finishing Saving Justice—Bork’s newly published posthumous memoir of his tenure at the Justice Department in general and of the Saturday Night Massacre in particular—I sent a note to its editor, Roger Kimball, asking for further insight into the judge’s mixological mindset. Kimball’s reply included the following:
“On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, I gave Bob a silver vermouth dispenser in the shape of a tiny old-fashioned oiling can … He found it amusing, but he regarded the unbridled diminution of vermouth, favored by many asking for a dry martini, as dangerously latitudinarian.”
Now that’s what I call judicial restraint—recognizing the extreme extra-dry dry as a hybrid of fetish and euphemism. The authors of Harvard Student Agencies’ Bartending 101 put it very nicely: “The extra-extra dry martini is a frequently ordered drink—it sounds a lot more reputable than saying, ‘Hit me like a punching bag with three ounces of cold gin.’ ”
What do you think, readers? Will you confirm Bork’s wisdom? Do any of the extra-dry recipes below hit the extra-sweet spot? Do you believe with Alfred Hitchcock—and, according to legend, Winston Churchill—that the correct amount of vermouth in a martini is the mere idea of vermouth? Call for order in the court of public opinion 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.)
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.