I’m something of an asshole, but I reckon it’s much like dealing with substance abuse — acknowledgement of the core issue is the first step toward recovery. Accordingly, I do spend considerable time and effort trying not to be an asshole, or less of one. I just find this task to be particularly onerous when ordering a martini.
I have not allowed this challenge to affect consumption. I developed a taste for gin long before I developed a taste for any other alcohol. We go back a long ways. I don’t claim any broad expertise on the martini subject, notwithstanding where I stand on it. In other words, I know what I like:
• I prefer Bombay, or Beefeater: I’ll accept some lesser quality gin if it’s all that’s available. I’m honestly not too snobby about it, but Bombay and Beefeater are my ideals — and there are horses for courses. Tanqueray is fine with tonic, for example. Better than fine actually. But it’s got a very different sort of taste that, to me, doesn’t work in the martini context. Also, as I explain a bit further down, specifying Bombay tends to lessen my opportunities to come off sounding like an asshole.
• I don’t like olives: Yeah, I know. This is absurd. Everyone loves olives, Dan Bern especially. They are the things that make the martini for many people, but not me. I don’t like them on their own and I surely don’t want the oil, or the essence of anything — lemon peel, onion, or what have you — getting between me and the sublime chemistry of gin + vermouth.
• I want it shaken: Martinis should be served colder than cold, and shaking the ice, gin and vermouth together imbues the mixture with thousands of tiny ice shards that, when the drink is poured from shaker to glass, form a thin, crystalline film on the drink surface. It’s a beautiful composite thing, like a snowflake. Each design is utterly distinct. What’s more, it tells me the drink is cold enough and will remain so for as long as the immediate climate allows. There are establishments that will serve you a small portion in the martini glass, while the remainder is provided separately in a caddie, a small beaker that in turn sits in a glass globe that effectively packs ice around said beaker. This is solid presentation and extremely practical: The martini stays cold. But I still want it shaken on the front end.
• I want it very, very, very dry: This does not mean I want no vermouth at all. As you may have noticed, the dryness of martinis is the subject of much hackneyed, drink-related humor. People will muse, upon my ordering a very, very, very, “Oh, so dry that you just wave the vermouth bottle over the glass?”, or “So dry that all you need to do is whisper the word vermouth over the rim?” No, that’s not the point (and while you’re at it, stop with the Hawkeye Pierce impressions). I don’t want straight gin. Vermouth does something specific and integral to the martini process, even in extremely small doses: It cuts the astringent edge of straight gin like nothing on God’s Green Earth. Some people enjoy the taste of vermouth, which is an aperitif after all, and some enjoy that of vermouth mixed with gin. That’s all well and good. But people like me who want their martinis very, very, very dry do not like either of those things. They’re seeking the taste of gin minus its astringency, which is exactly what just the right amount of vermouth — literally a droplet per martini — provides.
Let me share with you one of the world’s great, fool-proof drink tips. If you want a very-very-very dry martini and you’re mixing for a single, here’s what you do: Pour what is surely too much vermouth into an ice-laden shaker; gently stir it around a bit; then pour out all the vermouth, every drop. The vermouth that remains coated on the ice is the exact right amount for a bone-dry martini. Just add a single serving of gin, shake with vigor, let sit 30 seconds, shake again and serve.
Back to the asshole theme. It is fairly well impossible to order a martini, while conveying all this vital information, without sounding like a pedant. If one were to provide even a quarter of the detail above, anyone within earshot would rightly assume that, “Jeezum crow, that guy there ordering the martini is a Grade A/No. 1 Asshole.”
The martini-ordering process is indeed rife with opportunities to sound like a self-important prick. Here’s another example: If you want your martini shaken, how does one make this clear without invoking a sort of fatuous, wannabe-James-Bond swagger? It’s difficult, let me tell you.
I’ve been drinking martinis for more than 30 years, and trying not to be an asshole for nearly as long. Here’s how I tiptoe through these potential minefields:
First, I have, over time, developed a concise, matter-of-fact, not-at-all swaggering script for my preferred martini order that, I daresay, has proved perfectly effective. Here’s what I say, every time, without fail: “I’d like a very, very, very dry Bombay martini. Straight up. No fruit. Shaken, please.”
I intone “very” three times because I’ve noticed, over the course of decades, that if I say it four times, I’m an asshole — and the bar man is likely to use no vermouth at all, to punish me. If I say it just twice, odds are 50-50 the waiter or waitress will not effectively emphasize this dryness to the bartender and my martini will come back tasting like a vermouth slushee. When it comes to “very”, the number of the counting shall be three. Four thou shalt not count. Five is right out.
Second, note the brand specification inherent to my stock martini order. This component I’ve developed in the last 15-20 years in response to what is frankly a worrying but nevertheless obvious trend. I’ll try not to sound like an asshole while describing it.
It’s ironic that as the martini has grown in popularity — and I think we’ve all noticed this trend — two things have become clear: 1) Much of this uptick is due to the influx of specialty martinis; and 2) the vodka martini has similarly grown in popularity.
These developments are co-dependent. Gin does not mix particularly effectively with, well… anything but tonic or vermouth. Vodka on the other hand is virtually tasteless and mixes well with all manner of mixers and fruit juices. Accordingly, when one is concocting some confection/abomination like an appletini or cranberrytini, vodka is the clear choice when it comes to one’s liquor base.
I shouldn’t say “abomination”. That is too strong a word. What these specialty vodka martinis truly are is “risky”. The martini is no joke, people. I’m a 205-pound man, and I only have a second martini when I’m at home, or not driving home. There is a built-in safety mechanism inherent to this particular drink: When consuming a proper martini, one is damned cognizant of the fact that one is drinking something entirely alcoholic and wicked potent. By contrast, when you’re drinking an appletini, it’s a lot like throwing back a glass of Hi-C — in a fancy vessel, laced with barbiturates. In other words, it’s all too easy to have 3 or 4, and that is a recipe for disaster.
There’s something else, something a bit cynical and sinister, at play with specialty martinis. Let’s call it the Bartles & Jaymes Syndrome, because the same demographic who drink appletinis today drank wine coolers in the 1980s. In short, alcohol purveyors — in addition to boyfriends and would-be male suitors the world over — are continuously looking for new ways to get young women as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible. Most young women will not stomach proper martinis. Cranberrytinis? This selection I’m afraid they will stomach. Until they don’t.
But here’s the third and final reason I’ve been obliged to add the “Bombay” to my standard order: If I don’t make this clear, the person taking my order will inevitably ask me, on account of vodka’s surging popularity in this milieu, “gin or vodka?”
I understand why they ask. Honestly, I do. Half the people ordering a martini have never done so before — or they are accustomed to ordering off specialty martini menus that bring high levels of variability to the process. However, as I hope we’ve made clear here today, a martini is a martini. It’s gin, full-stop.
Years ago, when I was younger and less concerned with being an asshole, I would respond to this perfectly innocent question thusly: If I wanted a “vodka martini,” I’d have asked for one. But that was the old Hal — the one who, all too frequently, came off sounding like, well… you know. By strategically inserting Bombay into my order, I make things plain, I get what I want, and all questions are answered ahead of time.
Of course, some 10 percent of the time, I am served a martini that has way too much vermouth, or olives, or vodka — regardless of all the care and forethought I devote to the ordering process. In these cases, I feel perfectly within my rights to send that drink back. But here again, I have gamed out a strategy that mitigates my own assholery. I don’t reorder the martini. A barman will invariably react poorly to this — by removing vermouth altogether or (my personal favorite) making the exact same wrong martini again.
I refuse to take that bait and chose instead to defuse the situation, thusly: Hey, sorry to be a bother but this is not what I ordered. I’ll have a Bud.