Martini Madness

Knocking Back Sweet Martinis With Our New Pal Edith
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 23 2013 11:38 AM

Martini Madness

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Six sweet-martini matchups decided in a single night, with the help of a new pal.

Jennie_Churchil
Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome.

via Wikimedia Commons

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

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

The Los Alamos (8) vs. Traditional Martini (Sweet) (9)
The Maddow (7) vs. The Martinez (10)
The Rolls-Royce (5) vs. The Turf Cocktail No. 2 (12)
A Perfect Martini (4) vs. Martinez Redux (13)
The Third-Degree Cocktail (4) vs. The Old Hollywood (13)*
The BFG (6) vs. The Ideal Cocktail (11)
The Tuxedo Cocktail No. 2 (7) vs. Séverine Serizy (10)

Lady Randolph Churchill—the American mother of the British Bulldog—was born Jeanette Jerome, on January 9, 1854, at home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. The Jerome family was growing, and little Jennie’s mom strongly felt they needed more space. So what did her parents do? Start looking in Prospect Heights? Bed-Stuy? Irvington? No: In 1859, Leonard Jerome built a mansion with a mansard roof on Madison Square—a building later occupied by The Turf Club, or “the Tough Club,” a playpen for sporting men. In his book Imbibe!, the cocktail scholar David Wondrich spends a page squinting at the theory, plausible but unproven, that gin and vermouth first got together there in the early 1880s.

On March 19, 2013, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, I walked into my regular place to get a Turf Club cocktail. I'd overheard the bar manager say they were thinking about putting it on their spring menu. Trouble was, no one knew which Turf Club they wanted to join. As I will need to keep repeating, to follow the early history of the martini is to encounter confusion at every turn—tangled threads, nomenclatural jumbles, mistaken identities, spot-the-difference puzzles, and cases of obscure original recipes overshadowed by brilliant sequels. It is as if the bartenders sharing and stealing recipes were playing games of telephone on A.G. Bell's liquid transmitter. (Note to self: Start working on a Turf Club variation to be called The Liquid Transmitter.)

On Esquire's website, Wondrich delivers a scouting report on the martini's rakish ancient relation:

There are at least three distinct Turf Cocktails, y’see. There's the English one, as first found in Harry McElhone's 1922 ABC of Mixing Cocktails: equal parts Plymouth gin and dry vermouth with 2 dashes each Maraschino liqueur, orange bitters, and absinthe, garnished with an olive. That's the most popular one. The earliest one, as far as we know, comes from George J. Kappeler's Modern American Drinks, from 1895: 2 ounces Old Tom gin ... with a dash of Angostura and 3 dashes orange bitters, served up with a twist. For our money, though, the best one comes from the bar book of the Old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

The Waldorf-Astoria version is this tournament's Turf Cocktail No. 2, which is not be confused with this tournament's Tuxedo No. 2, which is itself easy to confuse with Harry Elhone's Turf Club No. 3 (above), because they are very similar, but with the crucial difference that this tournament's Tuxedo No. 2 specifically calls for a sweetened Old Tom gin. Later in the week, while sampling cocktails with my old friend Kyle, I had a Tuxedo No. 2 that tasted as suave as its name; Kyle remarked that it had the character to "lay down a firm foundation for a night out." For the record, a Tuxedo No. 1 is roughly a wet martini with a few dashes of absinthe; thus, it is similar to this tournament's The Third Degree, which Kyle and I disliked for the blatant way the absinthe insinuated its licorice into our gums. And, come to think of it, wasn’t the one flaw of the Tuxedo No. 2 that its anise emerged as one flavor rather than merging with others to enhance a flavorsome whole?

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Where was I again? Oh, that's right—I apologize—my regular place in Brooklyn: It was 6:30-ish. I was sipping a Turf Club No. 2: Not too shabby! I thought that, in its richness and simplicity, it had the makings of premium nightcap material, a quality rare among its competitors in this tournament. With obvious iconographic exceptions—nights at jazz clubs and deb balls and such—the mood of the dry martini chimes with the indulgent corporate lunchtime and the lilac relief of cocktail hour. Is the sweetish martini set to a different clock?

My Turf Club gleamed. My Timex tocked. My pal Edith walked into the bar. To be clear, she is not yet my friend at this point in the story, which is a point of the story. She was a friend-of-a-friend-type, but she’d shown great enthusiasm for Martini Madness on her website. "I have already been working on trying out some of the recipes," she’d written, in a post that went up precisely five hours after the series debuted, which is to say at 10:30 in the morning. Clever girl. I’d sent her an e-mail. When she arrived at the bar, I asked her what she usually liked to drink. With pride she named the Manhattan—and also she muttered something about a recent piña colada spree.

I mentioned the martini drills I was designing for interns, and she talked about imprinting ducklings. I asked her if she was OK with my using her name in this piece, and she'd said that'd actually be perfect because she needs the world to hear what she has to say, but she's sick of writing. I had the barman set her up with this tournament's Séverine Serizy, which is an improved Buñueloni, which is itself a Negroni variation. You'll find the original recipe in the Luis Buñuel memoir My Last Sigh (right alongside the instructions for the in-and-out extra-dry that Slate readers, to their credit, rejected from this contest):

To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of a martini .... After the dry martini comes one of my own modest inventions, the Buñueloni, best drunk before dinner. It’s really a takeoff on the famous Negroni, but instead of mixing Campari, gin, and sweet Cinzano, I substitute Carpano for the Campari. Here again, the gin—in sufficient quantity to ensure its dominance over the other two ingredients—has excellent effects on the imagination. I’ve no idea how or why; I only know that it works.

Edith thought it tasted like a candy that the Dowager Countess might sneak to herself. I took a sip and did not disagree. Having perfected my own sweet martini, I saw no reason to bother with the primitive traditional sweet martini ever again. I decided on the spot to eliminate the Traditional Martini (Sweet) from the tournament, despite not having tried its competitor, J. Robert Oppenheimer's Los Alamos martini, thus buying myself some time to figure out how to prepare the honey-lime syrup for which the Oppenheimer drink seems to call. Then I checked my phone, found my bracket, and decided to see how many sweetish variations we could work through.

We ordered one Martinez, and I called it the hinge in history between the Manhattan and the martini. "It's the missing link?" she asked. "But it's not even missing,” I said. “It's right here in this glass!" We ordered one Maddow, a cocktail that is weirdly, roundly floral on account of baroque interactions among its two vermouths and St. Germain. "That drink kind of boomerangs. It's too big for the human mouth," she noted. We asked for the Maddow to be cleared, and we broke some bread, and I explained that my enthusiasm for the Martinez Redux, which is made with a sweet white vermouth, related to its deceptive clarity: Historically, sweet vermouth and red vermouth are synonymous; proverbially, we drink first with our eyes; personally, I expected the see-through Redux, subverting sensual expectations, to be a Martini Madness success story, which is easy for me to say, as the sole Martini Madness arbiter. But maybe the Redux should be a bit less sweet—an extra quarter ounce of gin? Reduce the Maraschino to a barspoon? 

And I explained how, a week or so before, at a friend's place, I’d made two Ideal Cocktails in conditions that were Less Than; the Ideal Cocktail is unworthy of the name even in perfect circumstances, but I was working with vermouth that was slightly off. Reviewing the failure, I kind of started feeling bad again about not having told my friend, or my readership, to keep vermouth in the fridge. Everybody, refrigerate your vermouth.

We ordered one Perfect Martini and one Rolls-Royce, the latter defined by the presence of Bénédictine, which, like Chartreuse, is a liqueur of funky herbality and a big monk-y business. The Rolls-Royce is big and busy (no match for the sturdy Turf Club, I see in retrospect). My sidekick sipped the other: "The children are playing but they're kind of slumped against the wall of the playhouse"—which seemed to make perfect sense at that martini moment.

The Los Alamos and The Martinez advance to the Round of 32 in the Midwest Regional.
The Turf Cocktail No. 2 and The Martinez Redux advance to the Round of 32 in the West Regional.
The Old Hollywood, The BFG, and The Séverine Serizy advance to the Round of 32 in the South Regional.

Update, March 25, 2013: This piece has been updated to include The Third-Degree Cocktail vs. The Old Hollywood in the list of seven matchups. (Return to the updated section.)