Whether the day has been fair or foul, there is nothing, for my money, quite so nice to do in that half-hour before dinner as to put away an ice-cold martini. Oh, I know that statement makes me sound like an effete, decadent Republican creep, but there it is.
No question, the martini has suffered some bad press over the years. It's supposedly the drink of people who are too rich, politically incorrect, and so forth-and besides, for crying out loud, it's gin!!! Lots of gin, with nothing to adulterate the taste. To make matters worse, they're coming back into vogue. Martini-lovers can't very well call themselves part of a cult now that nasty soulless yuppies with no aesthetic appreciation are drinking them just to be trendy. Oh, well. That doesn't mean I'm going to give them up, not me. I'll just make them better than anyone else in the world. The martini has been around considerably longer than most mixed drinks. According to legend, the drink was invented in the town of Martinez, California, around 1850. The story goes that a miner burst triumphantly into a saloon one evening, babbling about a massive gold strike right smack in the middle of his tiny claim. Having bought drinks for everyone in the joint, he asked the bartender to fix him up something really special, in honor of his new-found riches. The bartender responded by mixing equal parts of Old Tom gin (a paleozoic brand, much sweeter than today's gins) and sweet vermouth, adding a dash of bitters and a maraschino cherry. The miner was pleased with the concoction, and passed the recipe along to other saloon-keepers he met on his subsequent travels. The drink came to be called the martini, in honor of the town in which it was invented.
In time, the basic martini recipe went through some changes. Originally a very sweet drink, it was toned down considerably when dry gin came into fashion late in the 19th century; at about this time, dry vermouth was substituted for sweet vermouth. Someone suggested substituting a slice of lemon peel for the cherry; someone else said, no, let's try a green olive instead.
Over time, the proportion of gin to vermouth was altered. By the early 1920s, when the drink really began to enjoy some popularity, a typical martini consisted of three parts gin to one part vermouth; vermouth's importance has continued to wane. Today, there are violent arguments among martini-lovers as to how much vermouth a proper martini should contain. At one end of the spectrum are those who advocate four parts gin to one part vermouth; at the other are those who say that the word "vermouth" should merely be mentioned loudly enough to make the gin cringe.
There are also debates of great import concerning the garnish. A green olive is the standard of one camp; that of the other is the slice of lemon peel. A tiny minority prefers a pickled onion, which, if used, makes the drink not a martini, but a Gibson (and I'll tell you why later).
There are those who say that a martini should be shaken with ice; some say it should be stirred. There are those who prefer a martini on the rocks; others prefer to strain it into a chilled glass, with no ice.
With the exception of the shaken-versus-stirred controversy, I am willing to concede that there are reasonable and honorable persons in each camp. The martini, for the martini drinker, is a very personal thing, and everyone's little quirks deserve a modicum of respect. However, I do have very strong views of my own on how a good dry martini is made. I pass them along herewith, and give you leave to experiment as you please.
One really can't speak of a "martini recipe." There are ingredients and specifications, but the making of a martini is really so ceremonial-even if you're making just one, for yourself, with nobody else around for miles-that any instructions for making one must be somewhat on the order of the Roman Ritual. There are certain indispensible steps, and certain things that are simply not done.
Of course, looking at the situation realistically, any glass will do. But if you can possibly get your hands on a set of real, delicate, long-stemmed, wide-mouthed martini glasses, by all means do so. A martini served in the proper glass tastes immeasurably better than the same liquid served in, say, a champagne flute. In fact, philosophically, the difference is absolute; the latter beverage is almost not a martini. This is just so.
So, you've got a martini glass. About half-an-hour before you propose to drink a martini, take this glass and rinse it in cold tap water, shake off the excess, and put the glass into your freezer. Then go take a shower, play solitaire, or memorize all six verses to Mack the Knife.
In a cocktail shaker, place three ounces of gin and four or five drops of vermouth. Yes, four or five drops. That shows you which camp I'm in, vermouth-wise. But do put in those few drops. A martini is not cold gin.
Now, take four or five ice cubes, one after the other. Holding each cube in the palm of your hand, bash it a good one with the back of a heavy tablespoon, to crack it into chunks. Drop the ice chunks into the cocktail shaker. (If your ice tray makes those itt-bitty cubes, you need not smash them. Just use about one-third of the trayful per martini.)
Put the lid on the shaker and shake the damn thing good and hard, with serious back-and-forth action. Shake it so that if it were cream, it would turn to butter. Do this for a good 15 or 20 seconds.
(If you stir, as opposed to shaking, your martini will simply not be cold enough. There are many ways to ruin a martini, but none surer than by not serving it just short of frozen. Anyone who tells you that shaking a martini will allow too much ice to melt, thus "bruising the gin," is a contemptible nincompoop who knows as much about martinis as he does about sexual intercourse. A martini is supposed to contain some water-otherwise, I'd simply keep my gin bottle in the freezer.)
Take the glass out of the freezer and pour the liquid into it. With luck, the glass should be filled precisely to the rim. Take a lemon and carefully shave off a two-inch strip of peel, taking great care not to cut into the fruit. Take the piece of lemon peel and twist it over the drink, allowing the lemon oil to congeal in little droplets on the surface.
Some prefer to take the initial sip while standing in the kitchen; others prefer to carry the glass-very carefully-into the living room and sit down before reverentially starting in on it. In either case, the Rite of the Martini is concluded by taking that first sip, sighing in helpless ecstasy, and crying, "Ohhh, Christ, that's good!"
It has come to my attention that some people believe a martini can be made with vodka instead of gin. While it is true that you can follow the above recipe, substituting vodka for gin, and produce a liquid that some people will drink, believe me, it is not a martini, not no way, not no how. It is a concoction suitable only for those who have no soul and less guts. I solve the problem of the guest who asks for a "vodka martini" by simply not keeping any vodka in the house, unless I happen to be serving caviar.
If you must put a drink together that has no gin in it, you might try substituting akvavit, a Danish liqueur flavored with caraway. This is not a martini, either, but it is a good drink. The most respected brand of akvavit is Aalborg.
As for the right brand of gin, I like Bombay the best. It's a very fragrant, somewhat fruity gin with a lot of character. Gordon's, Boodle's and Tanqueray are also good brands.
Oh, yeah: Why does a martini become a Gibson when garnished with a pickled onion? Well, back in the 1920s, there was an American diplomat named Gibson who was a teetotaller, but who didn't want people to feel uncomfortable about drinking in his presence. (This, I must say, is a welcome change from what goes on nowadays, when anyone who takes a drink is automatically accused of alcoholism, and anyone who doesn't is assumed to be a recovering alcoholic.) So when he gave a party, he would always serve himself a glass of water in a martini glass, with a pickled onion floating in it. Everyone assumed it was his own exotic variation on a dry martini. And now, it is!