MxMo Martinez: Ur doing it wrong

Martinez cocktail

I’m coming in just under the wire for this month’s Mixology Monday — it’s still Monday somewhere, right? — where we’re kicking it old school with Bibulo.us and the theme of 19th century cocktails.

I owe the inspiration for this entry to Stevi Deter. In a post about Magellan gin at her new cocktail blog Two at the Most, she wrote:

If you don’t like floral infusions, you will not like Magellan. I like both. It is immediately apparent this isn’t a general-use gin. I can’t imagine using it in a Martinez, as I suspect the unique flavors wouldn’t mix well with sweet vermouth.

Say what? I’ve always made a Martinez with dry vermouth so that sweet vermouth comment threw me for a loop. That’s how I discovered I’ve been making one of the vintage cocktails the “wrong” way for quite a while now.

To see how I made this mistake, let’s step back a bit and talk about vermouth. This fortified and infused wine was long popular in Europe as a aperitif, but in the US drinkers were accustomed to stronger stuff. Sure, it could be enjoyed on its own, but why not stiffen it up with a shot of gin or whiskey? Such was the thinking of American bartenders in the late 1800s. Their legacy lives on in two truly classic cocktails, the Manhattan and Martini. The Manhattan, made with bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters, retains its 19th century flair. The Martini, unfortunately, has been diminished. The vermouth is all but gone, the gin nearly so. Today’s Martini drinkers are likely to want just plain vodka shaken over ice, as boring a drink as one could imagine. (I was always amused when customers complimented me on my Martini-making skills, me having done nothing but shake their chosen vodka over ice. Any idiot could have performed the task.)

Vermouth has suffered a long fall from grace. As Paul Clarke put it in his recent SF Chronicle article:

… by the mid-20th century, bartenders were following the lead of martini drinkers such as Winston Churchill, who is said to have merely glanced at a bottle of vermouth (or, in some versions of the story, in the direction of France) while preparing a drink. This trend toward drier martinis, combined with changing tastes toward lighter-flavored drinks and the advent of the vodka martini, meant vermouth became largely ignored and, as a result, misunderstood.

Today it’s not uncommon for a bottle of vermouth – deployed solely for the purpose of making martinis or Manhattans – to last weeks or even months in a standard bar, and many home bartenders may have bottles in their liquor cabinets that were purchased during the era of $2 gasoline.

That’s a damn shame, because vermouth can be a wonderful addition to a drink. Early versions of vermouth-based cocktails used it as the featured ingredient, often in double the amount of other liquors. Over time that ratio flipped, with traditional base spirits taking the lead and vermouth coming it at half the proportion, until we reached the point of today’s insipid vodka Martini. We can do better. That’s why for this month’s Mixology Monday I’m going back to a trio of cocktails featuring vermouth.

So let’s talk about the Martinez. Father of the Martini, recipes for the Martinez included yet another spirit that has fallen into obscurity: Maraschino. Distilled from cherries grown in Italy’s Marasca region, maraschino is a fruity, sweet, and slightly nutty liqueur that makes a fantastic addition to many cocktails. Adjusted for contemporary tastes, a modern Martinez looks something like this:

2 oz gin
.75 oz sweet vermouth
.25 oz maraschino
2 dashes orange bitters

This is a great cocktail. It’s reminiscent of a Manhattan, yet strangely different. The orange bitters are less spicy than Angostura. The gin imparts higher notes, more botanical, than bourbon. It doesn’t, however, fit the trend toward drier cocktails, and that’s how I made my mistake. I learned how to make a Martinez from Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz’s excellent book The Art of the Bar. The fault is all mine. As they describe the drink:

While the original Martinez is too sweet for most, we don’t believe the Martinez should be poured down history’s drain. On the contrary, we’ve developed a take on it that we feel is a perfect adaptation of a true classic. It is balanced, as a cocktail should be, and dry, as most of today’s martini drinkers prefer them.

Their version goes like this:

2 oz Plymouth gin
1 oz Dolin dry vermouth
Splash of maraschino liqueur
Dash of orange bitters
Lemon twist and olive for garnish

When I first got the book I read the full history of the Martinez, but when it came time to actually make the drink I skipped right to this recipe, not catching my error until reading Stevi’s post. I haven’t been able to find Dolin vermouth yet, but this is still an excellent drink — certainly an improvement over the stripped down Martini we’re left with today.

Since we’re on the topic of vermouth and the Manhattan remains our most enduring vermouth cocktail, I think it’s appropriate to finish with an 19th century variation on that classic tipple. This one comes from “The Only William” Schimdt’s The Flowing Bowl, as described in David Wondrich’s indispensable Imbibe!:

Half a tumblerful of ice
2 dashes of gum
2 dashes of bitters
1 dash of absinthe
2/3 drink [2 oz -- Wondrich] of whiskey [rye]
1/3 drink [1 oz -- Wondrich] [sweet] vermouth
A little [.25 oz -- Wondrich] maraschino may be added

Stir this well, strain and serve.

There’s no need for sugar (gum) here; the drink is plenty sweet on its own. Just a tiny bit of absinthe goes a long way. It’s an intriguing variation, slightly sweeter and much more fragrant than the Manhattan you’re likely to be served in a bar today. Wondrich concludes:

… if you follow William Schmidt’s formula to a T, maraschino and all, you’ve got a drink that is a perfect metaphor for the 1890s, a decade of top hats and electric lights, automobiles and buggy whips. A final twist of lemon will do the drink, or you, no harm.

With these drinks we go back to a time when vermouth earned its place as a worthy complement to popular liquors. Try these three as a flight of cocktails, from Hollinger and Schwartz’s dry Martinez to a modern Manhattan. Vermouth forms the bridge, across the spirits and across the centuries.

Update: Paul Clarke gets vermouthy too and digs up a few obscure cocktails for this Mixology Monday.

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