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The Martinez Mystery

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In A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes proclaims, “There is nothing like first hand evidence.” Half of the world would agree with that statement. The other half is content to relish the world around them, never considering the need to understand it. This is the dividing line of humanity. Should we seek out the answers, turn over every rock, move every wall in the search for conclusion? Or, are we best served by smelling the rose? Isn’t it by picking it and studying it, dissecting it and destroying it, that we lose the sense of pleasure that caused us to stop in the first place? Life is a mystery, and maybe we have an innate need to solve it, to ponder why. But maybe there is no why, no ultimate purpose, and in that regard would we not be served best by simply letting go and allowing our minds to meld into the milieu?

I think on this a lot, more so as I grow older. I think that’s why I enjoy my job so much. Being around good food and drink on a daily basis allows me access to incredible pleasures with a minimal amount of input. I don’t really have to understand Chicken Carbonara. I mean, I do understand it. It’s not complicated in any way. But I don’t really have to. If I choose to learn the history of the dish, the regional variations, what ingredients can be substituted and which cannot, then I master the meal. If not, I can still enjoy it. It’s a small victory. I can still ponder the very existence of life, the universe, and everything, while choosing to solve little mysteries along the way. I like to have my cake and eat it too.

Cocktails and mixed drinks are little mysteries that don’t really need solving, anyway. Unlike chefs, who tend to codify everything, bartenders are, historically, a bit less focused. This may not be so true today, as every contemporary mixologist fights to get their drink onto the pages of Imbibe, but traditionally bartenders were generally bad at writing things down. That’s why, by the time Jerry Thomas had published the first bartender’s guide in 1862, most of the drinks in it had already been invented. The problem was, no one knew by whom. Flipping through the couple dozen or so rival books to Thomas’ that appeared in the ensuing decades, we see massive differences between cocktails of the same name, sometimes to the point of being different drinks, entirely. Subsequent drinks, popularized by other tomes, didn’t credit Jerry Thomas’ recipes. In fact, few bartenders mentioned contemporaries at all. In this regard, Thomas should not be regarded so much as the father of our trade, but merely as the guide that shown the light on the industry.  There was never a bartending equivalent of Marie Antoine Carême to bring order to this chaos, and, thus, we find ourselves a century and a half later, trying to make sense of what doesn’t make a lot of sense.

As mentioned in my post on the Manhattan, cocktails and mixed drinks follow themes. You can swap out ingredients in a Negroni, or an Old Fashioned, and come up with a wide variety of tasty concoctions. Change the citrus or the sweet component of a Sour or Daisy, and you have an entirely different drink. More times than not, the theme holds. That’s what makes the drink a classic, and why it’s so difficult to develop a new theme, or as we call them—templates.

It’s generally agreed upon, in circles that agree upon such things, that to officially be called a “cocktail” a mixed drink needs bitters. There’s debate as to whether or not a sweetener is needed (i.e. can a Pink Gin, gin and bitters, called a cocktail?), to which I say no, but usually one will be. This may lead you to wonder why the term is used so haphazardly nowadays, and the answer is, per usual, Prohibition, and its ruining of everything good and holy in our business. The same can be said of the Martini, and its descent into its bitter-less, “vodka up” incarnation. But a thorough study of the theme, picking up where the Manhattan leaves off, brings us to the Martinez, a drink with a life so short and fleeting, if you blinked, you would miss it.

As stated previously, the Manhattan began its life as a Vermouth Cocktail with some rye to spice it up. The original proportions, proposed by Jerry Thomas, were 2 parts Italian (sweet) vermouth, 1 part rye, 3 dashes of Boker’s Bitters, and a dash or two of maraschino liqueur or curacao. Cocktails frequently employed the use of liqueurs like maraschino and curacao, as well as syrups like pineapple and grenadine, in place of sugar or simple syrup. Absinthe was frequently added as well. Over time, likely as drier drinks became in vogue, the proportions were changed and the modifier dropped. As a tippling culture, very few of us realize that the original recipe was what it was. But Substitute Old Tom gin for rye, and we have a perfectly made Martinez. How about that? It may even shake you to your core to learn that the Martini followed along this same template as well, early recipes making the use of sweet vermouth, as well as bitters and modifiers. The only difference with the Martini, was that London Dry gin was used instead of Old Tom. As time went on, French (dry) vermouth was substituted for sweet, and a Dry Martini was born. It was called dry because of the type of vermouth, not the lack of it. Now, we’re getting somewhere.

There are competing theories (shocking, I know) as to the origin of the word Martinez. Some say the drink was invented by Thomas, himself, while bartending in San Francisco. According to this legend, Thomas invented the drink for a traveler to nearby Martinez, California. The problem is, the drink wasn’t included in Thomas’ work until after his death, in the 1887 posthumous reprint of his guide. The Modern Bartender’s Guide by O.H. Byron, published in 1884 (three years before the reprint of Thomas’ book,) lists the Martinez as a Manhattan made with gin instead of whiskey. Another story claims the drink was invented in the town of Martinez, itself; while a third gives credit to a man with the last name Martinez. It’s virtually impossible to prove any of these assertions, because there is no evidence. What fables lack in evidence, however, cocktail books make up for.

In the late 1890’s to early 1900’s, the Martinez begins to utilize dry vermouth. Gary Regan, noted bartender and drinks historian, makes a point that in 1906 the drink mysteriously changes its name to the Dry Martini in a book by Louis Muckensturm titled “Louis’ Mixed Drinks with Hints for the Care and Service of Wines.” He postulates that Martini & Rossi, the famous brand of Italian vermouth, marketed a name change for the cocktail in hopes of cornering the market. Seeing as Martini & Rossi was one of the only vermouth brands to not only survive Prohibition, but thrive after its repeal, this assertion is not entirely farfetched, although Regan himself would admit there is no way to prove it. The problem is, the word Martini appears almost twenty years earlier, in Harry Johnson’s 1882 book. Johnson, himself, didn’t mention the Martinez until the 1888 reprint. Not to mention Martini & Rossi didn’t debut in the States until 1900. It is absolutely certain, however that the company would hijack the name in later years.

In Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks (1895), George J. Kappeler writes that a Martini Cocktail should be made with “half a mixing-glass full of fine ice, three dashes orange bitters, one-half jigger Tom gin, one-half jigger Italian vermouth, a piece lemon peel. Mix, strain into cocktail-glass. Add a maraschino cherry, if desired by customer.” Sounds like a Martinez to me. 1896 saw a reference to the Martini: The Marguerite Cocktail from Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them by Thomas Stuart: 1 dash of orange bitters, 2/3 Plymouth gin, 1/3 French vermouth. Close, save for the omission of maraschino. And there’s the Turf Club Cocktail, found in George Winter’s How to Mix Drinks: The Bar Keeper’s Handbook (1884) which contains equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, with Peruvian bitters, whatever those are.

All of this can leave a man shaking his head. But as screwy as things were at the turn of the century, they began to be straightened out on the dawn of Prohibition. The Martini Cocktail, bolstered and marketed by the Martini & Rossi Company, capitalized on the public trend towards dry cocktails, and the Dry Martini Cocktail soon reigned supreme. Prohibition saw the end of the trained, qualified bartender, and with him the proper storing of vermouth. Because vermouth oxidizes at room temperature rather quickly, Martini & Rossi that sat on the back bar for months at a time was frowned upon by drinkers for obvious reasons. Soon it became fashionable to order a Martini with the bottle of vermouth “passed over the glass” or “waved in the direction of France.” Of course, the quality of gin surviving Prohibition wasn’t exactly top-notch, either. It didn’t take long for Smirnoff and other vodka producers to capitalize on consumers’ preference for a quick, clean hit of booze. By the 1950’s, vodka was marketed as leaving you “breathless,” meaning your boss would never know you were out to a “Three Martini Lunch.” The era of flavor had ended, and the Dark Ages of the Cocktail were beginning.

So why revive the Martinez? Well, strictly speaking, it’s delicious when made properly. While the Manhattan certainly achieves balance, and the true Martini is a glorious mix of crisp, floral flavors, the Martinez walks a line between strong and weak, bitter and sweet, that possibly only the Negroni can do better. When modernizing recipes, I always look to the past to get an idea of the template I’m using, and the flavor profile I’m looking to achieve. Modern mixology allows us the use of many liquors and liqueurs that simply weren’t available in the Golden Age. My, how far we’ve come. From having virtually no tools only a decade ago, to an abundance of them today, the possibilities are endless.

The Martinez lends itself well to interpretation. My addition of kirschwasser, a distillation of sour cherries (Morello, traditionally,) keeps this drink dry and flavorful. A combination of Ransom Gin and Hayman’s Old Tom tones down the woody notes of the Ransom that can overpower this drink. The addition of Boker’s Bitters (a product recreated by the amazing Adam Elmegirab) adds spicy complexity to the traditional orange bitters. All in all, the drink is as close to perfect as any Martinez I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve included it here, verbatim.

Is it true that some questions are better off unanswered? Some mysteries left unsolved? I’ll ponder that, staring reflectively off into the night, as I sip on my cocktail….

 

The Martinez (Classic)

  • 1.5oz Old Tom Gin (Hayman’s)
  • 1.5oz Italian Vermouth (Carpano Antica, Coccho Vermouth di Torino)
  • .25oz Maraschino Liqueur
  • 2 dashes Orange Bitters
  • Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon or orange peel.

 

The Martinez (Adam Patrick)

  • .75oz Ransom Gin
  • .75oz Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
  • 1.5oz Carpano Antica vermouth
  • .25oz Maraska Maraschino Liqueur
  • .25oz Clear Creek Kirschwasser Cherry Brandy
  • 2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
  • 2 dashes Boker’s Bitters
  • Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Slainte

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