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.”

Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps, Part II: Thank God for Economic Destitution

A few months ago I pointed out that while more mainstream evangelicals may know better how to couch their statements so as not to be so vulgar, there is really little difference between their widespread beliefs and those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (“Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?, 31 July 2012). Adding to this litany, Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had the following to say shortly after the reelection of President Obama (Beamon, Todd and Kathleen Walter, “Franklin Graham to Newsmax: ‘We Have Turned Our Backs on God’“, Newsmax, 15 November 2012):

Maybe God will have to bring our nation down to our knees — to where you just have a complete economic collapse. And maybe at that point, maybe people will again begin to call upon the name of almighty God.

In Christian apocalyptic fantasies, ten percent unemployment, diminished lifetime earnings, lost homes, trillion dollar deficits and worse aren’t economic happenstance or the work of the greedy and short-sighted on Wall Street. They are the just deserts that a jealous god reigns down on those who would create a pluralistic society. One can almost see the Reverend Graham with one of those brightly colored signs outside the house of a poor family being evicted: “Thank God for Foreclosures.”

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?

What makes the recent comments of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan T. Cathy regarding homosexuality, as well as Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert regarding the Aurora shootings particularly galling is just how close they are to the sentiments of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Consider: here is Mr. Cathy’s remark:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, “We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

And here is Rep. Gohmert’s assessment of the mass shooting in Aurora:

We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country and … what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless, crazy act of terror like this takes place.

You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? … where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.

In Rep. Gohmert’s mind, mass shootings aren’t chance, or human actuated events, but specific, willful, malicious omissions on the part of God.

How else are we to interpret this than as saying that God will indiscriminately strike down your fellows should a nation defy his will? And how is this anything other than the unavoidable opposite of the notion that God takes favor on those who obey him? But insidiously, how far is it from statements such as these to Pastor Phelps’s “Thank God for IEDs”?

For the remainder of this argument I defer to a thousand years of disputation over the incompatable triad.

New Aesthetic, 1975-1979

The aim of all these conferences is to be like the Broad Street water pump: a hub where everyone gets infected. The cholera outbreak of South by Southwest 2012 is New Aesthetic.

A morning sessions on day four of the conference was dedicated to the subject and James Bridle, the prime mover of the theory, wrote up some notes of his talk in what is now the text of reference (“#sxaesthetic“, booktwo.org, 15 March 2012). The basis for Mr. Bridle’s talk is the material he has been collecting for nearly a year now via his New Aesthetic tumblr. Bruce Sterling attended the session and wrote it up in an effusive post for Wired (“An Essay on the New Aesthetic“, 2 April 2012). A significant conversation has broken out on twitter. Julia Kaganskiy at The Creators Project has collected up a number of responses (“In Response To Bruce Sterling’s ‘Essay On The New Aesthetic’“, 6 April 2012). Ian Bogost has responded in The Atlantic Monthly (“The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder“, 13 April 2012).

U.S. Navy MARPAT digital camouflage

In the military, where the people are tessellated.

And Mr. Bridle isn’t making this up. There is the example of New Aesthetic with which most people are probably most familiar, namely military’s new generation BDU, the ACUPAT / MARPAT digital camouflage, consisting of complex, non-repeating pattern generated by fractal equations. But before starting this post I decided to go out and walk around my neighborhood to see how much stuff I could find in half-an-hour with a vaguely New Aesthetic sensibility. The street that I live on is only five blocks long, boxed in by a school, sports fields and parks department superblock to the east and Rock Creek Park to the west. At the east end of my street, the local library is undergoing an expansion. Here is the new wing under construction:

New wing of the Mount Pleasant Public Library under construction, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

At the west end of my street, this guy finished a repurposing of his off street parking into an outdoor area just in time for the best weather of the year:

Repurposed neighborhood back parking stall, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

That’s two independent projects within five blocks of each other in my sleepy spur neighborhood. New Aesthetic is obviously real as a popular practice, not just a theory.

I’m sympathetic but skeptical for a number of reasons. I will detail what are my two major reasons for skepticism here.

Bricks: pixilated clay, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

Bricks: pixilated clay

First, as Nathan Jurgenson has said, an oddity of New Aesthetic is that “many of the images rely on the techno-nostalgia of the near past.” New Aesthetic is technologically eclectic in its inspiration, with some of its images reliant on the most advanced scientific visualizations, but a significant portion of its most outstanding images rely on pixilation, low resolution, interpolation, false color, reduced data sets or the selectivity of only machine-decisive elements. So we end up with things like pixilated crayons and umbrellas.

But this isn’t representative of the influence of technology on contemporary technology. It is an anachronism, a recreation of an already superseded era of computer capability. To illustrate by reference to the development of stealth technology.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

New Aesthetic, circa 1979

The first of the modern stealth airplanes was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. In response to the effectiveness of surface-to-air missiles in the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, and to significant improvements in the Soviet air defense system, in 1974 DARPA requested that contractors begin investigating the application of advances in theories of radiation deflection into the construction of low radar cross-section (RCS) aircraft. The problem that designers faced was the need to come up with shapes that balanced the requirements of both aerodynamics and radiation-deflection. The prototype that Lockheed Skunk Works developed came to be known as Have Blue. Aeronautical engineer Bill Schroeder worked with software engineer Dennis Overholser to write a program called ECHO-1, run on a Cray supercomputer, that would search a design space for an optimum tradeoff of aerodynamics and radar cross-section. The problem was the limited computational power at their disposal. Searching over the variability of smooth shapes would have resulted in an intolerably long run-time. The way around this problem was to limit the variability of the surfaces by what came to be termed within Lockheed Skunk Works as “faceting”: the larger the facets, the shorter the run-time. What determined the facet resolution of the plane that would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter was the desired run-time of the computer program to optimize its design trade-offs. In essence, the facets of F-117 are the resolution of the simulation used to select the optimum design. The F-117 is the Atari of fighter planes.

(Even having so optimized the design, the aerodynamics were sufficiently compromised by the demands of a minimal radar cross-section that the plane had to be fly-by-wire, with an onboard computer system making constant minor adjustments to engine thrust and control surfaces to stabilize the plane.)

B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber

The new New Aesthetic.

But only a few years later the New Aesthetic moment has already passed. By the time that DARPA began contracting in 1979 for a stealth strategic bomber to replace the B-52, the availability of computer power had already improved markedly, to the point where the smooth surfaces of the Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber are specified to such exacting precisions that most of the pieces for the stealth skin of the plane are cut and assembled by machines. A scant four years later the pixilated faceting of the F-117 had been superseded by organic shapes of the B-2, the Jurassic Park of airframes. At the high-end of computing, 1979 was already the end of New Aesthetic. Through consumer products like Atari, NES and VGA, the computational and engineering practice of New Aesthetic would persist into the early 1990s, but much beyond that New Aesthetic becomes “shock of the old”.

Taraxacum officinale: A 30 million year old network cluster diagram

A 30 million year old network cluster diagram.

My second cause for skepticism can also be construed as an extension of Mr. Jurgenson’s question, “why reduce ontological, epistemological & phenomenological points to aesthetics?” To identify the aesthetic as the interesting feature of these phenomena is to really diminish the significance of what it is that is happening in the most unusual of these situations. What is more interesting than the surface appearance of the end products is the fact that the limits of our computational capability, the limits of information, the limits that exist in the ideal realm are pushing out to become the limits of the material world as well. What is interesting about things like the F-117 stealth fighter or buildings designed with AutoDesk is not that they look computer-y, but that they are interfaces, sights of interaction between the ideal and the material — and more important, places where the ideal has assumed the superior position, determining the contours of the material.

The Russian Origin of the First World War

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

I am currently reading Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2011), Michael Reynolds’s Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Barbara Jelavich’s Russia’s Balkan Entanglements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) for a comparative empires seminar focused on the European land-based empires (Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian).

These books about the Russian and Near Eastern origins of the War have me recollecting some of my previous conclusions about the origin of the First World War. In August of 2003 I read John Keegan’s The First World War (New York: Knopf, 1999) and at that time I composed some incomplete notes of my takeaway from Mr. Keegan’s description of the events and deliberations of the July Crisis. My conclusion then was that greater emphasis on Russia as an instigator of the First World War was warranted. I also thought, along with these historians listed above, that there needed to be a strategic motive more plausible than mobilization timetables and Slavic solidarity for Russia’s involvement. Here is a lightly edited excerpt from what I wrote then:

*  *  *

Having read thus far, there are a few things that puzzle me:

One of the necessary conditions of the war was Russian resistance to Austria-Hungary’s plan to punish Serbia. Keegan shows how the crisis was nearly avoided before gaining any momentum:

By the following morning, Saturday 25 July, both the British and French delegations in Belgrade reported home that Belgrade would agree to the Austrian demands, excepting the condition that imperial officials be admitted on to Serbian territory to supervise the investigations.

Even on that sticking point, however, the Serbians had not yet made up their minds. (56)

Keegan here establishes a check-point (or perhaps tries to make more painful the sense that all this could all have been avoided — baby, guess my name [I had been using the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy For The Devil” as a foil for the tone of Keegan’s narrative —ed.]): “Even at noon on Saturday 25 July, therefore, five hours before the time limit attached to the Austrian note would expire, the crime of Sarajevo remained a matter between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, diplomatically no more than that” (57). What was it that transformed this local squabble into the war that would draw in nearly all of Europe?

Then, during the afternoon, word was received from their [Serbia’s] ambassador at the Tsar’s country palace that the mood there was fiercely pro-Serbian. The Tsar, though not yet ready to proclaim mobilization, had announced the preliminary “Period Preparatory to War” at eleven o’clock. The news reversed everything the Serbian ministers had decided. In the morning they had agreed to accept all ten Austrian demands, with the slightest reservations. Now they were emboldened to attach conditions to six and to reject absolutely the most important, that Austrian officials be allowed to take part in the investigation of the assassination on Serbian territory. (57-58)

It was these Russian actions preliminary to mobilization ordered by the Tsar that prompted the German Prime Minister to instruct his ambassador to issue the next day, Sunday 26 July, his first warning that mobilization “would mean war.”

Later, Keegan will quote L.C.F. Turner (“The Significance of the Schlieffen Plan” in Paul Kennedy, The War Plans of the Great Powers [London: Allen & Unwin, 1979]) in his assessment that the Russian decision to mobilize was “perhaps the most important …taken in the history of Imperial Russia and it effectively shattered any prospect of averting a great European war” (62). The Germans believed that every day of Russian mobilization not matched by Germany brought the Schlieffen plan closer to failure, for the premise of the plan was the France could be knocked out of a war in the time that it took Russia to mobilize. Each day’s lead Russia acquired was one fewer day in which to defeat the French.

I am going to tentatively advance the thesis here that the First World War was primarily a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia with the entire Western Front being fought merely for reasons structural to the European concert (e.g. the Schlieffen Plan, the Triple Entente). In support of this thesis, I would offer that the main locus of negotiation in the July Crisis was Germany, Britain and France trying to convince Austria-Hungary to accept mediation with Serbia and Germany trying to convince Russia to leave Austria-Hungary to destroy Serbia unharried by outsiders.

The question that needs more attention in this analysis is why were the Russian so “fiercely pro-Serbian.” There are a few passing remarks in Keegan. His suggestion that, “Russia, a great Slav brother, had tender feelings towards the Serbs…” is thankfully quickly qualified, “…but feelings are different from vital interests and certainly no motive for war” (53). Later he offers a more realistic reason, that Foreign Minister Sazonov “possessed in an acute form the Russian neurosis over control of the Balkans, with which went fears of a hostile power dominating the Bosphorus, Russia’s Black Sea exit to the Mediterranean and the wider world” (65). This is better, but still the emphasis is on feelings — neurosis and fears — and the reasons are confined to one man. If it is true that, as Keegan quotes approvingly, Russia’s decision to mobilize was “the most important …taken” and if the thesis that I am drawing from his presentation is correct — and he does come down on it pretty hard — then he is woefully short on its analysis. We get Sazonov’s fears, but what were the arguments employed by him and the rest of the Russian command on that 30 July afternoon at the Tsar’s summer residence? The Tsar was waffling. He issued and then rescinded a mobilization order, rescinded it owing to dire warnings received from the Kaiser. After the 30 July meeting with Sazonov he reissued the mobilization order. What did the Tsar believe? What strategic considerations overruled the Kaiser’s warnings of war?

*  *  *

Undoubtedly my assessments of the origin of the War are going to change considerably in the coming months and years. I saw Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., author of Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), this week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars talking on “July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm“. He closed his remarks joking that the theory that he favors varies from one day to the next. Hopefully I will follow this post up once I complete these books and this course. My 2003 thoughts serve as a benchmark for subsequent assessments of the situation.