If you don’t know who Victor Banis is, he’s a writer. His web site says so, Wikipedia says so, and I know it is so, having read some of his wonderful work. He’s also a Very Nice Person. Just look at this sweet face! Victor is always generous with his time and his great store of writing how-to, and I’ve never known him to be unkind. Today, on Foodie Wednesday, he has agreed to share his thoughts on a drink we both favor:
The martini is the king of cocktails. It originally called for gin, but today is as likely to be made with vodka. Here are the directions for making a martini that I included in my memoir, Spine Intact, Some Creases, much as they appeared there – but, I was accused by one reader of being verbose on the subject, and in the spirit of reasonableness, I have eliminated an entire sentence, though admittedly it was only a short one.
The martini is not a difficult drink to make, requiring only a good quality gin or vodka, a few drops of a good dry vermouth, an olive with, if you like, a drop or two of its juices (which makes it a Dirty Martini) or if you prefer a twist of lemon peel, and lots of ice. With an onion instead of an olive it becomes a Gibson. Some old recipes call for a drop or two of Angostura bitters, and I think that is an interesting variation, but you must be especially careful with a vodka martini to add no more than a drop, otherwise it will overpower the drink, when what you want is a very subtle effect.
I won’t even dwell upon those establishments that attempt to make this noble concoction with rotgut booze, but those of you who have not read the unexpurgated version of Dante’s Inferno may not know that there was a special circle in Hell set aside for just such miscreants. This detail was eliminated from the revised edition under pressure from the liquor industry and the publisher’s marketing people, so you will just have to take my word for it, but I think you know by now whether or not I am likely to exaggerate.
A more common sin of bartenders—and Dante knew what to do with them as well, you may be sure—is to interpret the request for a dry martini as meaning straight gin or vodka. That is not a martini, alas, dry or otherwise. Something subtle and truly wondrous occurs with the blending of the two spirits, something that cannot be explained by mere chemistry alone but must be experienced to comprehend. Mind you, it wants only a few drops of the wine—and this is another all too common failing—to do the job. If you do not trust your wrist absolutely, the safest thing is to pour the vermouth into its bottle cap, a half a cap full at most, or better, a third, though you can be more generous when making a gin martini than if you have chosen vodka.
There are bartenders who, without asking and having made a perfectly good job of the proportions, spoil it all by handing it to you in a glass full of ice. This, too, is not a martini. I truly believe that a glass of ice water makes a good companion to a martini, but it should be served on the side.
On the opposite side of the coin—and there is probably no punishment commensurate with the crime—is serving a martini insufficiently chilled. A martini must be ice cold, practically gelid, and preferably served in a chilled glass so that its brisk coldness will last. And eschew, please, the deplorable habit of keeping gin and vermouth in the refrigerator to obviate the need for ice. The ice is indeed necessary. That slight dilution of the spirits with the melting ice—the clearest, purest ice you can find—smoothes the edges, as it were.
And since it is perfection that we are after here—for a perfect martini stands as one of the purest examples of perfection in a too often imperfect world—we might as well address that “shaken or stirred” business. Never mind what James Bond says. He is British and the British are very good with tea but have never quite grasped the essence of the cocktail.
Both shaking and stirring will chill a martini, of course, and I personally think that shaking became popular because it does so more quickly and we are always in a hurry, aren’t we? To be sure, there are drinks that are appropriately shaken; drinks, for instance, with fruit juices in them are meant to be frivolous, effervescent, frothy even. Shake the dickens out of them
Drinks that are pure spirits, however, or nearly pure spirits—the martini, the Manhattan, the Rob Roy as examples—deserve to be stirred. If you will make two gin martinis, in separate shakers, violently shaking one and gently stirring the other, you will clearly discern two things. First, as any good bartender can tell you, stirring produces a colder drink, and the colder the martini the better. And, second, you will find that the shaken method truly does leave the gin “bruised,” as evidenced by the oils you can see for yourself left floating atop the cocktail when you have poured it into its glass, while the stirred version retains that crystalline purity which is to be desired.
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Thanks, Victor! Gentle readers, I invite you to purchase your very own copy of Victor’s wonderfully entitled memoir about his life as a writer: SPINE INTACT, SOME CREASES.
See you Friday for Grab Bag Day!