“there Is Something About A Martini”

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In November 1943, as Allied leaders met in Teheran to plan the defeat of Nazism, Franklin Roosevelt asked Joseph Stalin to join in a toast. Inevitably, at that moment in history, the drink the American President offered was a dry martini.

 

In November 1943, as Allied leaders met in Teheran to plan the defeat of Nazism, Franklin Roosevelt asked Joseph Stalin to join in a toast. Inevitably, at that moment in history, the drink the American President offered was a dry martini.

Stalin was grudging. “Well, all right,” he is reported to have said, “but it is cold on the stomach.” Anyway, it worked. An administration official characterized U.S.-Soviet relations under DR as the “four martinis and let’s have an agreement” era. The President liked his with a teaspoon of olive brine.

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When Stalin first sipped one, the martini was at the dazzling pinnacle of its career. Behind lay a spectacular rise from outlawry to international prominence; ahead loomed a strange descent into the obsessions of the Cold War era (when Nikita Khrushchev, more respectful than his predecessor, would call it “America’s lethal weapon”). FDR and Stalin shared, at its culminating moment, the premier American cocktail, which, by the time they met in Teheran, had acquired formal perfection, a glamorous mystique, and a growing reputation as the most written-about and praised cocktail in history.

ABOVE all, the martini is a modern cocktail. It found its essential form at the same time as the skyscraper, the airplane, jazz, and the two-piece business suit.
 

Bernard DeVoto called it “the supreme American gift to world culture.” For H. L. Mencken, it was “the only American invention as per fect as the sonnet.” Americans invented the drinks we call cocktails, and in just under two hundred years we’ve invented thousands, nearly all now just curiosities. Only the martini, with the timelessness of a classic, has continued to please, tease, inspire, and provoke.

Above all, the martini is a modern cocktail. You could say it’s the modern cocktail. At the dawn of this century, the recipe coalesced: London gin, French dry vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. It would get drier over time, but it found its essential form at just about the same time as the skyscraper, the airplane, jazz, and the two-piece business suit. Like them, the martini evoked something essential about twentieth-century America. Linked early on with the new century’s avant-garde, the martini for nearly seventy years would express both “American” and “modern.”

Well into its sixth decade, its contemporaries long since faded into period pieces, the clear, stark, glistening cocktail still meant modern. When the saxophonist Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet was asked how he developed the cool, elegant, sinuous clarity of tone that defined fifties modern jazz, he said, “I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini.”

The Myth and Sober Science of the Martini

Like jazz, film, and other modern arts, the martini has its roots in the Gilded Age. For several decades the new cocktail groped for a form and for a name, Martinez competing with Martini . These names have inspired several myths of origin. One involves “Professor” Jerry Thomas, a legendary mixologist who in 1862 wrote the first bartender’s manual and invented, among other drinks, a flaming scotch cocktail called the Blue Blazer. Thomas claimed to have invented the Martinez in the 1860s, at the Occidental Hotel bar in San Francisco’s Montgomery Street, for a traveler bound for Martinez, California.

Citizens of Martinez claim their hometown (of course) as the starting point and San Francisco as the destination.

East Coast partisans fasten hopefully on the immigrant bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, who served dry gin-and-vermouth cocktails at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel early in this century—several decades too late for serious contention. The British trace the name to the kick of the Martini & Henry rifle used by their army in the 1880s, the Italians to the Martini & Rossi brand of vermouth. The prize for hardest-to-swallow birth-of-the-martini story must go to the German (!) theory, which ascribes the invention to an eighteenth-century composer, J. P. Schwarzcndorf, who adopted the surname Martini —worth mentioning only because it is retailed on a World Wide Web site devoted to the martini cocktail.