Walk into any craft cocktail bar — and these days, that’s nearly every bar — and you’ll likely be handed a menu with more drinks than most people have friends. But it’s unlikely you’ll find a martini, an American icon so associated with drinking that it has its own glass.
Has the craft movement — with its tiny bottles of bitters, hand-squeezed juices and small-batch spirits — left no room for the once-mighty martini? Today’s cocktail connoisseurs seem to be obsessed with either elaborate, time-consuming concoctions or forgotten favorites that have made celebrated comebacks (see Mule, Moscow and Fashioned, Old).
While that may be true on bar menus, it’s not in the hearts of the people making the drinks.
“The well-made martini is in no way separate from the craft boom — quite the opposite,” said Cache Bouren, who owns Haberdasher in downtown San Jose’s artsy SoFA District. “The zest to sip one or serve one is palpable among my peers.”
But if you want to start an argument in a bar, there’s no better way than to tell somebody what’s in a martini — or how to make it. Even the drink’s origins are shrouded in myths. Some say it was invented at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. Others claim it was dreamt up by vermouth makers Martini & Rossi. A popular story puts the martini’s roots in the Martinez cocktail, which was either first made in San Francisco for people headed to the East Bay town or in Martinez itself.
A “traditional” martini has just two ingredients — gin and dry vermouth — mixed in a proportion that started around two-to-one and has reduced to the point that some bartenders just keep their vermouth in a spray bottle to mist the glass. It’s garnished with either a Spanish olive or a lemon peel twist. (Serve it with a cocktail onion and it’s called a Gibson.)
Order a martini from a bartender today, and you’ll probably be asked if you want vodka or gin — although vodka has become the standard at most bars. And chances are good you won’t get any vermouth at all, just cold vodka in a pretty glass.
At Five Points, a popular cocktail bar at San Pedro Square, the only martini on the menu is called “The Bastard of the Bastard,” an over-the-top “dirty” martini that contains not only olive brine but pickle juice. But bartender Aaron Luevano’s standard martini consists of Plymouth gin and Carpano Bianco vermouth. He adds his own touch with a dash of Fee Brothers peach bitters and stirs it with ice in a mixing glass which doesn’t “bruise” or dilute the gin the way shaking will.
“Martini drinkers are the most specific drinkers ever,” Luevano said. “If a martini drinker doesn’t like their drink, they’ll send it back.”
Few get sent back at Original Joe’s, the venerable downtown institution where nobody raises an eyebrow when you order a cocktail at lunch. Bartender Dave Sanchez says the bar has 27 martini glasses, and it’s not surprising to have them all out on the floor at once when the place is busy. “And on a Friday and Saturday night, we run out,” he said.
If the martini’s popularity has seemed to wane, Five Points manager Atsushi Yoshinaga says, it’s because the craft revolution has opened people’s eyes and palates. “Craft has made people aware that there’s more out there,” he said, “but I don’t see a complete absence of martinis.”
Of course, not every martini is created equal. The cocktail list at the clubroom-decorated Grill on the Alley at the Fairmont San Jose includes drinks called “martini” that really aren’t, such as the Side Car, the Cucumber Gimlet, the Red Velvet or the Ruby Red Lemon Drop — all of which have “martini” following their names on the menu.
Haberdahser’s Bouren says if anything, the craft movement has allowed the martini to get back to its roots, shedding the horrors of the Appletini and Chocotini years. Even James Bond’s preferred “shaken, not stirred” vodka martini doesn’t pass muster for Bouren.
“We don’t stand behind the shaken, oversized vodka-tinis, but a well made gin martini makes my mouth water just at the thought of it,” he said.
Today’s martinis are actually better than those of the past, he says, thanks to the availability of more distinctive gins and vermouths. And they may be poised for a comeback as the craft-cocktail pendulum moves back toward less complex drinks.
“The explosion of craft has reinvigorated the martini and reintroduced it to a new generation of drinkers,” he said. “In other words, it’s not your dad’s or grandpa’s drink anymore.”
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