There’s nothing like a good James Bond marathon, and yet halfway through Goldeneye, I realize that what this epic Bondfest needs is a strong martini.
Unfortunately, I have no vodka or gin in the house, so rather than quench my actual thirst, I attempt to distract myself and satiate my thirst for knowledge by looking into the historical origins of the martini (feel free to scream “NERD!”).
In its purest form, a martini is a combination vodka or gin and dry vermouth, maybe with a dash of bitters and always with a garnish, usually an olive or lemon twist. It is usually recognizable by the iconic V-shaped glass, though not everything served in these long stemmed “martini glasses” is a martini. There are too many variations to count; it doesn’t matter whether you go for a Gibson, Vesper, or you like your martini’s extra dirty (unless you’re in a porn or a parody, never order this with a *wink*). Just know if you order a chocolate martini or a lemon drop, we’re not judging… BUT you’re wrong and will be rightly ridiculed by martini snobs. The dry martini will forever be the drink of James Bond, bored housewives, Mad Men, and many a femme fatale.
Classy, strong enough to push you back in your chair and tantalizingly elegant and subtle when done well, the martini never goes out of style.
Maybe because of Bond’s affinity for “Vodka martini, shaken not stirred,” I didn’t realize that the martini is often seen as a straight-up American drink. In looking into the background of Mr. Martini, the verity of its origin story is less than clear (I’m going to need a strong drink if I read one more article that describes the history as “murky” GET IT, LIKE A MARTINI!?). In terms of the difficulty in uncovering documentation of the invention of cocktails, my hypothesis is that if the inventors were successful in their endeavors, everyone was too drunk to remember to write it down. Now we have mixologists, who, like mad scientists, record their triumphs and failures meticulously, scribbling away in leather notebooks covered in mustache stickers (at least that’s how I imagine it). So, just like with any legend or superhero that’s been around for decades, there are several conflicting origin stories.
The first narrative follows a gold miner in the California Gold Rush. This lucky bastard strikes it rich and saunters into a bar to celebrate his boon. He asks the bartender to make him something special. Now, if this story was more realistic, it would probably end with him getting mugged for so openly flaunting his newly acquired wealth, but we’ll ignore that. The quick-thinking barman whipped him up a “Martinez Special”, named for the city of Martinez, California, where the bar was purportedly located. There is a plaque in downtown Martinez claiming to mark the birthplace of the martini, but that carries as much validity as a degree from a fake online university (Thanks Barkley University!). As David Wondrich points out in his book Imbibe!, the story “rests on the testimony of one old man who was an infant at the time the event supposedly occurred”.
Another version of this story follows these same lines, but stars the celebrated bartender “Professor” Jerry Thomas, who creates the drink in San Francisco for someone headed to Martinez, CA.
Thomas is infamous for publishing perhaps the first cocktail recipe book, The Bar-tender’s Guide, in 1862. However, the Martinez did not appear on paper until the 1887 edition of the book, two years after Thomas’ death, so his credit is hardly absolute. But who knows? Maybe his spirit retained a connection to his spirits…or he was actually an undead bartender serving Zombies. Maybe he really invented the Ghostini. Or a Dead Manhattan Walking. Really Old Fashioned. Boo-lini. Moscow Ghoul. Ok, I’m done.
Some people (probably New Yorkers) think that the original Martini was actually concocted at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel by barman Martini di Arma di Taggia in 1912. Never mind that we’ve already established a version of the Martini was written down decades earlier. New York defies your logic! The L train at this point is basically powered by unverified claims of New Yorkers’ inventions.
Yet another theory proposes that the cocktail comes from “Martini & Rossi”, a brand name of an Italian sweet vermouth first produced in 1863. Bar patrons would order a “gin and martini”, specifying the name of the vermouth, like a “Captain and cola”, but so much classier. It’s a feasible, if less enchanting story, and also has to its credit the fact that the original martini was not always the lovely dry cocktail we think of today.
The Martini was likely an evolution of the Manhattan. Having found that whiskey and vermouth made a nice combination, bartenders most likely then had to deal with people asking for a Manhattan “but, like, without whiskey…” so I’m sure they experimented with other liquors.
Early recipes went by the names Martini, Martinez, Martine, Martena, Martineau, Martigny or Martinininini for the very drunk.
In 1888, Harry Johnson’s Bartender Manual listed the Martini Cocktail as equal parts Old Tom Gin and sweet vermouth, Boker’s bitters, orange curacao, gum (sugar syrup, not chewing) and a lemon twist. The recipe for a Turf Club was also remarkably similar, deriving its name from a gambling club in New York that was probably much like a can of Four Loko, it looks respectable and harmless enough from the outside, but what lies inside is corruption and nastiness that you will definitely be regretting the next day. Anyway, a Turf club was simple enough: a dash or two of Peruvian bitters and equal parts Old Tom Gin and Italian Vermouth. This was pretty close to the original Martinez, which also included a couple of dashes of Maraschino and has a 2-to-1 ratio of vermouth to gin. All of these earlier installations had sweeter elements, but as gentlemen began to prefer dryer cocktails (probably after they realized that the hangover with sweet drinks was closer to death), the Dry Martini became all the rage. It’s first referenced in 1890 and fairly close to the version we know and love today: dry gin (Plymouth or London) mixed with dry (French) vermouth in equal or nearly equal parts. Add a bit of orange bitters or lemon peel and voila: a Bond-worthy cocktail. Although I should mention that most early martinis were often stirred, not shaken, sorry James.
So how did the Vodka martini come about? And how did the martini get so famous and become a staple of literature and pop culture? No idea, but give me some time and a couple of Martinis, and I’m sure I can come up with something suitably murky…
“I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table. After four, I’m under my host.”
Wondrich, David. Imbibe!: from absinthe cocktail to whiskey smash, a salute in stories and drinks to “professor” Jerry Thomas, pioneer of the American bar. Perigee, 2015.