“there Is Something About A Martini”

IN THE 1930s, mixing cocktails at home became one of the manly arts, like carving a turkey. The age of the middle-class martini ritual had begun.

Unlike the Brits, most Europeans just didn’t get it. “It is a little difficult to understand,” wrote Frank Schoonmaker in a 19.34 New Yorker , “why Frenchmen, who drink iced Pernod or Mandarin curaçao (a mixture if there ever was one) with so much gusto before lunch and dinner, should evince such positive terror at the sight of a bit of vermouth and gin…. The average European cocktail-drinker usually drinks not cocktails but alcoholic salads…. [In] a cocktail competition in Madrid last summer, the first prize was given by the Spanish jury to a bartender … who suggested blending the sweetest vermouth that is manufactured with maraschino, orange juice, Cointreau, rye whiskey, and a piece of pineapple. This might not kill a Spaniard, but if it won’t, nothing will.”

If there was no “American bar” in sight, it was better to make your own, as Hemingway did in Cuba. “We have found a way,” he wrote to a friend, “of making ice in the deep freeze in tennis ball tubes that comes out 15 degrees below zero and with glasses frozen too makes the coldest martini in the world. Just enough vermouth to cover the bottom of the glass, 3/4 ounce of gin, and the Spanish cocktail onions very crisp and also 14 degrees below zero when they go into the glass.”

The Middle-Class Martini: Modernism at Home

Making their own was what Americans increasingly did from the twenties on. The martini, unchallenged champion of public, social drinking here and in sympathetic outposts abroad, was going “home.”

Not that this was an entirely new idea. Bar manuals for home mixers rather than professional barkeepers had appeared in the 1890s. In 1892 the Heublein company of Hartford had begun to market pre-mixed bottled “Club Cocktails,” including a martini, York, Manhattan, whiskey, Holland gin, Old Tom gin, and vermouth (“A better cocktail at home than is served over any Bar in the world”). For the socially very advanced, drinking began to be a domestic activity, so ads were directed at women as well. A turn-of-the-century Heublein ad pictured a woman having emerged from a coach and directing her butler: “Before you do another thing, James, bring me a CLUB COCKTAIL . I’m so tired shopping make it a MARTINI . I need a little Tonic and it’s so much better than a drug of any kind.” But the actual mixing of drinks was still for the most part a mystery best left to the guild of bartenders: Jack London had martinis mixed in bulk by an Oakland bartender and sent up to Wolf House, his home in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon.

Things changed quickly after World War I, hand in hand with another new American institution. “The ‘party,’” wrote Malcolm Cowley in 1931, “conceived as a gathering together of men and women to drink gin cocktails, flirt, dance to the phonograph or radio and gossip about their absent friends, had in fact become one of the most popular American institutions; nobody stopped to think how short its history had been…. It was introduced into this country by Greenwich Villagers—before being adopted by salesmen from Kokomo and the ounger country-club set in Kansas City.”

The new cocktail-party culture from Victorian styles of entertaining. Reduced immigration and rising wages meant middle-class households could no longer afford domestic servants, and kitchens and dining rooms in modern homes (and apartments) were too small for elaborate formal luncheons and dinners. Martini-and-Manhattan parties were a natural solution.

Prohibition accelerated things, driving drinking indoors for the millions of Americans who didn’t live near, or feel comfortable in, speakeasies. With the coming of the Depression, even casual get-togethers moved from public establishments to private houses. The change received the imprimatur of respectability from the President himself. After Repeal, FDR—who had motored around golf courses with an illegal silver shakerful—mixed the first legal martinis in the White House, at informal afternoon gatherings for secretaries and staff he called “the Children’s Hour.” Mixing cocktails at home became one of the manly arts, like carving a turkey. The age of the middle-class martini ritual had begun.

The bar-accouterment industry boomed to keep pace. Hollywood movies had already made the Art Deco cocktail shaker and glass a ubiquitous symbol of modern American elegance. By the middle twenties, reflecting home-grown modernist design trends as well as influences from the Bauhaus and Wiener Werkstätte, new avant-garde shapes had appeared in studio glassware, among them the now-iconic stemmed straight-flared V. It originated as a simplified and geometrically abstracted version of the saucer champagne glass, which had replaced the flute at the turn of the century. A five- to six-ounce size was intended for champagne, a smaller size for cocktails served chilled and straight up.