What Have They Done to My Martini?


The Martini is the ultimate cocktail: cool, clear, and pure as liquid crystal. The very word martini has been synonymous with the idea of a cocktail, an expression of taste and style. From Dorothy Parker (“have two at the very most”) and Ernest Hemingway (“they made me feel civilized”) on to James Bond (“shaken not stirred”), the drink has been a classic.

It was the favorite drink of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, F. Scott FitzGerald, Henry Mencken, and Dashiell Hammett. Novelist Bernard De Voto declared it “the supreme American gift to world culture.”

Ah, but strange things have been happening lately to that timeless classic. In July, The New York Times devoted its entire “Food” section cover to “See What’s Gotten into Martinis.” Martinis and their progeny are so hot right now that drinkers can find a balsamic-dotted Caprese martini, an oyster mignonette martini served with an oyster on the side, and a squid ink martini. Manhattan has its chicken soup martini, and Brooklyn a pickled fennel and yazu drink. In Austin, Texas, they’re marketing martinis doctored with muscadet wine and kombu seaweed, while in Los Angeles, there’s a version with tequila and crème de cacao.

Martini purists can be excused for shaking their heads; they think we’ve lost the thread and it’s gotten to be less about contents and more about the V-shaped glass. In fact, true believers say the martini is not just a drink: It is stealthy beauty, its origins shrouded in myth and legend. Despite a few dubious European claims, America is usually credited with birthing the drink and introducing the world to its mysteries.

In the U. S. alone, there are two or three paternity stories. Some sources, including “The Martini,” Barnaby Conrad II’s timeless tribute, believe the drink originated when a traveler en route to Martinez, California, stepped into a bar in San Francisco, threw a gold nugget on the table and asked the bartender, “Professor” Jerry Thompson, for “something special.” Thompson returned saying, “Here’s a drink I invented for your trip. We’ll call it the Martinez.”

But there’s a strong competing theory: Citizens of Martinez claim that around 1870 a thirsty miner stopped at Julio Richelieu’s saloon and asked for something special. Richelieu, a young Frenchman from New Orleans, picked up a glass filled it with London gin, vermouth and a dash of orange bitters poured over crushed ice, strained and served with an olive. “That,” said Richelieu, “is a Martinez cocktail.”

Martinez boosters insist that, rumors aside, it’s their city that gave us the martini. In 1992, a hometown group installed a commemorative “Birthplace of the Martini” plaque to lay claim to this “fact.” The brass tablet quotes humorist James Thurber who said, “One is alright, two is too many, and three is not enough.” Although unheralded in brass, the martini had acquired a famous martyr. Sherwood Anderson, author of “Winesburg, Ohio,” succumbed to peritonitis in 1941 after swallowing the toothpick from a martini olive.

Many of the most cultivated habits of cosmopolitan America have their origins in diverse places; but they are not usually called “fashionable” until they arrive in New York City. Bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, an Italian immigrant, belatedly claimed to have  invented it at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York just before the First World War.

In the long run, it may be impossible to decide who invented the drink. But, by the dawn of the Cocktail Age, the martini was in common usage among bartenders on both sides of the Atlantic. But, oddly enough, skipping ahead into the 1990s – the martini had a major resurgence, born not in the East but in West Coast cities of Seattle and San Francisco.

One of the main instigators of the late-century martini renaissance was Seattle’s annual Classic Martini Challenge. Initiated in 1992, the Challenge was a showdown between five local bars to prove who mixed the best martini. The competition was attended by aficionados from as far afield as San Francisco and neighboring Vancouver, B.C. The event was first proposed and hosted by Oliver’s, a stylish lounge at the Mayflower Park Hotel.

Half a dozen of the city’s top establishments — places like the Met Grill, the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel’s Garden Court, Sazarac, and the Axis Restaurant and Bar – were among those who competed. (Full disclosure: I helped judge several of those 90s challenges.)

The public was always invited to participate. Spectators would gather early on a Friday night to sample competitors’ contest entries and cheer favorites once the judges arrived in chauffeured vehicles (no driving under the influence, please). Receipts from contest-inspired sales went into a fund for nonprofit Farestart, the outfit that trains food service workers.

It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the annual contest was retired following the historic contest of two-cities (Seattle-Vancouver B.C.) The bitter-sweet decision to conclude the annual competition was inevitable after bartender Mike Rule continued to score too many victories. Year after year, he led Oliver’s team, taking top prize in at least one of the three categories: best classic martini, most creative, and best martini hors d’oeuvres.

Seattle’s revived interest in the legendary martini had many ancillary benefits, locally and nationally. Martini, a volume authored by Alexander S. Struminger in 1997, featured pages of pictures taken at the Seattle Challenge. Also included were prize-winning recipes such as the Glazier Blue Martini, introduced by Garden Court bartender Michael Vezzoni.

For newspaper hacks like me, a four-day-a-week columnist for The Seattle Times, the contests were a rich source of items and stories. In 1995, I covered the early arrival of Oregonian columnist Jonathan Nicholas, a guest judge from Portland.  Never tired of mocking its Northern neighbor, Nicholas loudly proclaimed that Seattle was, “once again one step behind Portland.” He went on to assert, “Seattle judges don’t know a martini from camel spit”– or words to that effect.

That was the same year that bartender Mike Rule introduced judges to the “Mariners’ Martini,” a creative Mandarin orange version that honored the M’s for winning its first post season game, chalked up while the contest was underway.

Among dozens of contest-related stories, my favorite took place after the 1992 Classic. Two of the eight contest judges – Seattle Times’ columnist John Hinterberger and KING-TV producer Barbara Nombalais — apparently couldn’t get enough of a good thing. Just days later, en route to a Rep production of Julius Caesar, the pair ducked into a lower Queen Anne bar and ordered martinis.

The young bartender proceeded slowly. He hesitantly assembled first one drink, then began on a second, rather than mixing a single shakerful. Another bartender stepped in to explain, “We’re training him.” That the novice didn’t have a clue became plain when he finally confronted the two stemmed glasses and tossed in – not a lemon twist, not an olive – but instead plopped a juicy maraschino cherry into each of the cocktails.

That’s when the usually unruffled Hinterberger lost it. He shouted, “No. No. No!” And while Nobalais was left to deal with the aftermath, Hint abruptly exited stage left. No doubt wondering presciently what they’d done to his martini.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. I’m a committed originalist but the most “original” and delicious martini I’ve had is the Wasabi Martini at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. I’ve asked several bartenders to try but nothing compares. Thanks for the excellent historical essay.

  2. Wonderful report. I haven’t had a decent martini in years. In fact, I had one so appalling in Portland recently I have sworn off the whole enterprise, and that is saying something. I don’t know how a thing so simple and beautiful could become so corrupted. But I will relate one positive experience. About 10 years ago I was meeting out of towners at the Space Needle but arrived early, so I went into a hotel bar across the street and ordered a martini while I waited. The guy behind the bar very forthrightly confessed he was not a bartender but was the assistant manager just filling in and had no idea what to do, so asked me to instruct him. Best martini ever.

  3. Nice piece, Jean. My dad had one every night for decades and lived to 98. My favorite book about the drink is “Aerobleu — Martini Diaries” by Leslie Ann Nash. It comes in a metal case. A true classic, it has about two dozen recipes including Josephine Baker’s “Will She Or Won’t She Martini.” If you can’t find a copy, I’ll loan you mine — if you buy me a Martini.

  4. Wonderful history but don’t think you shared how you make your Martinis.
    Not surprised that Nicholas was so acerbic. We knew him when he first cane to The Oregonian, bringing along a Brit’s trenchant outlook on the weird years of Portland.

  5. Martini Memory: Tosca cafe, San Francisco, in the old days when it was dark, empty, and had a jukebox full of opera. The bartender would make the coldest, driest martini with Bombay gin, chilled to freezing, and knock the vermouth bottle against the edge of the bar so that a few molecules might fly through the air and land in the glass. Ohh, that was good.

  6. Wonderful review of Seattle and its’ “Martini” episodes. Having read you for many years, I was sure you would have a great handle on the martini heritage. The martini pitcher with its’ bamboo handle and stir-stick was a central fixture in our freezer when growing up. Whether a “clean or dirty”, olive or onion, it is a favorite! Thank you, Jean.

  7. Why is the name “martini” applied to so many different mixed drinks? It’s already confused enough, with both gin and vermouth subject to a wide range of variation.

    “Dry martini” is one made with “dry” (white) vermouth, instead of sweet red vermouth as was done early in its history. Without a detectable amount of vermouth added, it isn’t a martini, it’s gin. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about drinking gin, if it’s what you like – must be why they add botanicals.

  8. I’ve been a fan of the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel – a youthful friend, artistic collaborator, and then embittered enemy of Salvador Dali – since I was in high school. Buñuel published his autobiography in 1983, the year I turned 18, so before I was old enough to (legally) drink. While the law didn’t keep my high school and collegiate self away from beer, I’m pretty sure I’d never had a martini when I read Buñuel’s memoir a couple years after it came out.

    Still, I recall being struck at the time by a digression in Buñuel’s book, in which he went into careful detail about his thoughts regarding what constituted the perfect dry martini. I went and looked it up again recently — here’s what he said, no wonder it stuck with me:

    “Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window – leaving it unbroken.’”

    More practically, he wrote:

    ”Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Stir it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, stir it again, and serve.“

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never followed this recipe to concoct an actual martini, but that is an oversight I pledge to soon rectify.

    • You’re confusing the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. If Aquinas made the same error, he was even more misguided than I had thought possible. The doctrine of The Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was conceived without the stain of Original Sin on her soul. The Virgin Birth opens a different set of questions, even more confounding to those who believe such a thing is possible.

      • In either case, the implied purity that you’d treat so carefully with the most minimal trace of this or that addition, is utterly absurd. Gin is grain alcohol with any botanical flavoring you can think of added to it; the one thing it never is, is pure.

  9. I have to admit, im a Manhatten man but my girlfriend, Peggy Maze Johnson, oh my god, sometimes I think she likes her dirty martinis more than me!
    Fun article


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