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Copyright © 2002 
Express Publishing Inc
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photo by David N. Seelig


Shaken, not stirred

by Dana DuGan

 

Let’s start with a joke, just to let you know what side of the bar we’re sitting on.

photo by David N. SeeligA guy walks into a bar and orders a martini, 25 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. The bartender sizes him up, decides not to argue and mixes the potation exactly as ordered. When he slides it across the bar to the customer he asks: “You want a lemon twist with that?” The man leans across the bar, grabs the bartender and yells in his face: “When I want a lemonade I’ll ask for one!”

You see, martinis are notorious for being a cocktail made with a dash of contradiction and more than a splash of argument. Where was it invented and when, what to add, shake or stir, and what, if anything, is a proper garnish? 

Drink scholars and lounge theologians have endlessly argued these issues, perhaps for lack of something better to do while nursing those martinis, perhaps because the martini incites passion. 

It is, after all, the most elegant of drinks, the most sophisticated and oddly the most quintessentially American quaff. 

Several theories about its origin exist. Some say it was born in San Francisco in the mid-19th century, while others credit it to a New York bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia, who allegedly invented the drink in 1910 for his most famous customer, John D. Rockefeller.

Others assume it gets its name from Martini & Rossi vermouth, while others assert the British-made Martini & Henry rifle was its namesake. Another story claims a 19th century Italian chef working in London invented it and named it after his grandfather. One of the most persistent stories is that the martini was created in 1849 for a gold miner at a bar in Martinez, California. I like to think it was named for Dino-Dean Martin, that is, a man more at home with a drink in his hand than most— despite the fact that it was named quite before his time.

photos by David N. Seelig — photo composite by Lisa LarroquetteWhichever story suits you is fine. Which leads us neatly into the ingredient debate.

Purists say a martini is only made with gin and, therefore, a drink made with vodka is not actually a martini. But bartenders and martini enthusiasts rarely ever quibble about such things or about whether it is correct to use olives or a twist or whether a martini can be anything other than dry.

Legend has it that a Manhattan bartender, Robert Agneau, added the olive to conceal the raw taste of American bathtub gin during Prohibition.

Shaken or stirred? Today, perhaps with a bit of influence from Hollywood’s action spy James Bond, more martinis are shaken than stirred, but some purists think this bruises the gin, thus changing the flavor of the cocktail. 

Making a proper martini can be accomplished with adherence to the following: It must be combined in a clean—no dishwasher residue—shaker or glass pitcher, stirred with a silver or glass spoon. It should be chilled over clean, chunky ice, with only the best neutral alcohol, poured into a proper long-stemmed triangle glass and garnished with either clean lemon peel or quality olives. 

Even here in Idaho, the popularity of martinis has been reborn for a new generation. 

First to popularize martinis were the generations prior to and during Prohibition. The next pro-martini generation held sway in the suburban heyday of post-World War II America. Films like “The Thin Man” mysteries reinforced the glamorous image of the drink. Martinis meant Nick and Nora Charles elegantly dressed, exchanging witticisms while Asta pulled on a bejeweled leash and boxes from fancy stores piled on a nearby stool. 

Martinis conjure up visions of cocktail dresses and pumps, thin ties, crew cuts on men flirting with their best friend’s spouse, Dorothy Parker et al at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.

But no matter the multitudes that have tried them, martinis are not for the lighthearted. It is not uncommon to find people who begin drinking martinis with enthusiasm after rediscovering them, only to find they cannot handle more than one. 

While working one’s way through some of the bars in the valley—The Duchin Room, Michel’s Christiania, The Cellar Pub, Pioneer Saloon, The Roosevelt, Sawtooth Club, The Casino Club, Warm
Springs Ranch Restaurant, Sun Valley Brewery, Red Elephant and The Mint—one discovers not just the variety and quality of the elegant drink, but how many one can manage at this altitude. 

Vodka and gin are neutral spirits. Gin is made with the piquant juniper berry, while vodka is distilled from grains or in the case of two Idaho vodkas—Blue Ice and Teton-Glacier—potatoes. They make a mighty fine martini. There are also Polish vodkas made from potatoes. But one should watch out for the cheap varieties of gin and vodka when making a martini because of the presence of citric acid and glycerin, both of which add unwanted flavors.

Silver Creek Distillery, which makes Blue Ice and Teton-Glacier in Rigby, Idaho, is one of just five distillers in the United States that produces beverage alcohol only. 

Silver Creek Director of Strategic Planning Gray Ottley’s idea of a perfect martini is Blue Ice, a drop of Martini and Rossi vermouth, shaken and poured into a chilled glass. No garnish.

Sun Valley Lodge’s Duchin Room bartender, Bob Ebright, makes a dry martini. In fact he says that unless asked he never even adds the vermouth. “That’s the 2002 martini. No vermouth.” Others around town do the same thing. At Warm Springs Ranch both Tim Appleton and Bill Lennon omit the vermouth unless directed otherwise.

In Ketchum, Ryan Sullivan at the Sawtooth says, “We’ve always made a lot of martinis here.” Sullivan makes them very cold, and maintains, “The presentation is important.” 

Vodka is more common nowadays. Favorite brands include the Polish vodka Belvedere, the French vodka Grey Goose and from Holland, Ketel One. This vodka has been produced by 10 generations of one family since 1691. 

Lots of variations exist on the classic gin and vermouth martini. Martini bars have cropped up around the globe, and many nightspots feature special martini menus. At Bardenay in Boise, which distills its own gin and a vodka made from sugar cane, they feature Apple Martinis, Caribbean Cassis Martinis, a Peartini made with Poire Williams, and a delectable Razztini made with Framboise. Perfect for a dessert drink.

At Zou 75 in Hailey, Saketinis are on the menu of this Asian sushi restaurant. The Smokey Martini is a choice for those who like even more of a bite in their drink; it has a splash of Scotch instead of vermouth. A dirty martini has olive juice added to the drink. 

Sean Strong, the longtime bartender of the Olympic Bar at Michel’s Christiania, said he serves far more martinis with olives than twists. It’s “just for something to nibble on while they’re drinking,” says Sean, a theory supported by some of the experts. 

“Happiness is finding two olives in your martini when you’re hungry,” Johnny Carson once said.•


 

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