“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.”

–Dorothy Parker

Poor Roger Sterling. As the 1960s unfold around him, he’s becoming a man unhinged, fading further into irrelevance with each turn of the calendar page. In the office and at home, he is a man befuddled by the world around him, and, increasingly, he’s drowning his sorrows in vodka. It’s a strange evolution. Early on, Roger was just as likely to join Don in a Canadian Club as he was to down an icy vodka martini. But below the surface, it’s another example of the subtle characterization that marks Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men work.

Roger should be, given his age and stature, a gin man when he reaches for clear spirits.  Roger’s embrace of vodka as his anesthesia of choice is an attempt to keep up with the times, to stay hip to what the kids are drinking, a last grasp at relevance. It is the ultimate contrast to Don, a man who is also struggling with the way the world is changing around him, but actually striving for an idealized core of morality, adapting to things he cannot change, while still holding fast to the things he values, including his beloved whiskey.

A TOUCH OF BACKGROUND

No one knows, definitively, who created the Martini. No one knows, really, who first mixed gin, vermouth and orange bitters and sighed with happiness. There are legends. There are half-truths; there are early recipes under other names. But the Martini, when carefully mixed, lives on a knife edge of glamour, a little bit of dangerous décolletage with the raspy edge of a smoker’s laugh. Gin, Vermouth and bitters exist first as the Turf Club (calling for Old Tom Gin and Italian Vermouth with Peruvian bitters in 1864), then as the Martinez (Old Tom Gin, Italian Vermouth, Maraschino and the recently resurrected Boker’s Bitters in 1867). By the later years of the 1800s, a mixture of equal parts French Vermouth and either Plymouth Gin or London Dry Gin with a touch of orange bitters was widely known as a Martini, and it is still a terrific idea to mix up a cocktail that way, especially if you have to work in the morning.

A BIT ABOUT VERMOUTH

Perhaps no other tool in the bartender’s arsenal is as misunderstood as vermouth.  Vermouth has been commercially produced since at least the 18th Century, and at its core, exists to solve a very simple problem: while wine is easy to make, good wine is very difficult to make. You can solve that problem by fortifying bad wine with a touch of un-aged grape spirit, and macerating or infusing a mixture of herbs, barks and spices in the wine to obscure the lack of quality in the base juice. One of the flavors used in vermouth was wormwood, or, in German, Wermut, something that Germans had been adding to their wines since the 16th Century. Over time, two styles emerged, a dry, white vermouth, that came to be associated with French producers, and a sweeter, darker colored vermouth that was mostly of Italian origin. Both are made with a white wine base, but the Italian style adds burnt sugar to the mix for color, and while exactly what’s in a vermouth is usually a closely guarded secret,  you’ll frequently  find notes of clove, cinnamonquininecitrus peelcardamommarjoramchamomilecoriander,juniperhyssop and ginger lurking there.

But Vermouth is wine. It is aromatized and fortified, but it will still go bad if left open.  Keep an open bottle of vermouth in a bar rail for a few weeks, and it loses its freshness, keep it there for six months and it is an acrid mess. Store your vermouth in the fridge after opening, and it will last you quite some time, especially if you use a wine saver to keep the air out. Many a Martini has been ruined by old, worn out vermouth. If your local watering hole keeps their vermouth on the bar rail, perhaps think about ordering something else.

bitters

A BIT ABOUT BITTERS

Cocktail bitters, the best known being the ubiquitous yellow capped Angostura, have long been neglected. While they are decidedly bitter, they aren’t often used as a primary flavor in a drink. Think of them as seasoning. If you grill a prime steak unadorned with salt and pepper, it is still a prime steak, but it is bland and unexciting. A properly seasoned steak, with just the right balance of salt and pepper, isn’t perceived as salty or peppery, it is perceived as a great steak, the spices highlighting and enhancing the natural flavor of the grilled meat.

Bitters in cocktails do much the same thing. They enhance and bridge flavors of disparate ingredients, and aren’t necessarily noticeable except in their absence. In your Martini, your gin is flavored with juniper and other botanicals that can include lemon and/or bitter orange peel, aniseangelica root and seed, orris rootlicorice root,cinnamon, almond, coriandergrains of paradisenutmeg and cassia bark or anything else that captures a distiller’s palate. Each gin is different, but notice the overlap between those botanicals and what you find in vermouth. The orange bitters called for in a classic Martini are there for a reason: they help the gin and the vermouth embrace, and they shouldn’t be left out.

smirnoff

A WORD ON VODKA

Vodka was, for a long time, mostly a curiosity on the American liquor scene. Later, with the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, it had unsavory connotations with the Red Menace, and its consumption was largely limited to American immigrant communities.

Enter the Smirnoff Corporation. By the 1940s, Smirnoff was owned by G.F. Heublein Brothers of Connecticut, a sale that came about as fallout from the Russian Revolution. John Martin, a salesman for Heublein, couldn’t move his product. No one wanted it outside of a few Eastern European immigrant communities, and, well, why should they have? By United States law, vodka is odorless, colorless and tasteless. Who wants to drink something with no flavor?

But, in 1941, there was a moment of sublime marketing synchronicity. Martin met Jack Morgan, of the Cock ‘n’ Bull Company, and they came up with the Moscow Mule, mixing Martin’s vodka, Morgan’s equally unsalable Ginger Beer and a bit of lime. They came up with a nifty marketing package, serving the concoction in a copper mug, and made it the house drink at Morgan’s Cock ‘n’ Bull Tavern on Sunset Strip. A star was born.

Woody Allen Smirnoff

Over the next two decades, Smirnoff aggressively marketed its product, coming out with the brilliant “It Leaves you Breathless” campaign in 1952. Those ads, targeted at businessmen who wanted to get away with a three martini lunch, are worthy of a Don Draper pitch, as they convinced a nation to embrace a spirit they never knew they wanted. Those ads were followed up with celebrity endorsers like Woody Allen and product placement in James Bond films beginning in 1962. By the mid 1970s, Vodka was the bestselling spirit in the American market, and it has not relinquished its poll position since.

A WORD ABOUT GIN

Any bartender who cares about his craft has heard a guest whine, “But I don’t like gin!” The complaint is not connected to age or gender or race or social status. It is simply a truism, born out of badly made cocktails, a generation’s misunderstanding of the Martini, or a healthy dose of dreadful high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavoring masquerading as tonic water.

The rise of the “Martini Bar” in the late 1980s and 1990s was a blessing and a curse. It returned cocktail culture to the country after the draught of the 1970s, but it taught bartenders and, more importantly, consumers, a lot of bad habits, the most odious of which are: Martinis are made with vodka, Martinis need barely any vermouth (or none at all), Martinis are garnished with olives, and Martinis should be served in large, V-Shaped buckets.

The glassware issue is paramount. When a Martini is properly mixed, the base ingredients comprise no more than three ounces or so of liquor. The proper stirring is going to add another two to two and a half ounces of water. The most common “Martini Glasses” sold by restaurant supply houses measures more than nine ounces. So bartenders have been trained to fill those glasses up. A Martini must be cold, cold as whatever cliché you chose, and if you’re dumping what is in essence nine ounces of cold, diluted gin into a glass, plopping in an olive, and calling it a Martini, by the time that drink is finished, it will be too warm; it will make you think you don’t like gin.

The truth is that modern London Dry Gin, the most common style on your liquor store shelf, is not all that tasty on its own. But, mix it with some compatible friends and it shines.

Mad-Men-Restaurants

THINGS THAT HAVE NO BUSINESS GOING ANYWHERE NEAR A MARTINI

1) Olives.  They are delicious and salty, and please, serve a dish of them next to a Martini. But they don’t belong in the glass. They are a snack, not a garnish. If you must have an olive, please request one without a pimento tucked inside, and please, please, please don’t stuff the poor thing with Blue Cheese.

2) Olive Brine. The “Dirty Martini” is genius in that it cuts liquor costs for bars, by replacing what is usually vodka with the toxic soup used to preserve commercial bar olives. Read the ingredients on a jar of bar olives: you don’t want that in your body.

3) Any spirits other than good gin, fresh vermouth and orange bitters. For the love of all things decent and proper, keep the vodka on the shelf. Even Smirnoff, when they first started marketing a vodka and vermouth concoction, had the good sense to not call it a Martini. For some reason, they went with “Kangaroo.” Feel free to drink that if you’re so inclined, but it doesn’t taste nearly as fine as a Martini. In the simplest terms possible: If what you are drinking does not contain a goodly measure of gin, a decent portion of vermouth, and a dash or three of orange bitters, you are not drinking a Martini. The “Extra Dry Vodka Martini” is not a cocktail. It’s a cry for help, and it sounds a lot like Roger Sterling.

4) Cocktail shakers. Do not shake a Martini. Old wags will tell you that shaking will “bruise the gin.” What that means is anyone’s guess, and it is probably bunk. But, part of the joy of a well-made Martini is its crystal clarity in the glass and its silken, heavy texture on the tongue. You can’t get either of those things with a shake. Please stir – James Bond, that vodka fetishist, be damned.

THINGS THAT BELONG IN A MARTINI

A nice, freshly cut lemon twist, with the oils expressed over the glass. Good gin of the London Dry, Plymouth or Old Tom Variety. Dry Vermouth, preferably from either Noily Pratt or Dolin.

Nothing else.

plymouthgin

ONE QUICK WORD ON GIN STYLES

By the late 1800s, there were four known gin styles available in the United States.  Hollands Gin, or Genever, is a Dutch Spirit that starts its life much in the manner of whiskey, with botanicals added into the distillation. Generally, it is not fond of the French style of vermouth; though seeking out a bottle of the stuff from Bols is well worth it for exploring other classic gin drinks from the 1800s. Old Tom was the first British attempt at ripping off the Dutch product. There are two labels widely available in US, Hayman’s and Ransom, the latter heavier and aged in used Pinot Noir barrels, and the former lighter and perhaps more historically accurate. Both are delicious and sweeter and less assertive than London Dry, but they require a different touch on the pour. Plymouth Gin and London Dry are similar products, with London Dry being the style favored by widely known brands like Bombay, Tanqueray and Beefeater. Plymouth is a separate style, generally slightly lower in alcohol, and a little less assertive. One label remains, the eponymous Plymouth Gin, and it’s worth seeking out a bottle, despite recent price hikes that reek a shade of gouging. Plymouth, with its muted juniper in comparison to London Dry, makes an excellent starter Martini for those afraid of gin.

TWO RECIPES:

An Original Martini

1.5 oz London Dry or Plymouth Gin

1.5 oz Noily Pratt Dry Vermouth

3 dashes Orange Bitters, preferably Bittermen’s or Regan’s No. 6

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist, expressing the oils over the glass.

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A Dry Martini

2 oz Hayman’s Old Tom Gin

1 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

3 dashes Orange Bitters, preferably Bittermen’s or Regan’s No. 6

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist, expressing the oils over the glass.

Seek out a gin you like, and try to find a vermouth that suits it. Play with the orange bitters (but use Fee Bros as a last resort). And, most importantly, enjoy.

About the Author: Bill Norris is the beverage director for the Alamo Drafthouse, The Highball, 400 Rabbits and Midnight Cowboy. Before joining the Drafthouse family, he tended bar in New York, London and Austin and created award winning cocktail programs at FINO and Haddingtons. His novel Snapshots, was published in 2001, is currently out of print, and can be purchased for a mere one cent on amazon.com.