The Martini: The King of Cocktails & Opinions

By Philip Greene
Courtesy Lizzie Munro

In my book, the Martini is perhaps the greatest muse for the creation and assertion of opinions. It’s the drink that has launched a thousand arguments. 

I cannot think of another cocktail that has had as much ink spilled (and perhaps blood) concerning the proper recipe, correct preparation and, even, appropriate garnish. And that’s not to mention theories as to who invented the drink or named it—don’t worry, I’m not going there, not now, anyway.

It seems that I have a kindred spirit in recognizing the divisiveness of the Martini. In his entertaining and engaging new book, The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World’s Greatest Drink, with Recipes, Robert Simonson deftly observes that the cocktail consists of “gin, vermouth, sometimes bitters, lemon twist or olive, and lots of opinions. Those are the ingredients of a Martini. But the last item is the most important. It’s the one that keeps us talking about a drink that is nearly 150 years old. Something about the Martini gets people worked up, certain that the world might have a fighting chance at decency if only people would adhere to their particular recipe.”

I’ve been a devotee of the properly made Dry Martini for more than a quarter of a century, and over that expanse of time I’ve observed and enjoyed the range of opinions that surround what social critic Bernard DeVoto called “the supreme American gift to world culture,” and what H.L. Mencken referred to as “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.”

Here are a few of my all-time favorite Martini arguments:

Opinion Battleground No. 1: Shaken or Stirred?

We’re all so familiar with Ian Fleming’s direction that James Bond’s Martini be “shaken, not stirred” that it’s become somewhat cliché, and one might even assume that it was Fleming himself who created this method. He did not. 

If you consult Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual from 1900 you’ll find that the shaken gin Martini goes by the name of Bradford À La Martini. But as Simonson points out, Robert Vermiere states in his 1922 book Cocktails and How to Mix Them, that “the Martini Cocktail should be prepared in the mixing glass and stirred up. In America, however, it has been the fashion, since a few years, to shake this cocktail until thoroughly cold.” This disagreement on preparation is not unusual given how common the basic Martini formula was at the turn-of-the-century.

Indeed, four years later, in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 classic A Farewell to Arms, Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes enjoy their Martinis shaken while sitting at the Palace Hotel’s bar in Madrid. “We sat on high stools at the bar while the barman shook the Martinis in a large nickeled shaker.” And in the classic 1934 film The Thin Man, Nick Charles advises that in making drinks, “the important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx a two-step time, but a Dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.” Got that?

Me, personally I’m a stirrer, not a shaker, but when I’m out at a restaurant and I have the notion that they’re capable of making a decent (albeit shaken) Martini, I’ll let them shake it. I feel like I’m already being fussy enough requesting what gin to use, the ratio of gin to vermouth, how many olives...etc. If I say “oh, and please stir it,” I’m guessing they won’t stir it nearly long enough, nor with enough ice. I figure you have to pick your Martini battles.

In his 1948 classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, the uber-opinionated David Embury asserted that:

“The real distinction between the two methods is simple. Shaking produces a colder cocktail quicker than stirring. Therefore, since frigidity is highly desirable in all cocktails, shaking is normally the preferable method. However, with some cocktails another consideration enters into the picture, and that is ‘eye appeal.’ A substantial part of the charm of certain cocktails, such as the Martini and the Manhattan is their clear, almost scintillating translucence. A stirred cocktail will remain clear; a shaken cocktail will be cloudy or even muddy in appearance. This result is particularly noticeable where vermouth or any other wine is an ingredient. Therefore, you should never shake a cocktail containing any wine unless you want a muddy-looking drink. The cloudiness will clear somewhat as the drink stands, but it will never have quite the limpid appeal of the drink that is stirred. Some people care more for the stinging cold of the shaken cocktail than they do for its appearance. So, if you do not mind a muddy-looking drink, shake to your heart’s content.”  

Whether or not you agree with Fleming about shaking versus stirring, you’ve got to hand it to him for offering us another memorable Martini scene, this time having to do with how to properly garnish the drink. In his 1961 James Bond novel Thunderball, Bond’s CIA colleague Felix Leiter berates a bartender for various crimes against the Martini. In particular, Leiter was annoyed that the jumbo olive’s displacement rendered his drink only half its normal size.   

“The Martinis arrived. Leiter took one look at them and told the waiter to send over the barman. When the barman came, looking resentful, Leiter said, ‘My friend, I asked for a Martini and not a soused olive.’ He picked the olive out of the glass with the cocktail stick. The glass, that had been three-quarters full, was now half full.” Lesson learned from Mr. Fleming, specify your garnish, and ask for it on the side!

Opinion Battleground No. 2: The Right Ratio

The ratio of gin to vermouth is another touchy subject. In his 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees, Hemingway offered his own ratio as 15 to 1, and he called this version of the drink the Montgomery. It was named for British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery who, in Hemingway’s opinion, was too cautious in battle, requiring a 15-to-1 troop superiority before committing his army into battle. “Monty was a character who needed fifteen to one to move, and then moved tardily,” Hemingway’s protagonist explained  

DeVoto shared in his classic 1948 book The Hour, his own personal recipe, which is so complicated it’s hard to believe he actually used it. At the“point at which the marriage of gin and vermouth is consummated,” one required “a gin of 94.4 proof and a harmonious vermouth,” at a ratio of “about 3.7 to one. And that is not only the proper proportion but a critical one; if you use less gin it is a marriage in name only and the name is not Martini. You get a drinkable and even pleasurable result, but not art’s sunburst of imagined delight becoming real.”

When Embury got wind of DeVoto’s opinions on ratio, he was slightly less than diplomatic. While expounding on the topic of the Martini, he noted that “so much of what has been written is pure hooey and balderdash that I cannot refrain from popping off about some of it.” And pop off he did; indeed, in a later edition of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, he even took a few shots at DeVoto, himself. “This gentleman is a facile and highly interesting writer and, except as to gin, rum, and whisky, I have found many of his comments on drinks and drink mixing thoroughly sound. But, when it comes to the Martini, phooey!”

Like I said, if war is the mother of invention, the Martini is the mother of opinions.

I should note that DeVoto was very opinionated on topics beyond the Martini. Indeed, in his view. “There are only two cocktails. One can be described straightforwardly. It is a slug of whiskey and it is an honest drink.” 

Of course, the only other cocktail in DeVoto’s mind was the Martini. He was quick to acknowledge that it is a battleground for opinions; yet while the art of Martini making was “a fine and noble art,” DeVoto cautioned that it has too often led to “wars over the gospel that have parted brothers, wrecked marriages, and made enemies of friends.” I’m not suggesting that DeVoto and Embury were friends, mind you. 

As for Hemingway’s opinion on how the drink was to be properly made, in addition to the 15-to-1 ratio, he also wanted it to be damned cold, and bragged that he’d “found a way of making ice in the deep-freeze in tennis ball tubes that comes out 15 degrees below zero” helping to make “the coldest Martini in the world.” No doubt he needed this because he was drinking them in hot and humid Cuba. In a 1947 letter to his ex-wife Pauline, he noted that this method of making ice “gives a pillar of ice 15 degrees below zero F. and now have glasses frozen and Spanish cocktail onions frozen. Whole drink comes out so cold you can’t hold it in your hand. It sticks to the fingers.”

And what about the pre-made Martini? In DeVoto’s view, “the man who mixes his Martinis beforehand and keeps them in the refrigerator until cocktail time” was the worst kind of sinner. “You can no more keep a martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.” 

“The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth and one of the shortest-lived,” he continues. “The fragile tie of ecstasy is broken in a few minutes, and thereafter there can be no remarriage.”

One aspect of Simonson’s book that I found particularly heartening was his prologue, titled “My Dad’s Martini.” The cocktail was his father’s drink of choice, as it is my own father’s. As for the senior Simonson, he liked them on the rocks, and “he insisted on a few particulars.” Indeed, his Martini “always included a fair measure of vermouth,” since “he liked the flavor of vermouth. He also slipped in a little olive brine; not too much just a quarter of a teaspoon to, in his words, ‘enhance the flavor of the olive.’ And he was respectful of the drink’s potency,” noting that “unless you sip it, you’re going to drink too much.”

My own dad would concur. At our family beach house on Chesapeake Bay, we’ll regularly gather to watch a ballgame, have dinner, hang out, and always enjoy a Martini. It’s become his favorite drink, as it’s a way of communing with his late wife, and my mom, who passed in 2004. It was also her favorite drink, that is, when I made them. 

She’d take a sip, and she’d smile and say “boy, that’s good. Philip, you make the best Martini.” So, I usually mix us all a Martini (3 to 1, Fords Gin, Dolin Dry Vermouth, 2 drops Regans’ Orange Bitters, three chilled olives). My dad now raises his Martini glass to heaven, and says “here’s to you, sweetheart.” He’ll take a sip, then whisper “boy, that’s good.”  

My dad will never drink them too quickly because he doesn’t want this cherished moment of thinking about my mom to fly by too fast. I recently asked my dad if he had any other opinions about Martinis and was he fussy about this or that? “No, any Martini is fine with me, as long as you make them,” he said with a wink. We don’t always agree on things, but that’s an opinion I can certainly live with. 

Cheers to you mom, and cheers to you dad. And cheers to you, Mr. Simonson.

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