“there Is Something About A Martini”


In 1918 the New York Sun carried a remarkable archeological item. “Percival Slathers“ reported his discovery of the cult of Dri Martini, ancient Egyptian god of thirst and priest of the goddess Isis. The god was depicted “shaking a drink in a covered urn of glass while the 15th pharaoh of the dynasty of Lush is shown with protruding cottony tongue quivering with pleasurable expectation.” By war’s end the martini had arrived and, like all arrivistes, had acquired an ancient pedigree. Considering the period of flappers and “primitive” rhythms that lay just ahead, it was appropriately a pagan god.

A Star Is Born: The Martini Between the Wars

The martini really took off in the 1920s, thanks to Prohibition. The Noble Experiment gave all varieties of hard liquor a boost—an illicit truckload carried higher profit margins than beer or wine—but especially gin, because it was easier to counterfeit than whiskey. Gin, from genièvre, or juniper, its main flavoring agent, was a spirit first isolated in Holland in the seventeenth century. It had come to America with the Dutch settlers, hut took a hack seat first to imported rum and brandy and then to domestic rye and bourbon. Both here and in England—see Hogarth’s Gin Lane —it had lowlife, skid-row associations, as its American slang names blue ruin and strip-and-go-naked suggest.

PROHIBITION gave the martini ah attitude. In the face of the Volstead Act and the WCTU, to drink was to defend the values of modern civilization.

In the twenties, gin came out of the alley, and the dry martini had its first great vogue. Now that society types were rubbing shoulders with known gangsters in speakeasies, or going to Harlem to listen to the dangerous rhythms of jazz, perhaps gin’s shady past had an attractively sexy quality. (This was the decade that popularized the term slumming .) In any case, “bathtub” gin was easily manufactured from alcohol and oil of juniper, but it required mixers to mask its raw taste and stretch the limited supply. Americans everywhere were drinking gin cocktails, and the martini was the queen. Young Walter Winchell referred to the speakeasy crowd as “gintellectuals,” and Upton Sinclair suggested that the traditional “Wine, Women, and Song” had been “modernized” into “gin, janes, and jazz.” The Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, who took his martinis at the most famous speakeasy of all, Jack and Charlie’s “21” Club, gave his recipe as “gin, and just enough vermouth to take away that nasty, watery look.”

But Prohibition did more than boost the martini’s popularity: It gave the martini an attitude. In the face of the Volstead Act and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, to drink was to defend the values of modern civilization. It was, as the writer William Grimes has observed, the worldly urbanite’s defiant retort to Bible Belt intolerance and “Victorian” repression. Jerry Thomas had spoken for nineteenth-century mixology when he told his readers that the cocktail “is generally used on fishing and other sporting parties.” Now Prohibition changed this and gave the martini an urbane sophistication it still retains. Bernard DeVoto, the staunch and eloquent Cato of traditional martini virtue, put it best: “The Martini is a city dweller, a metropolitan. It is not to be drunk beside a mountain stream or anywhere else in the wilds, not in the open there or even indoors…. A martini is never bad and 1 could not be brought to dispraise it but it does not harmonize with campfires and sleeping bags.”

Urbanity and sophistication were one part of its modernness. The other was a new sexuality. While the dry martini was transforming American drinking habits, speakeasies were revolutionizing the relations among classes, races, and especially sexes. Outlawing liquor had put the gentlemen-only saloon and hotel bar out of business, and what replaced it was a new cocktail culture where women drank with men. Frederick Lewis Alien, writing Only Yesterday in 1931, had still fresh in his mind the image of “well-born damsels with one foot on the brass rail, tossing off Martinis.” “The old days when father spent his evenings at Cassidy’s bar with the rest of the boys are gone,” wrote Elmer Davis; “since Prohibition mother goes down with him.”

Freud was in, repression was out, and the preferred pose was romantic disillusion combined with heroic dissipation. As Alien put it, “Victorian and Puritan were becoming terms of opprobrium…. It was better to be modern,—everybody wanted to be modern,—and sophisticated, and smart, to smash the conventions and to be devastatingly frank. And with a cocktail glass in one’s hand it was easy at least to be frank.” Lines ascribed to Dorothy Parker captured both the new frankness and the martini’s vaunted sexual power:

I like to have a Martini , Two at the very most After three I’m tinder the table , After four I’m under my host .