The Grey Lady (1) vs. M.F.K. Fisher’s Gibson (9)
Rosie Schaap was standing in her kitchen, mixing our first round of martinis exactly as indicated in her New York Times recipe, stirring with a ladylike lacquered chopstick, saying, “I’m not averse to a few shards of ice in my martini.” I gestured toward the opposite view, the idea that a martini should be, as in Anne Sexton’s “Oysters,” “clear as tears.” She replied, “I think they look kind of pretty.”
Feeling mildly adventurous, I asked for the garnish of a sage leaf. She served and sat and toasted. My cold drink had a warm homey aroma. I explained the cockamamie conceit of this tournament, and the fact that the Round of 32 had found her martini iteration going up against M.F.K. Fisher’s Gibson. She deferred to her eminent opponent: “There’s no way I should ever beat her at anything.” I told her about the martini drills I’d designed for Slate’s interns, and she reflected on her need to find good help: “I’m not a very organized person. I’m organized when I’m making drinks. I think that’s why I like making drinks.”
We got to talking about martinis, and poems, and poems about martinis. I said it continued to blow my mind to have learned that when Sexton and Sylvia Plath were students in Robert Lowell’s seminar, they ritually met for after-class martinis at the Boston Ritz-Carlton. It conjured for me a vision of businessmen and Brahmins and bros swaggering up to chat up a coupla dames and encountering—a dark, absurd reversal—two Pulitzer Prize winners for drama.
“I don’t understand a lot about men,” Rosie said. “This is, you know, after a marriage, at 42.” (After, as well, it should be noted, a memoir called Drinking With Men.) “I don’t understand a lot, but I get why kooky boho girls are popular in bars.”
M.F.K. Fisher’s Gibson advances to the Sweet 16 in the West Regional.
It’s the Vermouth, Stupid (1) vs. The Los Alamos (8)
The Bradford (3) vs. The BFG (6)
Hemingway’s Gibson (4) vs. The Critic’s Choice (12)
The Nick & Nora (1) vs. The All-American (9)
Let’s shake things up a bit! Let’s stir up some controversy! Let’s postulate that shaken not stirred—a phrase destined to be recited every night until the end of the world—is not enough to capture all the possibilities for martini mixing. Let me propose that the very question “shaken or stirred?” presents a false dichotomy.
1. Stirring a martini with ice is standard practice. (Certain mystics insist on clockwise rotations or figure-eight formations, but who cares? There is little room for error when you’re twirling a barspoon around a mixing glass.)
2. Shaking a martini with ice is a controversial act. Some people use the phrase bruising the gin to describe the splintering that occurs when you vigorously rattle ice cubes. This expression is not only manifestly douchey-dorky but also dangerously misleading in its implication of violence: There’s nothing you can do to gin that’s worse than what it can do to you. But it is true that shaking introduces a cloudiness and astringency that I find yucky, which is why I’m bouncing the Bradford and preferring to believe that the admirable Gilbert Seldes, calling for a shaken martini in the advancing Critic’s Choice was anticipating the technique of …
Agitating the mix. A couple months ago, back when beginning to develop the delusion that a martini tournament was a good idea, I ran into a brilliantly intuitive bartender. He led me to taste this tournament’s most surprising martini. (And in a whiskey bar, of all places!)
My new friend was Jeff. A couple months ago, he introduced me to the notion of agitating the mix. He first pantomimed the technique for me: There was a glowing pride on his face and a gentle rocking in his arm movement. He spoke of caressing the shaker, and of keeping two fingers near its base until the metal gets too cold to touch: “It lets you know when it’s ready.” He resembled nothing so much as a new father.
A couple weeks ago, I swung into his place to witness the real thing. He poured easygoing Bombay Sapphire and much less vermouth than I usually like over ice, and then he let it sit for a bit, and then he tenderly rolled into existence a potion softer and sweeter than I’d thought to expect.
Last weekend, I presented to the wife a blind taste test: A pair of It’s the Vermouth, Stupids, one stirred, one agitated. She declared the latter the winner, though she couldn’t put her finger on the difference, and part of the charm of the thing, I think, is the mystery. Must I investigate the chemical reactions at play? I’d rather believe that there’s some magic in a low-key shake done to the waltz-time specified by Nick Charles—as in the Nick & Nora, which coasts ahead of the worthy All-American by sheer iconicity.
It’s the Vermouth, Stupid advances to the Sweet 16 in the Midwest Regional.
The BFG advances to the Sweet 16 in the South Regional.
The Critic’s Choice and the Nick & Nora advance to the Sweet 16 in the East Regional.
The 1951 Martini (9) vs. The Charlie Lindbergh Cocktail (16)
The Vesper (2) vs. The Tillicum (7)
Alas, the poor Tillicum: I’d been excited to garnish a drink with lox. Then I got hungry and anxious and stress-ate all the lox. Then I made the drink anyway, reasoning that a martini tournament as rigorous as this one cannot depend entirely on its garnish for its merit. But without the distraction of that fishy ornament, the Peychaud’s bitters drowned the charm of the gin.
That drink met the sink a few days after I’d run into my pal Denise on the street and commandeered her palate. “Sure, I’ll drink a martini for you!” she said, her laugh like a hot-air balloon floating us right back to college. “But I don’t like gin.”
Having pledged not to let the pedantry of my authorial persona seep into my real life, such as it is, I did not hop to correct her usage of “vodka martini” to “Kangaroo” or “Kangaroo Kicker.” Then I pulled a trick familiar to many cocktail-slingers who think vodka common: I asked if she had any food allergies, received an all-clear, and ordered her a Vesper, which is the gin drink to get people who think they don’t like gin.
She took a sip and said, “What I’m tasting in this cocktail right now is a feeling that I call ‘my twenties’—that feeling of waking up and knowing that you’re drunk, and you have to go to work anyway.” She took few more sips and said, “It just tastes like a lot of short-sighted poorly planned swill. What I’m feeling on my palate is not love; it’s lust.”
Finishing the drink, she said, “It’s like a bad boyfriend.”
Thus does the Vesper advance to the next round.
The Charlie Lindbergh Cocktail will inspire similar flights of the imagination. Try one this summer, substituting Cocchi Americano—readily available at a precious vacation-town general store near you—for the discontinued Kina Lillet. That said, the flyboy of 1927 is no match for his opponent, The 1951 Martini, a model I’ve already test-piloted.
The 1951 Martini advances to the Sweet 16 in the South Regional.
The Vesper advances to the Sweet 16 in the East Regional.
The Dutch Martini (4) vs. Two at the Most (5)
The Turf Cocktail No. 2 (12) vs. Martinez Redux (13)
Here we have two losers made with Holland gin, the full, whiskey-ish grandpa of familiar London dry. Call me provincial, but I do not like a dry martini made with Holland gin, and my second Turf Club No. 2 found no way to win over my immoderate affection for the sleek Martinez Redux. However, I do not count these contests total failures for the Dutch. I’d advise you to dribble Genever in your onion brine if able. Also bear in mind that their idiom onder tafel gives English its under the table.
Two at the Most advances to the Sweet 16 in the Midwest Regional.
Martinez Redux advances to the Sweet 16 in the West Regional.