“there Is Something About A Martini”


These modernist glasses came to be associated especially with the martini and Manhattan because these cocktails were eclipsing all others. Reaction had set in to the mixological extravagance of the twenties, thanks partly to the return of decent booze at Repeal. Less was more, and the martini’s elegant simplicity, like the streamlined glass that complemented it, seemed an imaginative advance over the elaborate, ornate concoctions of the past. H. L. Mencken wrote: “The same sound instinct that prompts the more enlightened minority of mankind to come in out of a thunderstorm has also taught it to confine its day-in and day-out boozing to about a dozen standard varieties.” The newly founded Esquire magazine in 1934 lampooned “The Ten Worst Cocktails of the Previous Decade“: the Bronx, Alexander, Pousse-Café, Sweetheart, Orange Blossom, Pink Lady, Clover Club, Fluffy Ruffles, Pom Pom, and Cream Fizz. It listed among the Ten Best a three-to-one martini, the driest the dry martini would get before World War II.


As the Depression deepened, movies and the new photo-magazines glamorized the martini and its paraphernalia as part of the chic lifestyle of New York and Hollywood café society. Glass companies, like other appliance manufacturers, hired modern industrial designers and mass-produced streamlined cocktail shakers and cocktail sets, called “martini sets” from the middle thirties. Essential for home entertaining and one of the era’s most popular wedding gifts, the sleek forms were an affordable luxury in hard times.

Like toasters and other appliances in American kitchens, the martini set brought streamlined design, with its elegance, technological sophistication, and Utopian vision of modernity, into the iving room. Cocktail shakers would not survive the retooling of the metal and glass factories for the war effort, and the subsequent age of the blender. But the spare, geometric martini glass would. “As poised as a ballerina on point” is how Barnaby Conrad III describes it in his handsome recent book, The Martini , although given its architectural beauty, “dramatically and perfectly cantilevered” might be better. As formally harmonicoust with the zigzags of Art Deco as with the hourglass shapes of the fifties “New Look,” the martini glass is one of the few American designs to make a seamless transition from modern to modern.

By the late thirties the martini had its modern recipe, associations, and glass shape. It lacked only one thing to fulfill its aesthetic destiny. Ogden Nash referred in 1935 to a “yellow martini,” and John Thomas a decade hefore wrote of “a fragrant amber.” Vermouth, up to the early forties, had a yellowish tint that by World War II had been all but eliminated through new processes of stabilization and filtration. By the time Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Teheran, the finishing touch had been put on the martini as American modernist masterpiece: clear yet mysterious, simple yet subtle, delicate yet potent.

Cool, Clean, and Civilized: Martini Literature and Philosophy

Perfected between the wars, the martini was also at home in the experimental new literature and art of that period. There were a few earlier sightings. The first literary appearance, if it can be called that, is probably in “A Daring Game,” a comic anecdote by the pseudonymous “Hidley Dhee” in the August 1896 number of The Crescent (house organ of the tony Crescent Athletic Club of Brooklyn, New York): #8220;One of the jeunesse dorée in the party tipped his chair back … and as he sipped his martini and inhaled its seductive bouquet, a far-away look came into his baby-blue eyes.”

The West Coast weighed in with “The Great American Cocktail,” in the 1902 San Francisco News Letter :

Perhaps it’s made of whiskey and perhaps it’s made of gin , Perhaps there’s orange hitters and a lemon peel within , Perhaps it’s called Martini and perhaps it’s called, again , The name that spread Manhattan’s fame among the sons of men; Perhaps you like it garnished with what thinking men avoid , The little blushing cherry that is made of celluloid , But he these matters as they may, a cher confrère you are If you admire the cocktail they pass along the bar .

O. Henry mentions martinis in his 1904 story “A Gentle Grafter,” and there’s a prescient 1910 Jack London novel, Burning Daylight , about a high-powered tycoon who drinks them to relieve the pressure of competition.