Martini Madness

Ernest Hemingway’s Gibson Is Great, but His Martini Is Stupid
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 3 2013 1:15 PM

Martini Madness

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The Round of 64 concludes with a shocking defeat for Hemingway’s martini.

Ernest_Hemingway_in_Milan_1918_retouched_
The martini Hemingway describes in Across the River and Into the Trees closely resembles a load of macho horse crap.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, via Wikimedia Commons

The Grey Lady (1) vs. The Onion Cocktail (16)
Martini Madness is intended for the delectation of persons who are lawfully permitted to enjoy—or to consume without enjoying—alcohol beverages. If you, dear reader, are a precocious nine-year-old, then we look forward to your participation when we try this again next decade. Bug off—but not before finishing this paragraph, which offers a novel notion for a Black-History-Month project: The Onion Cocktail you see here is drawn from The Ideal Bartender, the first cocktail book written by an African-American. Next February, impress your peers and scandalize your assistant principals by reciting the introduction to this fine volume, written by one George Herbert Walker: “I doubt if he has erred in even one of his concoctions ….”

Let there be no doubt that The Onion Cocktail is no exception, no matter its dubious status as the lowest-ranked martini-type-thing to earn a spot in our bracket. It is sly, and it is sherry-like, but alas it is no match for the sturdy classicism of The Grey Lady.

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The Grey Lady advances to the Round of 32 in the West Regional.

Hemingway’s Gibson (4) vs. Salter Sauce (13)
The Montgomery (5) vs. The Critic’s Choice (12)

Elsewhere in savory action, Ernest Hemingway’s Gibson was small and cold and good, thus topping James Salter’s gargantuan rendition of the same. Salter Sauce calls for five ounces of gin, forcing me to wonder whether it is intended as an aperitif or an anesthetic. However, I am rejecting the other Hemingway number in the tournament on account of its close resemblance to a load of macho horse crap. In Across the River and Into the Trees, the novelist marches his heroes into Harry’s Bar in Venice to order two very dry martinis: “Montgomerys. Fifteen to one.” The nickname intends to dis the Allied commander who, per Papa, preferred to go into battle with a troop advantage of that ratio. I suppose the implication is that a real man—Nick Adams or somebody—could have won the Battle of El Alamein with only a jack-knife and a true heart. And I suppose I ought to refer you to a famous winner of the Bad Hemingway Contest: “Nick sat against the wall at Harry’s drinking his dry martini with courage and with grace….”

Hemingway’s Gibson and The Critic’s Choice advance to the Round of 32 in the East Regional.

Two at the Most (5) vs. The Buckeye (12)
Two at the Most, my own modest invention, defeated The Buckeye, which is simply a plain old martini with a black olive in it, the point of which escapes me. If one were to go all the way with this idea—as in a reader-submitted recipe for a dirty black-olive martini dubbed The Kalamata—then one might have a coherent package, but what we have here is a mere affectation.

Two at the Most advances to the Round of 32 in the Midwest Regional.

The Picasso (6) vs. The Martini Is In (11)
The Martini Is In defeated The Picasso, the charms of which are more conceptual than gustatory.

The Martini Is In advances to the Round of 32 in the Midwest Regional.

The FDR (3) vs. The Upside-Down Martini (14)
The FDR defeated Julia Child’s Upside-Down Martini on the principle that the ideal martini is a before-dinner drink, and the Upside-Down is more in the mood of before-lunch-and-then-after-lunch-and-hey-where-did-the-day-go?

The FDR advances to the Round of 32 in the West Regional.

The Tillicum (7) vs. The Black Pepper Martini (10)
The Dirty DeGroff (8) vs. The All-American (9)

The salmon-garnished Tillicum defeated the perfectly solid Black Pepper Martini because I said so—but we will close the Round of 64 with an argument more closely reasoned than that fiat, courtesy of Slate’s Andrew Morgan, who judging his own All-American against The Dirty DeGroff, delivers a fragrant disputation of taste:

Dirty martinis were my lifeblood in college, so I can expertly report that the Dirty DeGroff is perfectly balanced, surprisingly mellow, and eminently drinkable. In other words, it isn’t dirty.

I tried it two ways, because I’m a scientist at heart and a lush on the surface, and any experiment needs sufficient evidence. Mixing olive brine and vermouth is a sort of flavor Russian roulette: Cheap olives make for a seawater concoction, while their fancier cousins yield a more nuanced drink. DeGroff’s proposed version with Dirty Sue (which I would suggest buying online, unless treasure hunts are your thing) is surprisingly bland, the Kristen Stewart of cocktails.  It has none of the verve, the edge, or the bite that makes the dirty martini so enjoyable. And made with the brine from a jar of olives (I used Santa Barbara Olive Company’s cocktail olives), the Dirty DeGroff tastes like a toned-down version of the real thing—think a classy dive bar.

The All-American is a superior libation, if I do say so myself. It’s a well-balanced blend of American-made liquors. (Admittedly, finding these can require a bit of a treasure hunt, but that’s my thing.) A new American gin seems to pop up after every rain shower, and there are quite a few good ones; Death’s Door is among the most widely available, but Barr Hill has an excellent floral gin finished with honey, and Rogue makes one with spruce. Any of these will work in the All-American.

American vermouth can be very hard to find, though fairly easy to make and thereby tailor to your taste. The most important element of the All-American is Sage, a “garden gin” distilled by Art in the Age. As its name suggests, Sage is herbal, but not overly so: It’s light, floral, and savory, with none of the herbs’ vegetal or green qualities. (It’s quite nice on its own with some tonic.) It adds a complex botanical layer to the All-American, which keeps the gin in check, marries it with the flavors of vermouth, which plays a perfect bass note to complement the high lilt of the lime twist. It’s a garden party in your mouth, as a ‘90s advertiser might say, and the perfect way to wash away the taste of dirty disappointment.

The Tillicum and The All-American advance to the Round of 32 in the East Regional.

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

Andrew Morgan is a Slate designer.

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