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.