E.B. White dubbed it "the elixir of quietude." H.L Mencken called it "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet." Yes, the Martini has gone by many names and been concocted with many recipes since its most recognizable form materialized during the Roaring Twenties. Even Noël Coward had thoughts on the subject, stating that "a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy."
During Prohibition, illegal gin manufacture was no problem, and the Martini became a craze as a result. Then, with Prohibition's repeal, the drink became progressively drier, which has been its general trajectory. One version of the drink's history has a New York bartender creating it in 1911, but there's also the coincidence that there was an Italian vermouth maker named Martini dating back to the 1860s, and people were in the habit of ordering things like "a sherry cocktail," so the leap to "a Martini cocktail" wouldn't have been that great.
But in all likelihood we owe the Martini to precursors such as the Martinez, a cocktail with its own murky origins. In the early 1860s, San Francisco's Occidental Hotel on Montgomery Street was a popular destination for those taking the evening ferry to Martinez. It's not clear when it was first ordered, but it was soon ordered left and right. One Martinez too many at the Occidental, and you might miss Martinez altogether.
By appropriate coincidence, this week we tapped Kiel Martin, who tends bar at Holy Water in Bernal Heights, to share some of that background on the Martin(i/ez). He's also a big fan: "The Martinez is one of my favorite Martini variations," he says. For that drink, he recommends Old Tom gin, which is sweeter than it is dry.
I also made the mistake of asking about the vodka "Martini," which Martin speculates came about in the '70s "in this area when the American public had this weird fascination with drinks that didn't taste like anything, hence vodka." That said, it's just not the same drink. "In my opinion, if you're drinking a Martini, it's a gin Martini," says Martin.
Holy Water's Martinez
2 oz Old Tom Gin
.75 oz sweet vermouth
.25 oz Maraschino
1 dash orange bitters
Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze oil from lemon peel onto the drink.
Learning To Drink Vol. 1: Shaken Or Stirred?
Learning To Drink Vol. 2: Punch Drunk
Learning To Drink Vol. 3: Bubbly
Learning To Drink Vol. 4: Bitters
Learning To Drink Vol. 5: Sours And Daisies
Learning To Drink Vol. 6: French Brandies
Learning To Drink Vol. 7: Who Is Tom Collins?