The Spill Tab
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The Spill Tab

History in a Hurry: The Dirty Death of the Gin Martini

2.25 oz gin and .75 oz of dry vermouth, stirred and strained into a chilled cocktail coupe. How did the mother of all cocktails become so convoluted?

A cocktail this simple, shouldn’t have an origin this shrouded in mystery, but the Martini found a way to navigate itself from bathtubs to penthouses, and cement itself in food and beverage lore. Its beginnings are not written in stone and there are several arguments for its birthplace, but we do know that. we should begin sometime in the late 1800s. One account lends itself to the legendary producer of vermouth, Martini, and Rossi, when some vermouth was accidentally splashed into a serving of Gin. Another is the story of a gold miner, in the town of Martinez, California who wanted to celebrate his good fortunes with Champagne. When the bar didn’t have any bubbles, the bartender made him a drink with what he had in stock, and suddenly the Martinez cocktail was born. The miner loved the Martinez so much he took the recipe down to The Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, where Jerry Thomas, who wrote the first bartender’s manual, published a recipe using Boker’s Bitters and an Old Tom Gin.

To understand the Martini, we must get acquainted with its predecessor, the Martinez. The Martinez is made with Old Tom Gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino cherry liqueur, and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. Shaken and served with an orange peel, this cocktail served as a useful ally to bartenders across the country.

The Martini would have evolved more rapidly had prohibition not reared its ugly head. Whiskey was the libation of choice, and during the years of The Great Depression, bootleggers had to stay ahead of the inspectors and police. Moonshiners quickly decided to add juniper to their bathtub concoctions to mask the unpleasantries associated with moonshine, and thus “Bathtub Gin” was born. In the speakeasy, the police could show up with barely a moment’s notice, so bartenders had to make drinks that the patrons could slam down fast and escape through the back.

If we fast forward to the World War II era, the Martini becomes dry. Winston Churchill, not only renowned world leader but notable drinker, once noted that a Martini should be made only with “ice-cold gin, and a bow in the direction of France”. It was within these 20 years that the Martini became the cultural phenomenon that we understand today. Historical figures such as Alfred Hitchcock, FDR, and “The King of Hollywood” Clark Gable all had their tweaks and preferences to their version of a Martini, which laid the foundation for a simple cocktail to represent the world’s wealthiest vs the common man. In the 1964 classic “Goldfinger”, the fictional James Bond orders his martini “shaken, not stirred” and with vodka in addition to gin. Suddenly, an entire generation of wannabe-secret-agent-sex symbols decided that this was the new standard of the Martini. As if it couldn’t become worse for the Martini, the “Three-Martini Lunch” was coined by President John F. Kennedy, which highlighted the rich and powerful executives that would use these lunches as tax write-offs. Because of this, the martini would serve as a proverbial “Fuck You!” to the rest of the world that wasn’t at these meetings.

A division amongst booze consumers was made and we begin to transition into the 80s. Versions of the Martini like a Cosmopolitan or Espresso Martini come to be and drinkers begin to favor Martinis with citrus juices or sweeter additions. Vodka became the main spirit for most of the bastardized versions of the once-great Martini due to its affordability and its infusion ability in brands like Pinnacle or Deep Eddy.

Now, I do not want seem like all other adaptations of a martini are terrible, as they have their time and place, but we should begin to refrain from calling these cocktails “Martinis”.

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Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis

Sommelier and Beverage Informant. Writer and Editor for @TheSpillTab

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