Bad Vermouth and the Myth of the Dry Martini

Okay, look, the so called dry martini with all its apocryphal lore is a pernicious myth leftover from the dark intersection of the post-prohibition loss of cocktail knowledge and America’s post-war takeover by processed food. The dry martini is a product of the fact that for decades the only vermouth widely available in the U.S. was Martini & Rossi. And Martini & Rossi is undrinkable bitter shit. Martini & Rossi is the TV dinner of vermouth. It’s the Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup and Hamburger Helper casserole of vermouth. It’s the Velveeta processed cheese product of vermouth. That multiple generations of bartenders and patrons were taught to make martinis extra-dry was tacit recognition that Martini & Rossi vermouth is a good way to ruin a decent glass of gin.

Another indicator here would be the dominance of the brined olive as the martini garnish of choice. The use of a bitter wine shifted the drink toward the bitter end of the taste spectrum. The olive became the logical garnish. The dirty martini became the next logical evolution of the drink (perhaps I will make a follow-up post in praise of the bitter martini, but debunking it is my mission today). In recent years, the lemon twist has returned to the martini, in some establishments even becoming the default garnish. For years I found the lemon twist confusing, wrong, incongruent with the otherwise bitter cocktail and considered it a popularizing, pandering concession to the lemon drop, cosmopolitan, appletini crowd.

It’s only taken me fifteen years to figure this out, but the key to a good martini is not dry, but wet, just not the Martini & Rossi. Use a flavorful, aromatic vermouth such as Dolin and a martini ceases to be a bitter drink suitably garnished with olives and becomes a fragrant, effervescent drink more appropriate to citrus.

Across a number of domains America is rediscovering quality and undoing the damage of generations of public tastes being formed around the requirements of corporate mass-production. It’s time for Martini & Rossi and the dry martini to go the way of the TV dinner, the casserole, the Velveeta.

To be more general about the matter, a martini should be made with a good quantity of a flavorful, robust white aperitif wine. One way to understand the martini is to realize that it is part of a family of cocktails, one close relative being the Vesper, which uses Lillet Blanc where the vermouth would be. And once you see that substitutions of various aperitif wines is a way to make variations on the martini — Cocchi Americano would be another option — then you understand dry vermouth and its proper place in the martini. Another general rule here would be that vermouth shouldn’t be some miscreant liquor, stalking the outer reaches of your bar, in the little bottle, only there for the sake of the occasional drop in a martini. Generally, if you wouldn’t drink it on its own, you shouldn’t put it in a cocktail (a more distantly related principle is that you should at least occasionally have a glass of your various components on their own, at least for the sake of discerning their place in mixtures; but also, aperitif wines are yummy and worth the occasional sip or slug on their own terms). Another way to get an appreciation for the place of vermouth in a martini is to consider the renaissance of vermouth cocktails in recent years.

What’s the proper ratio? Depends. Somewhere in the neighborhood of three-to-one. Here’s the New York Times head-to-head gin review from a few years back that made Plymouth’s current reputation. They mix their martinis at a ratio of four-to-one — because they “wanted to make sure that the gin was featured prominently.” That’s right: a four-to-one ratio was a deviation meant to foreground the gin for the sake of a gin tasting (Asimov, Eric, “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis,” The New York Times, 2 May 2007).

And here’s Derek Brown, royalty of D.C.’s craft cocktail revival (Wikipedia | twitter), with Kojo Nnamdi mixing a martini at a 50/50 ratio. His preparation is too fastidious for my tastes, but you get the idea regarding ratios and ingredients.

Coda: keeping me honest with myself is one of the reasons for this blog. Three years ago I had a fairly different position on martinis (“How to Make a Mean Martini,” 6 May 2010), but over the course of maybe the last six months I’ve had a few experiences that have completely changed my opinion on this matter (here’s the tweet from 12 March 2013 that’s maybe the moment of realization). Well, I guess I stand by my opposition to the pretense of “mean martini” claims and all the dogmatic and wrong-headed shit-talk. So maybe I’ll stick by my previous point that “most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store.”

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How to Make a Mean Martini

Enough of all this who makes a mean martini and who doesn’t shit. It’s three (maybe four) ingredients. If you can’t make a good one it’s because you’re an unschooled lout.

Don’t get me wrong: I exceeded myself just last week hitting color, aroma and blend, but per my last post, it’s not about making a perfect one — in a pluralistic world no such thing exists — it’s only about the minimal qualification of avoiding bad ones — and not to get me wrong again, I hold this level of ineptitude against a bar, keeping in my head a running list of places who fail even this minimal standard.

Besides, most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store, not while attending to the bottles, shakers and glassware. What’s the right ratio of gin / vodka to vermouth? Anything from the apocryphal “glance across the room” up to four- or five-to-one. How much olive juice is tolerable in a dirty martini? Judging from the shit-talk any ol’ amount you prefer. Choose high quality ingredients, meet the minimum standard, and the rest is a matter of taste — for which it is appropriately widely known there is no accounting.

So let’s all stop posing as if mixing cocktails is like laying microchip circuitry or calculating digits of pi. It’s an improvisational art.

Not the Virtuous Alone

Former Congressman Charlie Wilson died last week (Martin, Douglas, “Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman Linked to Foreign Intrigue, Dies at 76,” The New York Times, 11 February 2010, p. B19). Rep. Wilson came to national attention through George Crile’s 2003 book, Charlie Wilson’s War and later the film of the same name. Mr. Crile’s book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s full of stories that illustrate the hurly-burley of how international politics and foreign policy making really happens. But more to the point, it’s one of those “truth is stranger than fiction”-type stories.

My favorite story from the book is Rep. Wilson’s response to a reporter, incredulous at Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s appointment of Rep. Wilson to the House Ethics Committee. Rep. Wilson had already developed a considerable reputation in Washington for boozing and womanizing when he rolled from a minor scandal involving a weekend of jacuzzi hopping at Caesar’s Palace involving copious amounts of cocaine and a number of showgirls into his Congressional Ethics responsibilities. Mr. Crile reports thus:

From today’s perspective, the image of this philandering hedonist climbing out of his Las Vegas hot tub to render judgments on the conduct of his colleagues seems almost perverse. Even without knowing about the Fantasy Suite, a genuinely puzzled reporter had asked Wilson why he, of all people, had been selected for this sober assignment. Without missing a beat, Wilson had cheerfully replied, “It’s because I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” (p. 81)

In general it would seem that people’s personal moral conduct and public policy advocacy are inversely related. It would be good if more of us types demanded our representation.

Repeal Day

A cocktail on Repeal Day, 5 December 2008

Happy Repeal Day everybody! Here’s a drink for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the State of Utah that brought rampant boozing back to the United States.

I’m presently exploring the Tom Collins. I’m making it with fresh lemon juice and liking it somewhat less than the soda sweetness of the one made with the bottled mix that first introduced me to the drink over Thanksgiving dinner preparations.

I’m skeptical of drinks that require added sugar. I mean, with the alcohol they’re already sweet enough. I tried to omit the sugar from last night’s Tom Collins and found, like with drinkboy’s discussion of the old fashioned, not only is the sugar important, but dissolving the sugar in some water before adding the rest of the ingredients is critical too.

I inherited a subset of S.B.’s booze collection when she left for Ireland a few days ago so I am now in gin and tequila for the remainder of the year and then some so I am a happy kid.

Hillary Clinton: Reloaded

Hillary Clinton throwing back a brew, Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge, Crown Point, Indiana, 12 April 2008

Hillary Clinton hesitating over a shot of Crown Royal, Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge, Crown Point, Indiana, 12 April 2008

For the last few years it’s been kissing your way to the White House. This year for a few days it seemed like it might be sobbing your way to the White House. My hope is that it might now turn to drinking your way to the White House. After a dry drunk as president, this is a welcome change. Words won’t help you now Obama. Time to pony up. You’ve done coke so showing this old lady up should be no problem. Or maybe it’ll be like Marion Ravenwood drinking a bunch of Nepalese tough guys under the table at her bar, The Raven, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Campaigning at Bronko’s Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point, Indiana, Senator Clinton was polishing of a brew when someone offered “You want a shot with that?” John Stewart mocked her for her choice of Crown Royal. But if you watch the video, when it’s suggested that she drink a shot she says, “I want something sweet.” It turns out that her idea of something sweet is actually the sweat end of bitter. When most people say “something sweet” what they mean is a Mellon Ball or a Lemon Drop. When Hillary Clinton say “something sweat” what she means is a sweat whiskey. I’m sold.

I was so amused by this that I actually can’t decide which picture I liked the most. So here she is, both a beer and a whiskey. More at The Gawker (“A Shot in the Dark: Hot Hillary Clinton Party Photos!,” 14 April 2008).

Happy Repeal Day

5 December 2007, Repeal Day, my liquor cabinet

Dewars Scotch has the brilliantly targeted (at me and my ilk) advertising campaign of promoting the notion of Repeal Day (Dewars | independent), celebrating the end of prohibition. That’s a holiday I can get behind!

Fittingly Franklin D. Roosevelt, the last president to have been photographed with a cocktail and a cigarette, ran on the repeal of prohibition, signed the Volstead Act legalizing the brewing of beer and presided over the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. On 5 December 1933 Utah, of all states, ratified the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution ending prohibition. Another reason that FDR is one of the best presidents in U.S. history!

It’s snowing out and the bars in D.C. all suck so I will probably be staying in, but while setting the scene for the photograph above, I happily came across a forgotten bottle of now thirteen-year-old Glenlivet single malt scotch: the kind of thing to keep you warm on a winter night. Sorry Dewars, but your promotional failed on me as I will be drinking the competition tonight.

Friday Cat Blogging: Mogley Gets an Elizabethan Collar

Mogley Gets an Elizabethan Collar, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 31 October 2007

S. is very protective of Mogley. When we’ve gone away for any length, she has put together a package of information about his medical history and the location of the emergency veterinarian and whatnot. She sends an e-mail to the cat-sitter about precautions to observe while watching him that is so detailed and imaginative that one friend commented that is seems like we are on suicide watch with the cat.

So it figures that when S. went to Ontario for a client visit last week, Mogley had been left in my exclusive care for all of one day when he went and injured himself. He was fine when I got home, but while I was ignoring him to his wild chagrin, he put on his usual show of running up and down the hall like a maniac. When next I looked at him, he was missing a pencil eraser-sized patch of fur on his face and had grown a red knot where the fur was missing. I presumed this was some sort of blunt-force injury from an uncontrolled turnabout at one end of the hall.

After a few days in which the spot wasn’t healing, but seemed to be getting worse, it was off to the vet for Mogley. I joked that he was going to get one of those lampshades around his neck to prevent animals from chewing and low and behold, here he is with what I learned is called an Elizabethan collar. His is more like a martini glass. I am tempted to throw a few skewered olives in with his head.

And 3M sure manufacturers an eclectic range of products. Who knew Elizabethan collars were among them?

It was funny at first, but the vet had warned S. that it was going to be difficult to keep the collar on him. They didn’t say why. It turns out that he has sunk into a serious deep blue funk. In addition to preventing him from rubbing his wound, the collar prevents him from taking a cat bath so he is despondent and has taken to licking the inside of the collar as a substitute. His fur has started to get shabby and he has acquired a distinct odor. He slinks around like a decrepit elderly cat and whenever he tries to do something athletic like his usual sprightly self, the collar invariably catches on something making his stunt go awry.

He has no idea of the world of human intentions and designs, hence no idea that this is temporary and for his own good. He thinks this is his life now and it’s like one of the rings of hell (OCD ass lickers dawn an Elizabethan collar for all of eternity).

As much as I like a pet that looks like a cocktail, I can’t wait to take it off him.