The Martini


If we were playing free association and I said, “iconic cocktail,” what would you say?

I’ve been thinking about this as I write an article about the exploding popularity of canned mixed drinks. In some ways, they’re the polar opposite of the Martini. The epitome of class, savoir faire, the Establishment, adulthood — whatever it means to you, whether you like the drink or not, the Martini is iconic.

As Robert Simonson says in his new book, “Something about the Martini gets people worked up, certain that the world might have a fighting chance at decency if only people would adhere to their particular recipe.” The Martini Cocktail (September 2019)

Hard-won civility in a triangle glass, Cary Grant in liquid form, the Martini is not a drink of soft warmth. Indeed, Grant sips Martinis in Hitchcock’s taut masterpiece of faux identity, “North by Northwest,” before he loses tether to his own identity. It’s above my pay grade to unpack all that movie is about. But identity & danger, the collision of the appropriate & the taboo, are the kinds of BIG HEAVY IDEAS I thought I was stepping away from when I started working on drink culture and history. (Ha! That’ll learn me!)

It wasn’t until recently that I enjoyed Martinis. The passion people feel about the PROPER way to make one had always obscured for me the most important thing: the proportions/prep/garnish other people said I should like didn’t fit my taste. Like the suits in the closet in “North by Northwest” that are supposed to be Grant’s character’s but so clearly don’t fit him.

If you also think you don’t like Martinis, I urge you to ignore everything other than your own taste. Grab some gin and/or vodka, some dry vermouths, and whatever garnishes YOU think seem appealing, and start playing with proportions. Listen to suggestions from people whose taste you respect and disregard anyone who seems angry about people doing it “wrong.”

Cocktails and spirits are fun. Fun can be serious work, and serious work can be fun. Sometimes the less momentous the topic, the more intense people are. But oh I wish everyone could remember that cocktails and spirits are meant to be enjoyed.

(My thanks to my whisky buddy alias George Kaplan @gkap59 for prompting me to revisit “North by Northwest,” a truly great movie.)