Why do martinis have much less vermouth now than in the past?
June 16, 2004 7:54 PM   Subscribe

Who can explain the evolution of the martini and "martini"? [leave your thoughts inside, where you'll find more of mine].

In days gone by,as I understand it, martinis had gin and vermouth in a 2:1 ratio, depending on dryness. Now much less vermouth is used. Also, it seems that an inordinate number of drinks that just happen to be served in cocktail glasses are being called "martinis". I just moved to a trendier neighborhood and all over the place I see cocktail menus with sections devoted to martinis, most of which are completely unrelated to historical martinis (one helpfully included a listing for the classic martini, which apparently includes no gin). Most of these I assume are recently made-up drinks that get called martinis for cachet, but some of them are pre-existing classic cocktails in their own right—twice now I've seen the sidecar listed as a martini. Anyone know either why the martini progressed to being practically straight gin (or vodka), or why it now seems to be a catch-all generic term for "drink served in a cocktail glass"?
posted by kenko to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) People like the conceptual idea of drinking martinis.
2) People don't actually like how vermouth tastes.
3) Bartenders get better tips if people like their drinks.

That's pretty much all the needed factors to transform a "martini" into a drink that doesn't have any vermouth.
posted by smackfu at 8:10 PM on June 16, 2004

smakfu is dead on, especially with #2, but then you have to ask why is #1 true? I'm sure the answer is in cinema. James Bond, for one. And perhaps people are extraordinarily drawn to the design of the martini glass. But where I live, martini isn't quite diluted to the point of "any drink in a cocktail glass." Not yet anyway.
posted by scarabic at 8:13 PM on June 16, 2004

All the faux-martinis I have seen have been served in martini glasses and made from clear spirits. All notions of gin and dryness seem to have evaporated from the cocktail menu, although thankfully I can still get a decent gin one if I ask.

Possibly the great slump in cocktail popularity that preceded the recent revival has to do with it. There were so few keepers of the true martini flame that when mixed drinks came back in vogue no one cried out "Sir, there is no raspberry syrup in a martini!"
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:33 PM on June 16, 2004

Don't even get me started on Vodka "Martinis."
posted by machaus at 8:40 PM on June 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

Doesn't Bond typically order a vodka martini?

Also, I don't think it's the vermouth people dislike the taste of: it's the gin. Mmmmmmm, gin.

And one more thing. I like gin, and I like martinis, but I cannot stand martini glasses. Damn near impossible to drink out of. And you will spill some of your drink.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:44 PM on June 16, 2004

I can one up your sidecar. The martini list included a coffee martini. I asked the waiter about the difference between it and a black russian made with top-shelf vodka. The reply: "It's the same drink, same quantity. The only difference is two dollars for the glass."
posted by mischief at 8:50 PM on June 16, 2004

Bond did drink vodka martinis. He also had them shaken instead of stirred, which is a big martini no-no. (It bruises the vodka or something.) My boyfriend - who's somewhat of an Ian Fleming fanatic - tells me that this is because shaking the ice melts it and dilutes the vodka, which enabled Bond to drink more without getting as drunk. Or something.

My other favorite martini related anecdote is that Winston Churchill was famous for merely LOOKING at the vermouth bottle while pouring the gin.
posted by web-goddess at 9:05 PM on June 16, 2004

I made the terrible mistake of ordering a martini in a college bar up in Lawerence, KS and I tried it and go "uh when are you going to put the martini in this?" and he just goes "well I can make you another one" but it was obvious he just knew how to put vodka and gin in a glass. I told him not to bruise it either and he did. I'm not too angry, well the price was $8 and I was too drunk to ask for top shelf ingredients. Actually which brings me to a tip I'd like to share.

Unless you're at an upscale, swank bar (I would guess old money) always specify the liquor off the back shelf. Otherwise they just use boxed liquor from below. A friend told me this and I don't go to enough bars to know if it's true but I have had good experience specifying what liquor I want in it. Also I know to order a beer if I go "J&B on the rocks" and they go "We don't have J&B". It's a good indicator.
posted by geoff. at 9:05 PM on June 16, 2004

More info on James Bond's odd martini drinking... I e-mailed the boy asking why Bond drank vodka instead of gin. His response:

"I think the idea was that (good) vodka would give him less of a hangover. Gin is fairly notorious. Also, I seem to recall there being something about good vodka being easier to find than good gin outside of England. Or perhaps he just doesn't like gin. There's a whole bunch of explanation in one of the books -- I think it might be in You Only Live Twice, while he's waiting for the Australian agent (who is later assassinated)."

So there you go. Blame Ian Fleming.
posted by web-goddess at 9:18 PM on June 16, 2004

Mischief: actually, one of the places with a sidecar on the menu (which was at least under that name) also had what was basically a Manhattan, with a different name, in a cocktail glass.
posted by kenko at 9:34 PM on June 16, 2004

What does "bruising" vodka mean?
posted by scarabic at 9:47 PM on June 16, 2004

My family all drink real martinis (gin+vermouth+olive) but on-the-rocks. This solves the problem with the silly cocktail glass. I drink mostly beer, and that solves the problem as well.
posted by Goofyy at 10:07 PM on June 16, 2004

Beats me, scarabic. Maybe it aerates it too much or something.
posted by web-goddess at 10:24 PM on June 16, 2004

Heh. I was going to ask the same question. As a (mostly) non-drinker I am mystified by this term "bruising."
posted by litlnemo at 2:22 AM on June 17, 2004

As far as I know, the "bruising" of the gin/vodka that results from shaking refers to the cloudiness that appears in the drink afterwards, most likely caused by tiny air bubbles introduced by the agitation. I have heard people use the term to refer to the dilution of the alcohol by melted ice, but they could just be wrong.
posted by majcher at 3:16 AM on June 17, 2004

perhaps people are extraordinarily drawn to the design of the martini glass...I guess it's wrong of me but I love drinking bloody marys from a martini glass. It definitely has something to do with the glass.
posted by oh posey at 4:18 AM on June 17, 2004

where's Miguel when you need him?
posted by leotrotsky at 4:57 AM on June 17, 2004

My understanding has always been that a good strong gin will bruise (become cloudy) more easily than a vodka; Bond's request of "shaken, not stirred" may have been a cue for the bartender to use vodka, and not gin as the bartender would know that only a vodka martini should be shaken. With bartenders today, you shouldn't make this assumption (really: I've been to fairly nice places, places where ought to be able to rely on the bartenders, ordered a gibson, and recieved a gimlet. *sigh*). Drinks to change according to tastes and times; once the vermouth-less martini was "very very dry," but nowadays, if you want a classic martini, you'll need to ask for it wet. Maybe tastes will swing back around eventually.

While we're on cocktail puzzlers, here's one. I've just finished reading the collected stories of John Cheever, a set of stories where nearly everyone is making, finishing, craving, or recovering from a martini. Throughout the stories, the word Martini is always capitalized (e.g. "Let's go swimming and have Martinis on the beach. Let's have a fabulous morning."), something I nearly never see now. Was this just an affectation on Cheever's part, or was there a good grammatical reason for doing so? And if that's the case, then what changed?

On preview: I haven't answered kenko's question at all, but yeah, I have noticed the trend, and yeah, it's odd.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:06 AM on June 17, 2004

Jumping back a bit to the original question: one thing no one has mentioned yet is that the reason the original Martini had so much vermouth in it is because Martini & Rossi is a brand of vermouth. The cocktail was meant to promote their product, no?
posted by bcwinters at 6:35 AM on June 17, 2004

A couple hundred years ago it was common to capitalize all nouns in English. It's still standard practice in German, which is where we got the habit.

Today the only reason to capitalize a word in this manner is if it's a proper noun. Hence Kleenex, Xerox, etc. Over time the "proper-ness" of proper nouns tends to fade: people start to say "hand me a kleenex" when they mean "hand me a tissue." We're seeing this now with Google, but in this case the brand is turning into a verb rather than a plain old noun. Most companies try very hard to keep this from happening and will send nasty letters to, say, newspapers that print their brand names in lowercase.

The OED claims that the word "martini" comes from Martini and Rossi Vermouth, which is a proper noun. So to answer your question I suspect that Cheever had a fondness for martinis and was trying to maintain their history by using the proper noun, what with its implications for the pedigree of the drink.
posted by amery at 6:35 AM on June 17, 2004

Otherwise they just use boxed liquor from below. A friend told me this and I don't go to enough bars to know if it's true but I have had good experience specifying what liquor I want in it.

If you don't specify your brand, you will certainly get a well drink, and it will cost a dollar or two less. Happy hour specials on cocktails usually only apply to well drinks, too. I suppose at a swank bar they may not have cheap liquors in stock (?), but then they would have to choose a brand that would be the default... If they have cheap liquor in stock, they will use it when you don't specify a brand.

In NYC the "martini" craze was prompted primarily by "cosmopolitans" which are some kind of sweet girly reddish drink served in a martini glass. From there people just went nuts, trying to get as many differently colored sweet girly drinks into martini glasses as they could, charging $9 a pop. The apple martini had a pretty good run. Yes, I think it is largely the glass - long stem like a wine glass seems elegant, sophisticated; wide flare instead of rounded bulb seems hip, stylish, a little 1920s...
posted by mdn at 6:37 AM on June 17, 2004

ordered a gibson, and recieved a gimlet : Many is the time I have ordered a gibson lately in a purported 'martini' bar only to receive a confused look. The funny thing is five years ago, before this new wave of martini-dom, ordering a gibson would get you an actual, generally acceptable gibson.
posted by mischief at 7:45 AM on June 17, 2004

Vodka martinis can be very good, fie to the naysayers. I also tend to think martinis are popular today because it is one of the few accepted ways to drink straight vodka at social gatherings.
posted by the fire you left me at 8:06 AM on June 17, 2004

bcwinters- I was curious about that, too, but this page has some interesting details that seem to discredit that theory.

My own personal (unsubstantiated) conjecture about vermouth content:

Gin, as goes with all alcohol, used to be generally harsher than people are used to today- it's so cheap and (relatively) easy, you can make it in your bathtub. Sapphire-level gin was probably very rare. Adding vermouth was a logical way to cut the harshness. As gin-making became more refined, people saw less need to cut it with anything.

BTW, it's been mentioned before- seek out Hendrick's. It's so f'ing good. And, yes, in general, call your liquor- there's nothing snobbish about it, and there's no dignity in drinking cheap booze.

On preview- I agree, TFYLM. I love gin & tonic, but I prefer a vodka martini.
posted by mkultra at 8:12 AM on June 17, 2004

A couple hundred years ago it was common to capitalize all nouns in English. It's still standard practice in German, which is where we got the habit.

Not true. In the first place, it wasn't just nouns, it was any word the writer perceived as somehow significant when composing the sentence; in the second place, the more or less arbitrary capitalization of significant words was a pan-European thing. It just happens that German formalized and preserved the practice. And the capitalized "Martini" has nothing to do with Cheever; it was standard practice until the late '50s. In the OED citations, the first to use lower case is:
1958 Times Lit. Suppl. 19 Dec. 733/4 The sham, artificial life of all-night martini parties.

Note that "gibson" was still capitalized a decade later:
1968 'J. Welcome' Hell is where you find It iv. 51 He busied himself with a martini jug. I supposed that he was making a Gibson.

I like the classic martini, but vodka martinis (my wife's preference) are fine too, and we both particularly enjoy the Tablatini (citron vodka, fresh pineapple juice and lemongrass) at Tabla on Madison Square. Don't sneer till you've had one!

I actually couldn't bring myself to drink gin for a couple of years after an unfortunate drunken evening early in my NYC life in the course of which I imbibed so many g&t's that I actually called a girlfriend from ten years earlier (got her father on the phone -- all I remember is that I had awakened him and for some reason he wouldn't put her on the phone) and the next day I woke up literally reeking of gin -- it was coming out of my pores and nauseating me, even after a long, hot shower -- fortunately, they were very understanding at the bookstore I worked at and let me lie down in the break room for quite a while. But that's such an embarrassing story I'd never mention it here.

And yeah, where's Miguel?

posted by languagehat at 8:52 AM on June 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

Small correction. James Bond may order vodka martinis in the movies, but in Ian Fleming's books, he orders one that includes both vodka and gin, with a twist.
posted by lackutrol at 11:06 AM on June 17, 2004

James Bond comes from an earlier time when you expressed class by having your own version of everything. Your clothes were bespoke, your cigarettes were made to your own specification, and your cocktail was of your own design. He may drive a Bentley (a classy brand if ever there was one), but even that is an unusual color, battleship grey. Modern fashion expresses a similar sense of style by naming posh designer brands (and bad modern Fleming imitators write boring laundry lists of designer names).

As it relates to Martinis, this means that the "shaken, not stirred," is the way he likes them not that it is necessarily the right way to make them.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:41 AM on June 17, 2004

Yep. James Bond ordered it that way because it was out of the ordinary. Not the best idea for a secret agent, to do unique things (more likely to be remembered, when you're supposed to be anonymous and forgettable) But i guess you have to find the balance between being a good secret agent and being a good fictional character.

paging Miguel!
posted by Miles Long at 12:34 PM on June 17, 2004

The Straight Dope: Why did James Bond want his martinis shaken, not stirred? The lengthy discussion concludes:
This question captured the imagination of the SDSAB more than any since the great exploding mosquito dustup of 1997 (www.straightdope.com/classics/a5_206.html). It was suggested by some that even an experienced martini drinker could not tell the difference between a stirred martini and a shaken one.

It's exactly that kind of insistence on the facts that made the Straight Dope what it is today. So in the interests of science and in the best Cecilian tradition, SDSTAFF Gaudere, Gaudere's brother and I repaired to the King Cole Room at New York's St. Regis hotel, a global center of martinidom if there ever was one, to conduct a blind taste test. There, we managed to convince Kwaku the bartender to make one proper, stirred martini and one shaken one (but made from gin, not vodka), all from the same mix. We then each closed our eyes and drank. The results were about as one would expect: martinis all over the bar and an angry bartender. But the experimental outcome was stunning: each and every one of us was able to distinguish the shaken martini from the stirred one. I pegged the stirred one even before tasting the other one. A second scientific conclusion reached that evening is that "martinis upset ulcers," so it may be a while before your humble correspondent repeats the experiment.
I had read somewhere that Bond actually expresses the opposite preference at some point in his career, and I've turned up this discussion:
> Did you ever notice that in Dr. No, it's "...stirred, not shaken", as the
> classic martini should be. (See
> http://www.abc.net.au/science/k2/moments/s118518.htm). I still prefer mine
> shaken though.

Actually there's a story behind this. In the books he drinks gin martinis, but because of tie-in promotions with Smirnoff Vodka, James Bond had to drink vodka martinis in the movies. Of course, vodka martinis can be shaken, which is actually preferable. If you shake a gin martini, the gin "bruises". This was just many of the liberties taken with the bond books.

Jeff V
I have no idea if any of that is true.

And since Miguel isn't gracing us with his presence, here are some Migs/Martini moments: "the perfect Martini piece", "A Martini should be icy, transparent and unencumbered", his most unforgettable bartender ("My most unforgettable bartender, I was told by one of the useless drones who'd replaced him at the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan - one of which actually mixed my Martini in a cheap plastic tumbler and had the cheek to say glass was "inappropriate" - has died. Supposedly..."), and the Great Migs Cocktail Thread (not about martinis, but by now we're all so smashed we can't tell the diff, right?).
posted by languagehat at 12:39 PM on June 17, 2004

(I thought the Smirnoff deal was recent, like for just the past two or three movies.)

Blame Ian Fleming.

Bond's a red herring. The real culprit behind "everything in a martini glass" has got to be Sex in the City and its cosmopolitans. The neo-lounge movement of the '90s primed the pump, causing liquor distributors to push froofy drinks in martini glasses to increase consumption of crappy booze -- the appletini, for instance, designed to sell more Pucker ™ schnapps -- but the ubiquitous "Cosmo" really brought on the resurgence, and ever since just about any cocktail may be served in that annoying waste of a glass.

However, if you ask for your drink on the rocks, you'll get it in a highball, aka a rocks glass. This will have three potential benefits:
1. You'll spill less
2. You'll be able to drink (marginally) more, thanks to the ice
3. You quite likely will pay a buck or two less per drink
posted by me3dia at 1:25 PM on June 17, 2004

Hmmm. I don't know about promotional tie-ins. The Snook went through his books last night and turned up Bond's actual recipe from Casino Royale, which can also be found online. It actually uses gin AND vodka, oddly enough, and an obscure kind of vermouth called Kina Lillet. He also requests it to be served in a deep champagne goblet. As Miles Long suggests, probably not a good idea for a secret agent to drink something so memorable...
posted by web-goddess at 4:18 PM on June 17, 2004

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