January 14, 2010

How The Lack of Vermouth Laid Low The Mighty Martini or Please Impregnate My Gin With Some Vermouth

I recently stumbled across this Slate article dating from 1998, and extolling the virtue of having the proper amount of vermouth in your martini.

In this era of disgustingly superdry and inhumanly exotic martini hybrids, I was surprised to see the author, Fareed Zakaria, give vermouth its proper due:
"The martini is a mixed drink. A goodly portion of vermouth rests in its very essence."
Amen brother. The martini is gin and vermouth. It certainly is not to be made with vodka, and if you cut one half of the ingredients . . . well, you might have a nice glass of straight Beefeater or Boodles, but it isn't a martini. In correctly pointing out the importance of vermouth Zakaria stumbles across one of the unheralded tragedies of the 20th century -- it was the vermouth that ruined the martini, not the vodka.

I have often bemoaned the fact that all too often you get a martini that is all gin no vermouth. That may sound like a good thing, but when the drink usually languishes in a shaker of crushed ice before eventually making its way to the table, you end up with watered down gin. Not exactly the most auspicious beginning to the evening.

The worst thing to happen to the martini though was its bastardization by the vodka companies of the world. With the cold war in full swing, Smirnoff and a host of others pushed the exotic "Russian" vodka on a thirsty American public, mostly by changing the martini into a vodka based cocktail. So, now we have drinks made with vodka --and all manner of ingredients-- masquerading as martinis.

So, it was that the demise of vermouth led to the sad state of martinis today.
"When Paul Desmond, the saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was asked how he developed the glistening, elegant sound often called '50s jazz or modern jazz, he explained, "I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini." But as modernism became purer and purer, and its buildings, art, and music all became simpler and shorn of any style, the martini had to follow suit. The dry martini had to get cooler, cleaner, starker--in short, drier. Thus began the race to the bottom, with vermouth levels falling precipitously, from a third to a fifth to a tenth to a splash of Martini & Rossi in a sea of Tanqueray. The superdry martini was the cocktail equivalent of Brutalist architecture, theoretically dazzling in its severity but in fact rather tasteless. Next, vodka began to replace gin as the preferred drink, endorsed by James Bond. Now, good, chilled vodka has a lovely, sinuous texture, but it doesn't mix particularly well with vermouth. Which became all the more reason to toss out the mixer."

Zakaria concludes with very good advice for all martini drinkers out there:
"So the next time you walk into a bar, tell the bartender you want your martini wet--the gin thoroughly impregnated with vermouth."

For the record Mr. Suave likes his martinis with Martini & Rossi vermouth. Noilly Pratt is allright, but M&R just seems to make it right. Buy the big bottle, there's no point in running out all the time to get more, and use the cap to measure your vermouth. Two capfuls is a nice place to start, enlivening the martini without overwhelming it with too much of a wine taste. Of course, you need a minimum of four shots of gin, preferably Beefeater or a brand that has that deep juniper flavor right up front that goes so nicely with the vermouth.

In fact, I think I'll go have one right now.

Nicola Conte -- La Coda Del Diavolo