Martini Madness

Why Doesn’t Anyone Ever Come Up With New Jokes About Martinis?
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 26 2013 8:47 AM

Martini Madness

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There have been no new jokes about martinis since 1981 at the very latest.

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Alfred Hitchcock said a martini should be "five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth." No one has said anything clever about martinis since.

Photo by AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

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

The IBA Cocktail (1) vs. The Charlie Lindbergh Cocktail (16)
In an unexpected defeat—a stunning upset near the outset of a stunt in spouting nonsense by the imperial ton—Lucky Lindy soared to victory over the IBA. It was the first time that No. 16 seed defeated a No. 1 in the six-day history of the Martini Madness tournament.

I myself had pegged the IBA Official Recipe to fare well way back during what you might call the regular season. In January, when preparing this feral cat of a pet project and mixing miniature little drinkie-poos to taste at home, I found it awkward to handle fractions in my head; in those long-division silences, this recipe, with its metric rendering, spoke in a seductive accent. But as the post-season began, I recovered the arithmetic dexterity of my pre-adolescent self and resolved never to dally with a milliliter again. Moreover, the IBA recipe is as clinical as Esperanto: Compare it to the personal and personable Creative Commons, which presents an identical formula while projecting a singular identity.

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If we halfway believe H. L. Mencken when he says the martini is “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet,” we must conclude that a superlative martini is tailored to the practices and customary units of this country.

The Charlie Lindbergh Cocktail advances to the Round of 32 in the South Regional.

Gin & French (6) vs. The Paisley (11)
A far greater offense to native values than the IBA Official Recipe, the Gin & French earns the active censure of my house’s un-American activities committee. Succeeding best as a justification for maintaining a hubristic sense of American exceptionalism, this thoughtless European combination of gin and French vermouth—cold in feeling but not in temperature—deserves denunciation in its own right, yes, and also for epitomizing everything incorrect about a variety of provincial foreign approaches to the martini.

“I find myself worrying and even having predawn nightmares about dry Martinis,” M.F.K. Fisher once wrote, describing the trouble with finding one when in southern France and off the beaten path:

[L]et it be understood that there is no use asking for a dry Martini. Even more so, one must not try to Gallicize the name and ask for a Martini dry: this means a dry white vermouth made, if one is lucky, in Martini, Italy—and in the back room of the bar, if one is not. This is sometimes served chilled as it is supposed to be and occasionally one finds in it a little piece of tired lemon peel.

Savages.

The Gin & French represents a fundamental gastronomical mistranslation, and I have refused to mix one. Instead, I have envisaged its discontenting dynamics and concluded that Gin & French and its ilk are on the order of the non-American hamburger. Imagine being in London or Stockholm or somewhere on a business trip and ordering a hamburger as a cure for homesickness and receiving Salisbury steak on toast and feeling all the farther from home.

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

The Nick & Nora (1) vs. The Green Wave (16)
The Green Wave, a reader submission, is highly delightful and should be proud of its performance, but it is matched against an archetypal interpretation—3:1, a ratio as solid as gold since the days of The Thin Man—and it should be clear that we here are in the archetype business. Classicism trumps novelty.

The Nick & Nora advances to the Round of 32 in the East Regional.

The Bradford (3) vs. The Direct Martini (14)
As extra-dry preparations go, The Direct Martini has some logic to it. Like the Vermouth Spritz at the Ritz (a formula downvoted by Slate’s readership) it adds vermouth to the surface of the cocktail, thus making the most of a minor additive: The vermouth’s herbal aroma will be more influential than if it were stirred into the situation. That said, it is boring.

The Bradford advances to the Round of 32 in the South Regional.

The Vesper (2) vs. The Hitchcock (15)
The Hitchcock is “five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth.” The Hitchcock is a glass of gin, and a glass of gin has its merits, but being correctly called a martini is not among them—and a martini lacking in correctitude is missing a soul.

The Hitchcock is—like the Noël Coward and like the Churchill—garnished with a quip that once upon a time was clever. The endurance of such one-liners says more about the timelessness of the martini than of the humor. Lowell Edmunds originally published his semiotic study of the drink in 1981; seventeen years later, issuing a revised version, he wrote:

Since the first edition of this book, I have not heard a single new Martini joke, nor have I seen one on the websites where such jokes appear. The main reason for this recurrence of the same is not, however, the dullness of joke-tellers but, I think, the synchronic structure that holds together the symbolic meanings of the Martini. The structure does not change, and therefore the folklore surrounding the Martini does not change…. The dryness jokes are still told, long after the development that inspired them.

Why do the acolytes of the extra-dry cult recite these jokes? Why do they incant ancient wisecracks instead of, say, extolling the sipping virtues of a good gin best served simply?

The Hitchcock tastes thoroughly stale.

The Vesper advances to the Round of 32 in the East Regional.

Champagne Antoine (8) vs. The 1951 Martini (9)
Drily fizzy in concept and execution, the competent Champagne Antoine is a truly imaginative tribute to the martini tradition. The creator drew inspiration from the eponymous New Orleans restaurant; the quaffer tastes the Big Easy influence in the drink’s absinthe hint, then draws a breath and says: “This is fine, but mostly it inspires a longing for a French 75.”

The 1951 Martini advances to the Round of 32 in the South Regional.

The Cuke (2) vs. The Edible Martini (15)
The idea of “flash-pickling” a cucumber in a martini marinade is very nifty. The notion is intoxicating in itself. And yet the fact remains that a pickle is not a cocktail. It is solid reasoning to reject the Edible on the grounds that a drink must flow. 

Plus: What happens if someone in your vicinity says something flamboyantly offensive? The difference between tossing a drink in someone’s face and slapping him with a vegetable is potentially the difference between misdemeanor and felony assault.

The Cuke advances to the Round of 32 in the Midwest Regional.

The Martini de Luxe (7) vs. The No Vermouth Dirty Martini (10)
The dirty martini did not suit my palate.

The Martini de Luxe advances to the Round of 32 in the West Regional.

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