On Martinis 🍸
Six years of one chic drink to rule them all.
I started to drink martinis in 2017, when I started to eat oysters after my brother passed, when I was sick of going to cocktail bars after two years of accidental cocktail writing. My preferences developed early: gin, usually 50-50 with dry vermouth, garnished by an olive.
Because I was still a cocktail writer up to 2019, I developed a practice when I was drinking for work: one from the menu, one martini. This was a way of assessing both the bar’s creativity and their ability to put out a classic. It shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of bartenders knew the ins and outs of their house list but failed with classics.
I’ve never been disappointed by a martini unless a male bartender told me that he was going to make me a martini his way, rather than my way. This would usually involve some sort of Vesper-like approach with the addition of vodka or some split of vermouths, and I would never enjoy it.
A martini is supposed to be made to the drinkers’ preferences; a martini-drinker needs to know her preferences and how to assert them. The significant other of a martini-drinker should also know these things, as well as how to make one.
When I say I’ve never been disappointed except in these cases, I mean that there are bad martinis but they’re still useful. A martini always tells you something about where you’re drinking it, the person making it, and how the person making it perceives you: Do they not believe, like those men I mentioned, that you actually know what you like? Do they know the questions to ask and are not asking them, because they’re getting ready to close and people have been driving them nuts all day? Do they assume you want it shaken because of James Bond, because that’s the context most clientele brings in?
A warm martini tells the saddest story. So many things have to go wrong for a martini to be served anything less than icy cold. Everyone knows when and where and by whom I’ve been served a warm martini, because I never shut up about the horror. (I’ll only share this in person, off the record.)
An over-diluted martini tells me the bartender lacks what I’ve referred to as, like they do in baseball, “the intangibles.” They may know the right proportions and to stir, but don’t feel the right temperature emerge and overdo it.
I met my husband when I was a cocktail writer and he was a bartender, and because of this, I drink the best martinis in our house. He’s never tried to tell me what I like, nor has he ever served me a warm or over-diluted martini.
I’m in shock that I’m not yet sick of martinis. Unless I’m very ill (or very hungover), I’ll always be in the mood for a martini. It will always taste better than anything else I could put in my mouth. I will always feel the first sip throughout my body, providing release. I will always enjoy popping a gin-tinged, firm-skinned olive into my mouth. There’s nothing better than a martini while I cook, the olives providing my appetizer.
It was in February of 2019 that I got a martini glass tattooed on my right ring finger, a show of absolute, permanent dedication. I’d walked into the tattoo shop that day to get a line from an Eileen Myles poem tattooed: “this sailor will never get scurvy.” The placement wasn’t making any sense, so finally I made the commitment and got a knuckle tattoo. A commitment I knew I could stand by, or even explain with wistfulness if one day, by chance, I no longer enjoy martinis.
Thinking about martinis makes me think about all the traveling I used to do, because it was writing about alcohol that got me invited on the press trips that enabled me to go anywhere at all. It was writing about alcohol that led me to my husband, and the first thing I ever did in front of him was break a glass.
Now that martinis have gotten cool—or so they say—I haven’t noticed any changes in how bars or bartenders approach them. They’re still a way of measuring, a way of understanding a bar and how you’re perceived within it. Martinis can go in and out of fashion, but for those of us who’ve chosen it as our drink, it’s because of how it allows us to read and be read. It’s a cocktail not of judgment, but of analysis and perception. This is why the martini is eternally chic.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will be a recipe and guide for making vegan pancakes, especially during this time when you may not want to use eggs for a frivolous breakfast. I’ve been thinking about and doing egg replacement for far longer than I’ve been drinking martinis. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing but I was so happy and heartened to find this newsletter quoted in the great Ligaya Mishan’s recent T piece on hospitality. Hers is a deep, wide-ranging, and entertaining read, as always.
Janet Malcolm’s Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory for the newsletter I’m working on about creativity.
Here’s an older song that’s new to me that I am enjoying so much! “La Nuit Américaine” by Lescop.
Nothing very thrilling, though it’s an exciting time for greens in Puerto Rico—we’re flush with greens! And beautiful little eggplants.
I love a martini. I had to start dirty, but am now firmly in the gin with plenty of vermouth camp. But my favorite martini story is from when I worked as a personal assistant for a screenwriter, who often travels quite far for both work and personal reasons. Many times, his flights would arrive from the other side of the world at times well past midnight.
I knew that one of these returns in particular would be rough, and decided that I wanted to soften his landing a little bit by surprising him with an ice-cold martini in his favorite style - frozen vodka, a film of vermouth, and a lemon twist. How to do this when the airport is two hours away from home? Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme began its insistent thrum in my head as I assembled my apparatus: an insulated, screw-top drink cooler into which went kosher salt and almost enough water to dissolve it, then a mason jar with the martini and as much ice as the vessel could take with a little more kosher salt sprinkled on top for good measure. I tucked the little package securely into a nook of the cargo area of my wagon, then started my drive.
I parked in the garage and met him at the gate, so as to assist with his luggage, and we began the trudge back to the car. Emerging from the elevator, pushing through the hot, stale evening air trapped in the concrete layers, I let him know I had a surprise in the car and asked if he wanted a martini.
He stopped dead in his tracks.
This was the first of two times during my employment that I rendered the most eloquent man I’ve ever known completely speechless. The second was when I suggested Sophia Loren to portray a character he had just written, and he was inundated by a Proustian tsunami.
“You brought me a martini?!” His shoulders straightened a little, his steps picked up. We got to my car a bit faster than we otherwise would have. As quickly as possible, I loaded him and his baggage into their places, pulled out the cooler, and faced the moment of truth. Would it still be properly cold?
It was. As I unscrewed the top of the mason jar to hand it over, the glass hurt my hand from the chill. He took his first sip and his eyes rolled back in pleasure, he leaned back into the seat and sighed, as an entire day’s worth of international travel started to melt from his body.
“I’ve had a lot of assistants over the years,” he later told me. “Not one of them has ever done that for me!”
Not much more to say - you pretty much said it all! (eloquently as always)
When the restaurant wait staff (sadly, we have not sat at a bar for over three years now) always asks you what gin you would like, that is the right place to dine.
But then this: after first making sure it’s not a vodka martini you are ordering? Why default to vodka, though? Is that now the most common mix? (Has happened three times in a row now.) Ok, I do like a nice vodka martini, w/Ketel One (Finlandia is even better but zero chance of a place in the States having that on hand), but only on the odd occasion. But then maybe it’s a SoCal/Palm Springs area thing (where we’ve been the last couple months), this default to vodka martini?