Martini Madness

There Are Beer Snobs, Wine Snobs, Whiskey Snobs—Why No Martini Snobs?
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 5 2013 10:35 AM

Martini Madness

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There are beer snobs, wine snobs, whiskey snobs—why no martini snobs?

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Former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork might more accurately be described as a martini imp than a martini snob.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

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

Borked Up (3) vs. The Martini Is In (16)
The FDR (3) vs. The Paisley (11)
The Bernard DeVoto (2) vs. The Martini de Luxe (7)
The Roger Sterling Silver Bullet (12) vs. The Old Hollywood (13)
The Creative Commons (3) vs. The Hoffman House (11)

A couple weeks ago, a little birdie told us that the owners of a New York bar called The Drink were among the millions of thirsty minds swept up by Martini Madness. On Twitter, the saloon’s management asked, “Seriously can we just sit around and argue about martinis all day?” Disinclined to regard the question as merely rhetorical, I made an appointment to sit around and argue about martinis with The Drink’s mom-and-pop owners. In a barroom decorated to suit the tastes of a vintage drunken sailor, I heard the tale of their mixed-martini marriage.

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Five years ago, Nika was working as a waitress in a hipster Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg. She was in need of training. Adam came in with a friend for lunch on a lazy Sunday lunch. He was in need of a martini. She had never made a martini. He talked her through it, and they hit it off. With perfect confidence, Adam named the date of their most recent martini outing as Dec. 4—the night they went out to celebrate their bar’s second anniversary.

With confidence more faultless yet—indeed, with the certitude of Moses reading the instructions right off the goshdarn tablet—Adam declared his martini mantra: “Two to one. Two to one.” Purist in philosophy and Romantic in temperament, my host defined the classic martini as two parts gin and one part dry vermouth and a lemon twist and nothing else ever. When I asked, “Not even orange bitters?,” he tried not to flinch with pity for my benighted state.

All of you classicists out there—the folks wincing at the unorthodox martini variations featured in this tournament—had a kindred spirit handling the spirits here. “The variety is in using different gins and different vermouths,” Adam said. This struck me as a reasonable position. Then he whipped up a round with Greenhook and Dolin, and as I sipped the thing I saw a catch: In its crisp brightness, this particular martini cross-wired a vernal noonday sunray and a dayspring autumn breeze. For a time it seemed a foolish waste to bother with any other beverage—any other gin, any other vermouth, any other drink whatsoever, even if its appellation of origin were La Fuente de la Juventud

I took a look at The Drink’s cocktail menu, which listed 10 “classics”—the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, the Negroni, the Sidecar, even the Bee’s Knees … But I did not find the martini on the menu, and so I discovered another freak nuance of its cultural fate. My hosts hadn’t made a conscious choice to leave it off, but nor was the omission exactly an error. Nika gave a rundown of the hunches determining the exclusion, explaining “all the baggage” the martini carries from the '80s—namely, a Gucci briefcase—and from the '90s and '00s, when the meaning of the word martini slipped and it came to denote all manner of nonsense (e.g., “GIRLS NIGHT OUT! Applebee's will have drink specials starting at 9:00 p.m. including Sex and the City themed martinis”). “There’s a fear that you’re inviting a conversation that a bartender just doesn’t want to deal with,” said Nika.

Talk turned to the martini’s awkward place in the canon of an American cocktail culture that is otherwise thriving as never before. I observed that the martini holds little appeal for the professional bartenders who fancy themselves mixological innovators: The proper martini is not a chic item, but nor can you ever bring it back because it never really goes away. Moreover, to attempt reinventing the martini is to fuss with its simplicity—and to invite the ire risked by those who tread on ground that is both sacred and contested: Imagine standing on a soapbox in modern-day Jerusalem telling everyone you’ve got new take on Abraham.

And we noted that while Don Draper has done much to restore the Old-Fashioned as a suave order, Mad Men’s most conspicuous martini man makes a far sloppier case. “I like Roger Sterling,” Nika said. “I mean, I love the character. But nobody wants to drink like Roger.” (I agree; my most recent attempt at drinking the likes of a The Roger Sterling Silver Bullet in the character’s way—while on the meaningless make in Midtown, with aggressive intent to get numb—was over a decade ago. Is it a mere coincidence that I have not dry-heaved on a subway platform since?)

We started chatting about adding olive juice and such to martinis. I had a notion that one of the boutique gins behind the bar—St. George Botanivore—was natural match for a bit of brine. They mentioned that the bar that invented the pickleback shot that Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Maddow, broadcasting from Rockefeller Center, have shared on air does a dilly of a dirty martini.

All the talk about dirty martinis made Adam hang his head with sorrow: “It’s a bastardization of a beautiful thing.”

His wife Hepburned a rebuttal in a stage whisper: “It’s pretty fucking good though.”

***

What does all this mean for the tournament?

My new respect for the 2:1 martini is a boon for The Hoffman House, constructed according to that ratio, and bad luck for its compelling competitor, The Creative Commons.

My appreciation for the savor of a dirty martini is cause to grant The FDR a victory over the respectable The Paisley.

My host’s charming absolutism is an occasion to reflect on a crucial sociological matter. America is a diverse country. Your fellow citizens include beer snobs, who like to pretend to be non-judgmental of their Coors-guzzling uncles; wine snobs, whom it’s generally easy to tune out; cocktail snobs, whom you shut up by putting beer or wine in their mouths; and whiskey snobs, who will not let their brown liquor be touched by anything other than branch water from a tributary of Kentucky’s Licking River, say, or a single cube of Xanaduan cave ice. It happens that the whiskey snobs are uniquely threatened by the martini, as a glance at the comments sections will show. What is the deal with that? Can’t a man talk about martinis without someone waving a fifth of Laphroaig in his face?

There are, however, no martini snobs. What you get instead is the martini crank, the worst of whom is the brilliant historian Bernard DeVoto. I mean, he’s great. There is a cuddly charm to the performative rhetoric of The Hour, and I know he’s in on the joke of his bullying banter. But come on. The DeVoto is merely a performance and clearly no match for David Embury’s The Martini de Luxe, a recipe that dares to be helpful, offering guidance rather than dogma. Embury's own takedown of his rival seals the case:

"Now, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the ideal proportions of any drink (and this, of course, includes the Martini) are those that best suit your particular taste. What raises my hackle feathers is the insistence of some writers that a given drink must be made with exactly their specified proportions. I have particularly in mind one chap who shall be nameless because he is only one of many. This gentleman is a facile and highly interesting writer and, except as to gin, rum, and whisky, I have found many of his comments on drinks and drink mixing thoroughly sound. But, when it comes to the Martini, phooey! He insists that the ideal ratio 'may be generalized at about 3.7 to one,' although he admits that it may not be too bad up to about four to one. I suppose that his absolutely perfect ratio would be something like 3.690412 to 1!"

Which brings us back to the curious case of Robert H. Bork, who occupies a middle ground between DeVoto and Embury. Bork might be a theorist with crank tendencies—a kind of martini imp. Might be. I’m not sure yet. I’m still digging up dirt on National Review cruises.   

Let there be no doubt that The Martini Is In is a better drink than the Borked Up. At the urging of the author, I’ve sampled it again, this time using the most correct fancy-ass gin, and I felt very dapper doing so. I should like to drink one while sitting in a club chair in a well-stocked library while getting to the bottom of this originalism business.

Nonetheless, the Borked Up advances to the next round on the strength of its author’s association with the National Review, which ranks second behind The New Yorker as the most martini-mad magazine currently being published in the United States. During the Carter administration, William F. Buckley rose to the defense of the three-martini lunch (“The martini, let’s face it, has become a code word…”); today, the magazine’s website puts out a podcast by that very name, presumably in reference to the quality of the podcasters’ reasoning abilities. But please also remember that John Leonard was an alumnus of the National Review and that before abandoning the vices of drinking liquor and writing fiction, Leonard published a novel titled The Naked Martini. (Nor can we forget NR contributor Joan Didion, who, in the introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, recommends a writers’-block remedy I’ve come to think of as Saint Joan’s Bone-Dry Martini Toddy: “I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.”) Heads up, Jonah Goldberg, Slate is about to revolutionize the way you bloviate about the Gibson. 

Borked Up advances to the Sweet 16 in the Midwest Regional.
The FDR and The Martini de Luxe advance to the Sweet 16 in the West Regional.
The Old Hollywood advances to the Sweet 16 in the South Regional.
The Hoffman House advances to the Sweet 16 in the East Regional.

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