King of Cocktails
The Coming of the Martini: An Annotated Timeline
The history of this legendary drink is far from simple. Here’s what we can say definitively.
The Martini is the King of Cocktails, the most famous of them all. During the dark ages—the Mudslide and Midori Milkshake years—it was practically the last classic cocktail standing, the one that tirelessly wielded its silver sword so that its people might survive to see a better age. When that better age came, it spent a few years sitting on the porch watching the world go by, but the times are again dark and the strong, austere—even noble—Martini is looking more and more like the thing we need.
All well and good, but that means that there will be articles, and those articles will attempt to explain the drink’s history, even if it’s just for a paragraph or two before the obligatory roundup of cleverish variations on the Martini as served at bars around the country that have PR agents. And those attempts will, with few exceptions, be wrong.
The basic problem is the same one that bedevils all after-the-fact attempts to explain the histories of the kind of cultural innovation that takes place outside the orbits of art schools and conservatories. When gin met vermouth to form the Martini, as when blues met ragtime to form jazz, those present did not have the option of commemorating the occasion with an Instagram selfie. Nor did they trouble to take pen to paper the next day, or if they did they left the paper in their pants when they sent them out for washing.
Ever since the 1930s, mixographers have been trying to get around this inconvenient fact by weaving together long, dense chains of speculation, guesswork and might-have-been. They’ve plucked names—Jerry Thomas, Julio Richelieu, Martini di Arma di Taggia—out of whatever random sources they had available to them (the odd bartender’s guide, the morgue of some old newspaper, the shaky memory of an elderly bar-fly) and built castles of imagination atop them. And then their successors have compounded the damage by treating these castles as sources to be honored and their information as facts to be explained.
But we live in a different age, with unprecedented access to the old newspapers and such where cultural innovations make their first marks. And so, I’d like to try a different approach. I’d like to ignore those histories and focus instead on the actual footsteps the drink left behind as it began its tipsy march through time. Here, then, is the actual, at-the-time evidence for the birth and early development of America’s greatest cocktail, presented verbatim in an annotated timeline. It might be a rough draft of history, but as is often the case that’s the draft that contains the real story.
The history of the Martini begins with the Manhattan, the first American drink to combine spirits and vermouth. While there are hints that that drink was being made in the 1870s, they are far from definitive.
August 31. “Gotham Gossip,” Grayling, Michigan, Crawford Advocate.
“It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue. It went under various names—Manhattan cocktail, Turf Club cocktail, and Jockey Club cocktail. Bartenders at first were sorely puzzled what was wanted when it was demanded. But now they are fully cognizant of its various aliases and no difficulty is encountered.”
Notes: The Turf Club was an exclusive gambling club for the richest and sportiest men in New York Society. It, the Manhattan Club and the Jockey Club had considerable overlap among their members. In an oral culture, it was far from unusual for new drinks to bear several different names; if they gained true popularity, drinkers and bartenders would eventually reach a general consensus, although there were always a number of “but actually” holdouts.
The first mention of gin mixed with vermouth comes seven months later, with a second at the end of the year.
March 24. “What’ll You Have?” Cleveland Leader.
“Vermouth is an excellent appetizer, and is made into cocktails. It is also used in making what is called the Manhattan cocktail, the liquor in which is gin.”
November 25. “Local Miscellany,” Chicago Tribune.
“‘Manhattan cocktails are in demand, too,’ said the artist [i.e., a local bartender]. ‘I introduced them some time ago, and they have become quite popular. They are made of vermouth and gin.’”
Notes: The alert reader will have noticed a certain discrepancy here. To us, it seems scarcely possible to confuse a Martini with a Manhattan. One is clear and crisp, light and dry, dry, dry. The other is dark and rich and mellow. In 1883, however, it wasn’t so easy. For one thing, the default vermouth was the sweet, rich Italian style, then newly imported and trendy (and only lightly colored), not the light, dry French style, and there was more than just a splash of it in one of these cocktails: the most common proportion was equal parts booze and vermouth.
The gin was different, too: the light-bodied, slightly sweet, junipery English Old Tom gin, the dominant style there, was still a niche product in America in the early 1880s; we preferred the full-bodied, rich and malty Dutch style, distilled in pot stills from equal parts barley malt, rye and corn and only very lightly flavored with juniper. So if you asked for “gin” in a bar and didn’t specify “Old Tom” you’d get what was essentially unaged, lightly-flavored whiskey. Factor in the high vermouth ratio, and you’ve got two drinks that are more twilight and dawn than night and day.
The gin-and-vermouth combination received a name of its own the next year—or rather, two of them, both found in New York City bartenders’ guides. We don’t know which of them came first.
Same as Manhattan, only you substitute gin for whisky.”
How to Mix Drinks, New York: G. Winter Co.
“Turf Club Cocktail
Two or three dashes of Peruvian Bitters;
One-half wine glass of Tom gin;
One-half wine glass of Italian Vermouth;
Fill glass three-quarters full of fine ice, stir well with spoon and strain in fancy cocktail glass, then serve.”
Notes: A “wineglass” was an old liquid measure holding two ounces. O.H. Byron (probably a pseudonym) actually included two different Manhattan recipes, one with Italian vermouth and whiskey in equal parts (the standard ratio for both early Manhattans and early Martinis) and one with the dry French vermouth, with twice as much of that as there was whiskey. He of course does not specify which to follow for his “Martinez” or explain the origin of the name.
As for the Turf Club. From here on out, it only appears as a gin drink. Its call for “Tom gin” is one of the most important milestones in the history of the Martini. Henceforth, English gin would be the preferred style to mix with vermouth.
The only known trace of any significance the Martini left in 1885 came late in the year.
December 13. “Set ‘Em Up Again, Please!” Boston Herald.
“It is surprising to note the rapid increase in mixed drinks….Here are some of the principal ones: Angel’s breath cocktail, turf club cocktail, coffee cocktail, sherry cocktail, sweet hour of prayer, Martena cocktail, Manhattan cocktail [plus 35 more].”
Notes: Does the fact that the “Martena” and the Turf Club are listed side by side mean that they are in fact different drinks? Lists of drinks such as this one were often swept together from different sources so it doesn’t have to, but see October 11, 1887.
The Martini’s true name is spoken.
February 18. “A Martini cocktail,” Rock Island, Illinois Argus.
“A Martini cocktail is served at our fashionable club houses, and consists of one-half of orange bitters, same quantity of Old Tom gin, and made the same as an ordinary cocktail with a drop of absinthe added.”
December 29. “The Absinthe Habit,” Omaha Daily Bee.
“The turf cocktail is made of part gin and part vermuth [sic]….”
Notes: The name “Martini” first enters the record. In the Rock Island Argus’s recipe, obviously, someone screwed up here, whether it was the customer who first brought the drink to Rock Island, the bartender he ordered it from, the reporter who asked for the recipe or the rewrite man who hammered his rough notes into tolerable prose. In 1886, there was no handy place to look things like this up.
Clearly, the Martini—or the Martena, or the Martinez, or the Turf Club, or the Turf—was spreading around the country. But if you didn’t have Byron’s 1884 book, you were on your own with any questions about it. I strongly suspect that lurking behind this recipe is a quite palatable mix of half Old Tom gin, half vermouth, with dashes of orange bitters and absinthe.
An important year for the Martini, as it begins to hit the cocktail big time.
Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders Guide, 3rd ed., New York: Dick & Fitzgerald.
(Use small bar-glass.)
Take 1 dash of Boker’s bitters.
2 dashes of Maraschino.
1 pony [i.e., 1 ounce] of Old Tom gin.
1 wine-glass of Vermouth.
2 small lumps of ice.
Shake up thoroughly, and strain into a large cocktail glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass, and serve. If the guest prefers it very sweet, add two dashes of gum syrup.”
February 13. “New York’s Day of Rest,” New York Sun.
“… and now they [i.e., the women who haunt New York’s fashionable cafés] are coquetting with a subtle compound of gin and vermouth, which they call ‘the Martini,’ though its name is spelled ‘Martinez.’ It is one of those drinks that give the worth of their cost, and necessitate a man’s standing under a pile driver to have his hat put on next morning.”
October 11. “Fine Fancies in Drinks,” New York Evening World.
“Of course the whiskey, Holland gin, Tom gin, hickory, Manhattan, Turf Club, vermouth, absinthe, Martini and bourbon cocktails are served [at New York’s Hoffman House bar] at all times.”
December 25. “Only Two Drinks Needed,” Chicago Tribune.
“The Martini cocktail, made of Vermouth, Booth’s gin, and Angostura bitters, is never so popular as at this season….”
Notes: The “Jerry Thomas” book is a version of the 1862 classic revised two years after the man’s death; the Martinez was one of the additions. This edition sold widely and was frequently plagiarized by subsequent bartender’s guides, thus perpetuating the “Martinez” name which was, as the February quote from the New York Sun shows, rapidly falling by the wayside in favor of “Martini.” With two parts vermouth to one part gin, this recipe was sufficiently different from the standard one-to-one Martini recipe for many of these subsequent guides to print both. The large cocktail glass is needed because at three ounces the drink is one and a half times the size of the standard cocktail of the day.
The Hoffman House hotel had the most famous bar in America and reputedly the best. The fact that it was serving both Martinis and Turf Clubs indicates that by this point “Turf Club” was more than just an alternate name for the cocktail. By the 1890s the Turf Club had become a Dutch-gin drink, if only to differentiate it from the Martini; it seems likely that that transition had already occurred at the Hoffman House.
Two more bartender’s guides, and yet another name.
Theodore Proulx, Bartender’s Manual, revised ed., Chicago: Proulx.
Is half Tom gin and half vermouth made like any other cocktail; no absinthe.”
Harry Johnson, New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual, New York: Johnson.
(Use a large bar glass.)
Fill the glass up with ice;
2 or 3 dashes of Gum Syrup;
2 or 3 dashes of Bitters; (Boker’s genuine only.)
1 dash of Curaçoa [sic];
half wine glassful of Old Tom Gin;
half “ “ “ Vermouth;
stir up well with a spoon, strain it into a fancy cocktail glass, squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top, and serve. . . .”
Notes: In the difference between these two recipes you have the difference between the New York and Chicago schools of bartending. Proulx’s “made like any other cocktail” means that the gin and vermouth are to be mixed with bitters and syrup and topped off with a twist. Some liked a dash of absinthe in their cocktails, others didn’t.
Johnson’s book, in accordance with its title, contains an illustration of the drink, only underneath it is written “Martine Cocktail.” For that, see 1891.
Up to this point, I’ve given just about every reference to the Martini I have been able to find. Five years in, however, the drink was picking up steam and the references are both far more frequent and often far less significant. Henceforth, I’ll be far more selective.
May 5. “McAllister’s Hard Lines,” New York World.
“He could not go up to Delmonico’s . . . [and] take a Martine cocktail…”
Notes: A brief quote from a long article to show that Johnson’s “Martine” isn’t a typo. Delmonico’s, the most famous and best restaurant in the Americas, was also known for the quality of its bar, at which Johnson worked (so, at least, he later claimed). And again, see 1891.
So far, the Martini has been an Italian vermouth drink, although back in 1884 O. H. Byron, whoever he was, left open the possibility that it could also be made with the drier French style. As the new decade began that would change.
Ralph David Blumenfeld, In the Days of Bustles and Crinolines: the Diary of R. D. Blumenfeld, 1883-1914, New York: Brewer & Warren, 1930.
“Saturday, September 13, 1890. At sea on board La Champagne, bound from New York to Havre…The purser has introduced me to a new drink called Martini cocktail, which he mixes in his cabin at noon, before luncheon. It is made of a mixture of gin and French vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters; most alluring ….”
Notes: Blumenfeld was a top New York journalist, but unlike most of his colleagues he was clearly no barfly, or else he would have long been acquainted with the Martini and remarked on the novelty of making it with French vermouth and perhaps on the use of Angostura Bitters as well; see below.
Some possible suggestions as to the drink’s name and its origin appear for the first time.
April 5. “The Latest Thing in Cocktails,” Washington, D.C. Sunday Herald.
“The Martini is concocted of vermuth [sic]—the Martini vermuth at that—a soupcon of gin and a dash of orange bitters. Angostura will not do, orange being essential to the dainty pale-gold tint of the drink. A bit of lemon peel completes the mixture.”
September 19. “Franklin Martine,” New York Herald.
“Franklin Martine, one of the best known members of the Union and Racquet clubs, who was especially famous as the inventor of that mixture of gin and vermouth known as the ‘Martine cocktail,’ died yesterday at the New York Hospital of rheumatic troubles.”
Notes: Martini & Sola vermouth was available in New York since at least 1875 and was by far the leading brand of Italian vermouth in America, with some two thirds of the market (in 1879, it would become Martini & Rossi). It is entirely possible that the drink took its name from the brand. The fact that it was first recorded as “Martinez” is not a fatal objection: the world of the cocktail was largely an oral one, and names of cocktails were mangled all the time as they were spoken across the bar, particularly foreign ones. It is equally possible that “Martinez”—or “Martine”—was pulled over to “Martini” by the ubiquity of the vermouth. The “pale gold tint” is due to the vermouth’s use of less coloring than it does now (I suspect—and this is pure speculation—that the heavy coloring was introduced so that bartenders could use more vermouth in their Manhattans without giving the customer visible evidence of that).
Of all the people who have been put forth as the inventor of the Martini, Franklin Martine—a Civil War veteran who sold carriage trimmings and involved himself in New York’s club life—is both the earliest and the most credible. The mentions of a Martine cocktail from 1888 and 1889 suggest that there were at least some who believed that he was the drink’s inventor. The bartenders at Delmonico’s would have been quite well acquainted with New York’s clubmen and if anyone knew about his claim it would be them. Some continued to call the drink by his name well into the first decade of the twentieth century, although eventually they would attribute it to another, more famous Martine, Judge Randolph Martine. Unfortunately, without further corroboration, nothing can be proved.
Let’s skip this year, shall we?
The Martini—or, if you prefer, the Martine—has been around enough to develop regional styles.
May 14. “Drinks Their Theme,” Chicago Tribune.
“‘Neither is the Martine cocktail, the dude feed, the same innocuous beverage in Boston as in Chicago,’ suggested Pete Kelly of Varnell’s [an opulent gambling saloon on Clark St.]. ‘The vermouth floats in a rolling sea of gin in Boston and the Boston dude knows not Bunker Hill from the mountain of remorse following a drunk created by the insinuating drink. But as mixed in Chicago it simply wraps the dude in a sweet, snoreless slumber.’”
Notes: See 1898 for more on Boston and its strong Martinis. Somebody needs to name a cocktail “Dude Feed,” though.
The Dry Martini, so named. In the mid-1890s, New Yorkers were turning their backs on the sweeter drinks of the previous decade; dry was the watchword and the trend.
July 7. “In the Tenderloin,” New York World.
“Thomas Q. Seabrooke yesterday hurriedly entered a small saloon on West Forty-second street and ordered a dry martini cocktail.
‘Vat you vant?’ asked the proprietor.
‘Dry Martini cocktail,’ said the actor, with laconic emphasis.
He then excused himself and said he would be back in a minute. When he returned he found three cocktails standing in a row!”
Notes: For this joke to work, however weakly, the Dry Martini has to be new enough to have not yet reached all the old German bartenders who were a mainstay of New York’s neighborhood saloons.
By the end of the year the Dry Martini was ubiquitous to the point of spawning a great many persnickety variations.
1897 11-21 “New Things in Tipples,” New York Herald.
“The Mahoney cocktail he [i.e., head bartender Charley Mahoney of the Hoffman House] considers one of his most gilt-edged successes…. The vision is materialized thus:--One-half part of Nicholson gin, one-half part of French vermouth, flavored with a few dashes of orange bitters.
Broadway, too, has forsworn the cherry…. The olive’s the thing, and this change in sentiment has inspired the Hoffman House artist to bring forth the Olivette cocktail…. It is the result of the union of French vermouth and Tom gin, in equal parts, with a pitted olive to lend piquancy to the smooth syndicate of spirits. The olive is a relish frequently taken after drinking, and if finds a ready welcome in the bottom of a cocktail glass.
There are three other cocktails which are the products of the fertile imagination of the high card of the Hoffman grill room. One of these he calls the Marguerite…. Plymouth gin and French vermouth are used in equal parts, and orange bitters complete the entrancer.”
Notes: Nicholson and Plymouth were both unsweetened. In all of these Dry Martini variants there is as much vermouth as there is gin; the “Dry” simply meant that it was made with dry vermouth rather than sweet; but see 1898. The Olivette’s elimination of bitters would by 1920 become universal for the Martini.
The first evidence that, at least in some circles, “dry” could take on an additional meaning having to do with the amount of vermouth, not just the kind.
May 30. “A Real Bostonian,” Shenandoah, PA Evening Mail (reprinted from the New York Mail and Express).
“At 4 o’clock…the [Bostonian] business man goes to his club, where he stays till 6:00, meanwhile drinking two Martini cocktails made very dry—never more than two.”
Notes: There are only two ways to explain that “very dry.” It might mean merely that dry gin was being used instead of Old Tom. Or, as our “dude feed” citation from 1893 suggests, it might instead mean what it came to later, when only dry gin was ever used in Martinis: that the drink became “drier” in proportion to the ratio of gin to vermouth in it. While the one-to-one or occasionally two-to-one gin-vermouth ratios remained the general standard until World War II, by the early 1910s there were some variations that made it on the books with as high as seven- or nine-to-one formulas.
SOME BRIEF CONCLUSIONS
As we can see, the Dry Martini that got dedicated American tipplers through the narrows, rapids and swamps of the twentieth century was perfected by the end of the nineteenth. Based on the available evidence, the actual evidence, it is impossible to say what the Martini’s original name was. “Martinez,” “Martena,” “Martini” and “Martine” are all in play, and easy to confuse with each other when heard over the bar (even “Martinez,” the odd man out here, could be a misunderstanding of “Martine’s cocktail”). Nor do we know precisely who invented it, when, and under what circumstances. But it’s easy to make too much of these mysteries. The general outline of the drink’s history is quite clear. Beginning as a variation on the Manhattan, it took on its own identity with the replacement of the Holland gin that was the American standard with the then newly-fashionable English Old Tom gin (other new drinks using Old Tom were the Gin Fizz and the Tom Collins). Over the next decade, the drink grew further and further from the Manhattan as bartenders and their customers kept lightening and drying out its ingredients: Old Tom yielding to dry gin, Italian vermouth to French, the cherry to the olive and Angostura Bitters to orange bitters to none at all. That process was essentially finished by 1898, although the older, heavier variants stuck around in bar books and among some older drinkers until Prohibition.
But the Dry Martini was its own argument: to have one was to learn by experience that the shortest distance between two points is indeed a straight line, and—thank God—that still remains true.