- Historic Sites
“there Is Something About A Martini”
IT’S MORE THAN JUST A POTENT DRINK, AND MORE THAN THE INSPIRATION FOR SOME HANDSOME ANCILLARY EQUIPMENT. IT IS MODERN TIMES, BROUGHT TO YOU IN A BEAUTIFUL CHALICE.
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Like its urbanity, the martini’s association with a more open sexuality survived Prohibition. When, at Repeal, liquor companies began advertising again, Dixie Bell gin ads featured the first in a long line of attractive and elegantly attired couples (married? dating?) sipping martinis in a private, romantic setting that would dominate gin and ver mouth advertising for four decades. (Scotch and whiskey ads meanwhile pictured older, wiser patres familiae surrounded by respectful junior males.) Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, as played in the movies by William Powell and Myrna Loy, epitomized the way thirties screwball comedies carried over the twenties’ ethos of sexy and equal companionship between men and women. Their drink, naturally, is the dry martini, and Nick is first spotted in The Thin Man instructing a bartender in its preparation: “A Manhattan should be shaken to a fox trot, the Bronx to a two-step, but a dry Martini must always be shaken to a waltz.” Nora, waking up the next morning with an ice pack on her forehead, asks what hit her. “The last Martini,” says Nick.
Racy, sophisticated, and avant-garde, the martini epitomized American culture between the wars.
Europe had always resisted cocktails as a colonial barbarity. The Londoners Henry Porter and George Roberts sniffed in 1863: “For the ‘sensation-drinks’ which have lately travelled across the Atlantic we have no friendly feeling … we will pass the American Bar … and express our gratification at the slight success which ‘Pick-me-up,’ ‘Corpse-reviver,’ ‘Chain-lightning,’ and the like, have had in this country.” It was the same in Paris. John Thomas, in his 1926 novel Dry Martini: A Gentleman Turns to Love , recalls “a day—yet fresh in the minds of the reminiscent— when … Paris was to the thirsty exile a desert of quaint pink extracts, innocuous wines, nauseous liqueurs, disappointing cognacs, and inadequate beers.”
All this now changed. The dry martini was part of the new self-confident American export culture, first introduced by the doughboys serving in World War I. “Right and left over the fair city by the Seine they sowed the hardy Martini, the fruitful Bronx, the sturdy Manhattan, the rugged highball,” wrote Thomas. “From the broad plateau of the Place de la Concorde to the pleasant slopes of Montmartre … bar after bar sprang like alcoholic mushrooms among the drab cafes.”
Cocktail entered the Parisian vocabulary along with shimmy and jazz . In Paris Harry’s New York Bar—whose mahogany counter and backbar were reassembled from a pre-Prohibition New York City saloon—and the Ritz Hotel bar were the most popular spots and the first to serve chilled American cocktails. (Harry’s still claims credit for inventing the Bloody Mary.) In London the Savoy Hotel bar was dubbed “the 49th State.”
The British, who after all were long familiar with gin, took to the martini most readily, even contributing to its literature. Noël Coward, in Blithe Spirit , used martinis in the American way as a sign that characters were modern, sophisticated, not about to be taken in by out-of-date notions like ghosts. As early as 1921 Somerset Maugham had a character reflect, “When I had nothing better to do in the penitentiary 1 used to amuse myself by thinking out new cocktails, but when you come down to brass tacks there’s nothing to beat a dry martini.” Maugham, a martini devotee, had strong feelings about the shaking-versus-stirring controversy: “Martinis should never be shaken. They should always be stirred so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of each other.” Maugham’s countryman the Savoy bartender Harry Craddock, on the other hand, instructed: “Shake the shaker as hard as you can: don’t just rock it: you are trying to wake it up, not send it to sleep.” In this he was followed, of course, by Ian Fleming, who insisted on the cocktail’s being “properly aerated,” but not by Fleming’s friend Kingsley Amis, for whom the cocktail shaker was an “important non-need.” (It took Bernard DeVoto’s pragmatic American spirit to produce the closest thing to a final word: “This perfect thing is made of gin and vermouth. They are self-reliant liquors, stable, of stout heart; we do not have to treat them as if they were plover’s eggs.”)