Posted: February 10, 2001
here are only two cocktails. One can be described straightforwardly. It is a slug of whiskey and it is an honest drink. Those who hold by it at 6:00 pm offend no canon of our fellowship. Scotch, Irish, rye, bourbon at your will—but of itself alone. Whiskey and vermouth cannot meet as friends and the Manhattan is an offense against piety. With dry vermouth it is disreputable, with sweet vermouth disgusting. It signifies that the drinker, if male, has no spiritual dignity and would really prefer white mule; if female, a banana split.
To make a slug of whiskey, you pour some whiskey on some ice. The slug of whiskey is functional; its lines are clean. Perhaps the friend for whom you make it will want two or three drops of bitters. Fine: there is no harm in bitters, so long as they are Angostura—all others are condiments for a tea-shoppe cookbook. If he wants fruit salad in it, remind him that cocktails are drunk, not eaten, but go along with him as far as a thin half-slice of orange or, better, one of lemon peel. Deny him pineapple, cherries, and such truck as you would cyanide. If he asks for sugar, tell him you put it in to begin with, and thereafter be wary in your dealings with him. For sugar means that he is backsliding and will soon cross the frontier to join the heathen, with bottles of grenadine and almond extract in his pack. But before you give a slug of whiskey to anyone be sure that it is cold. Cocktails are cold.
With the other cocktail we reach a fine and noble art, and we reach too the wars over the gospel that have parted brothers, wrecked marriages, and made enemies of friends. It is here that the heresies burgeon and the schismatics bay. I suppose it is natural enough. Those who seek the perfect thing must have intense natures; there are many roads for them to take, all difficult, none lighted more than fitfully. No wonder if they mistake marsh fires for light, or when they find a light believe that it is the only one. From their love comes their tirelessness to defend and praise their love—tenaciously, arrogantly, intolerantly, vindictively. We may understand how cults form with the martini as with all arts, how rituals develop, how superstitious or even sorcerous beliefs and practices betray a faith that is passionate and pure but runs easily to fanaticism. But though we understand these matters we must not be lenient toward them for they divide the fellowship. Always remember that differences among ourselves will give arms to heathen. Frighten a woman with a bit of ritual and you may produce a hostess who will serve Manhattans. Affront a man with cultish snobbery and you may turn him, God forbid, to rum.
For instance, there is the widespread notion that women cannot make martinis, just as some islanders believe that they cast an evil spell on the tribal fishnets. This is a vagrant item of male egotism: the art of the martini is not a sex-linked character. Of men and women alike it requires only intelligence and care—oh, perhaps some additional inborn spiritual fineness, some feeling for artistic form which, if it isn't genius, will do quite well. Or take the superstition, for I cannot dignify it as a heresy, that the martini must not be shaken. Nonsense. This perfect thing is made of gin and vermouth. They are self-reliant liquors, stable, of stout heart; we do not have to treat them as if they were plover's eggs. It does not matter in the least whether you shake a martini or stir it. It does matter if splinters of ice get into the cocktail glass, and I suppose this small seed of fact is what grew into the absurdity that we must not "bruise the gin." The gin will take all you are capable of giving it, and so will the vermouth. And old hand will probably use a simple glass pitcher, as convenient or functional; it has no top and so cannot readily be shaken. But if a friend has given you a shaker, there are bar strainers in the world and you need have no ice splinters in your martinis.
We have proved our friends, but anyone else's invitation to a cocktail party or casual suggestion that we stop by for a drink may take us to a house where martinis are made of sweet vermouth or of sweet mixed with dry. It is a grievous betrayal of trust; the bottles should not even be kept on neighboring shelves, still less brought near the martini pitcher. Indeed, sweet vermouth should not be kept on any shelf in my house or yours; the heathen put it to many uses but we know none of it. And, I suppose, nothing can be done with people who put olives in martinis, presumably because in some desolate childhood hour someone refused them a dill pickle and so they go through life lusting for the taste of brine. Something can be done with people who put pickled onions in: strangulation seems best.
But there is a deadlier enemy than these, the man who mixes his martinis beforehand and keeps them in the refrigerator till cocktail time. 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. The fragile tie of ecstasy is broken in a few minutes, and thereafter there can be no remarriage. The beforehander has not understood that what is left, though it once was a martini, can never be one again. He has sinned as seriously as the man who leaves some in the pitcher to drown.
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Sound practice begins with ice. There must be a lot of it, much more than the catechumen dreams, so much so that the gin smokes when you pour it in. A friend of mine has said it for all time; his formula ends "and five hundred pounds of ice." Fill the pitcher with ice, whirl it till dew forms on the glass, pour out the melt, put in another handful of ice. Then as swiftly as possible pour in the gin and vermouth, at once bring the mixture as close to the freezing point of alcohol as can be reached outside the laboratory, and pour out the martinis. You must be unhurried but you must work fast, for a diluted martini would be a contradiction in terms, a violation of nature's order. That is why the art requires so much ice and why the artists will never mix more than a single round at a time, counting noses.
And I'm sorry, you are not a bartender. There are cultists whose pride is to achieve the right proportion by instinct, innate talent, the color of the mixture, or what Aunt Fanny said about born cooks. They are extreme fanatics and would almost as soon drink an Alexander as measure out their wares. I honor a great many of them who have served me sound martinis made of what they thought of as perfected skill. I honor them—but the martinis vary from round to round, and one or another must fall short of perfected skill. Serenely accept the cultist's scorn and measure your quantities with an extra glass.
There is a point at which the marriage of gin and vermouth is consummated. It varies a little with the constituents, but for gin of 94.4 proof and a harmonious vermouth it may be generalized at about 3.7 to one. And that is not only the proper proportion but the 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. Happily, the upper limit is not so fixed; you may make it four to one or a little more than that, which is a comfort if you cannot do fractions in your head and an assurance when you must use an unfamiliar gin. But not much more. This is the violet hour, the hour of flush and wonder, when affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see a unicorn. But it would not be a martini if we should see him.
So made, the martini is only one crush stroke short of the perfect thing, and I will rebuke no one who likes to leave it there. But the final brush stroke is a few drops of oil squeezed from lemon rind on the surface of each cocktail. Some drop the squeezed bit into the glass; I do not favor the practice and caution you to make it the rind, not peel, if you do. And, of course, you will use cocktail glasses, not cups of silver or any other metal, and they will have stems so that heat will not pass from your hand to the martini. Purists chill them before the first round. If any of that round (or any other) is left in the pitcher, throw it away.
The goal is purification and that will begin after the first round has been poured, so I see no need for preliminary spiritual exercises. But it is best approached with a tranquil mind, lest the necessary speed become haste. Tranquility ought normally to come with sight of familiar bottles. If it doesn't, feel free to hum some simple tune as you go about your preparations; it should be nostalgic but not sentimental, neither barbershop nor jazz, between the choir and the glee club. Do not whistle, for your companions are sinking into the quiet of expectation. And you need not sing, for presently there will be singing in your heart.
Remember always the three abominations are: (1) rum, (2) any other sweet drink, and (3) any mixed drink except one made of gin and dry vermouth in the ratio I have given.
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From the book entitled The Hour by Bernard De Voto. Copyright (c) 1948, 1949, 1951 by Bernard De Voto. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.