For the last four hours, the only thing that has been keeping you going is the Dry Martini that’s fixed at the pinnacle of your brain, emitting brilliant rays of healing light like the Holy Grail in a 14th-century Italian painting.
And now, finally, whatever it was that was grinding through your patience like Laurence Olivier with a dental drill is behind you and the only thing in front of you is the bartender, and she’s taking your order. “Gin Martini, please, up with a twist. Dry, but not too dry.”
The anticipation is making the ridges and grooves of your cerebrum switch places, but now she’s back and there’s the little napkin and aahhhh, the drink’s down on it and—hold on, is a Dry Martini supposed to be pink? Has to be a trick of the light, has to be. But no, no, no, no, no, no.
You’ve taken that first, crucial sip, the sacred one, the one philosophers call “the temporal scimitar” for the way it severs ‘was’ from ‘is,’ and something is deeply, deeply wrong. The drink you ordered and were expecting is clean, focused, austere, completely unfrivolous. It is starlight, captured briefly in a glass.
The drink you got, however, tastes like raspberry juice filtered through stale potpourri and mixed with vodka. This is not a Dry Martini. You call the bartender over.
“Excuse me, sorry, uh, I ordered a Dry Martini . . . .”
You gesture hopelessly at your glass.
“But that’s your Martini.”
“Uh…” (speech has deserted you). “It…it…raspberries.”
“Oh, sure. We use [some brand you’ve never heard of] gin in our house Martini. It’s distilled with foraged raspberries and eight other botanicals: sage, tarragon….”
“Oh, that’s the [another brand you’ve never heard of] vermouth. It’s a local red-wine dry vermouth made from Blue Lemberger grapes and ….”
“Say no more.” (Please.)
And now the terrible anticipation builds again, for the real Dry Martini you’re going to have—after you managed to covertly pour this one into your boot—at the next bar.
But who’s right here and who’s wrong? It’s easy to make the mixologist sound ridiculous, but the issue of what is and isn’t a Martini, or a Sidecar, an Old-Fashioned, a Daiquiri, a Margarita or even an Amaretto Sour, is something that’s being quietly litigated these days at cocktail bars around the world.
Back in the two or three decades before Prohibition—the first cocktail revolution—the convention was that if you change the ingredient in a drink you should also change the name. Thus a “Martini,” not a “Gin Manhattan”; a “Metropole,” not a “Brandy Manhattan.” Some bars observed this convention with an impressive punctilio. Page through the bar book of the old Waldorf-Astoria bar in New York (as edited by Albert Stevens Crockett in his 1931 Old Waldorf Bar Days), and it’s clear the bartenders there felt that it was enough to change the brand of gin or the proportions of gin to vermouth to trigger the necessity for a new name. That may be going a bit far. But when the ingredients change the very nature of the drink, on the other hand, it seems only polite to offer the customer fair warning.
I don’t know if mixology is a true art and would rather not have to argue about that sort of thing. I do know, however, that it has its movements and periods. The one we’re in now is awesome, and I use that word advisedly. Just about any product that has ever been used to mix drinks with is now available, including many that were dead and buried and others that were missing and presumed that way.
Modern bartenders have all the equipment they need: gone are the days when the bartender would have to grub around in the drawers behind the bar for a spoon so that he could accommodate a request for a stirred Manhattan. They have all the basic skills needed to handle it. They measure their ingredients, shake energetically—no more “bartender’s wiggle”—and use the proper glassware, which is always chilled. Their garnishes are beautiful.
Almost every city in America (and in plenty of other places besides) has at least a couple of establishments where the bartenders have no barriers between them and executing letter-perfect renditions of almost any drink recipe from the previous great ages of mixology. No barriers, that is, except the lack of desire to do so.
I think of this as the American bar’s Impressionist moment. The traditional way of looking at a Daiquiri, for example, is two ounces of Cuban white rum, half-an-ounce or so of lime juice and a barspoon of sugar or a splash of simple syrup, shaken brutally and served up. It’s a formula to be executed, preferably with efficiency and elegance.
To many modern bartenders, though, the Daiquiri isn’t a formula, it’s an opportunity. It lets them explore the complex symbiosis between rum and lime juice; to bring out hidden aspects and show new perspectives. They’ll use blends of rums, alternate sweeteners, add dashes of this and drops of that. They will produce, in other words, their impression of the real, Platonic Daiquiri, the one that’s hiding behind the recipe.
We’ve been through this before. When French Neoclassical painters of the early nineteenth century, such as Jacques-Louis David or Jean Ingres, wanted to depict a tree, they would paint it leaf by leaf, closely following the tree’s anatomy. When someone like Claude Monet looked at that tree, however, he painted it as a study of color and frozen movement; as a unique assemblage of light and shadow. For him, that was the real bush and those old guys had missed an opportunity.
Getting back to our Cocktail Impressionists. If you get served someone’s study of aged spirit and bitters when you’re expecting an Old-Fashioned, it can be weird and off-putting. Unfortunately, the only solution to that once it has been ordered is to send it back in a huff of “you-call-that-a-Martini,” “hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn,” old-person outrage. That’s not pleasant for you, your fellow customers, or the bartenders. It tends to poison the bar experience.
In a perfect world, if the bartender’s impression of your drink involved changing enough ingredients to make it unrecognizable—and we could chew over how many that is for paragraph after paragraph without reaching a definitive answer—you would be so informed. Great, experienced bartenders do this as a matter of course. But if your bartender doesn’t do this, you’ll only find out when that blurry tree is in front of you. The only foolproof way of avoiding that is to tell your bartender precisely what you want. You might get a little disappointment along with your drink, but everyone will get over it. In general, anyone working at a top craft cocktail bar can also paint all the little leaves; can follow a recipe and make the drink you’re expecting. (If the bar is busy, you might have to accept some weirdness in the drink in the interest of actually getting a drink of any kind.)
But once you’ve had one or two your way, why not try that unique assemblage of gin and vermouth and—whatever? They might not all be good, but on the other hand some of them are going to be great.
New York’s Dead Rabbit, whose bartenders are masters at Cocktail Impressionism, has a drink in its new book, Mixology & Mayhem, called the Big Wheel, based on gin and dry vermouth. Its creator, Gregory Buda (who has the good manners to give this iteration of the Martini its own name), used Perry’s Tot Gin, a spicy, strong gin from Brooklyn. To bring out its “cinnamon and citrus botanical makeup,” he supplemented the necessary dry vermouth with manzanilla sherry, a splash of Poire William eau-de-vie and dashes of cinnamon bark syrup and kaffir lime leaf tincture. Now, I’m as crusty as they come in these matters, but that doesn’t sound half bad. In fact, the next time I’m in Lower Manhattan, I’m going to swing by and have one. Hey, I like Monet.