Martini & Myth Part 2: California Cocktail Courts
Editor’s Note: August is Martini Month at Alcohol Professor! Why? Well, any day is an excuse to sip a refreshing Martini, however, in the dog days of summer, there’s nothing like a Martini to quench a thirst. Enjoy this hebdomadal sipping trip through the lens of some familiar pop cultural figures. Cheers! See Part 1 - on James Bond and the Vesper cocktail here.
For such a simple drink there is a tremendous amount of debate surrounding the Martini, including where it was invented, what you should put in it, and how the ingredients are mixed. Insisting on this way or that way being the proper way, or the only real way, to make a Martini can take on the pseudo-religious fervor of a Sean Connery versus Roger Moore debate. How did we come to such a contentious state? How can such a simple drink cause so much controversy? Will knowing the history of the Martini help us understand why it inspires so much impassioned debate? No, it won’t, because the cocktail’s history is every bit as contentious as how much vermouth one should use, and as unclear and murky as an overly dirty Martini.
Many of the world’s best-known cocktails have a clearly defined pedigree, including when, where, and by whom they were created. That’s not the case with the Martini. The first published record of the drink was in bartender Jerry Thomas’ guide, The Bar-Tender’s Guide (also known as How to Mix Drinks or: The Bon-Vivant’s Companion), first published in 1862 but revised and reprinted in 1887. The Bar-Tender’s Guide was one of the first published collection of cocktail recipes (rather than a compendium of drinks Thomas himself created). But its appearance in the book often causes the creation of the Martini to be attributed to Thomas, and to the bar at which he was employed at the time, the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. Indeed the city of San Francisco is quite adamant that it was the birthplace of the Martini. Others, however, are not so acquiescent to San Francisco’s claim.
Across the Bay, about forty miles northeast of San Francisco, is the town of Martinez, which also lays claim to being the birthplace of the Martini. As they tell it, a miner who had just struck gold entered a local watering hole and asked the bartender to make him a drink so that he might celebrate his bonnie luck. The bartender basically threw together what he had at hand — fortified wine (vermouth) and gin. The drink was a hit with the newly wealthy miner, who referred to the drink by the name of the town — Martinez — at least until such time that he was so drunk he slurred the name into something vaguely resembling “Martini.” The town of Martinez even uses San Francisco’s own claim against it. Jerry Thomas’ bar guide refers to the drink as a “Martinez.” Even he knew it came from the town of Martinez, right? Ah, but not so fast!
As San Francisco tells the legend, the miner walked into the Occidental and ordered the drink, and when asked by Jerry where he was headed next, the miner said he was going to return to Martinez. So Jerry named the drink in honor of the man’s next stop. And to San Francisco’s credit, they at least have a name and a place associated with the event. There is no name associated with either the bar or the bartender who allegedly invented the drink in Martinez, though a Martinez mayor, Rob Schroder, said in a 2013 interview with Esquire that the bar was owned by a man named Julio Richelieu – the name of a Bond villain if ever I heard one.
The feud between Martinez and San Francisco became so absurd that San Francisco convened a special hearing to settle the question once and for all. The Court of Historical Review eventually determined that the Martini was indeed invented in San Francisco. Which might have settled things but for the small detail that the Court of Historical Review was in San Francisco. Citing a conflict of interest, and claiming the judge had sampled too much evidence, Martinez appealed the decision. The appeal, which took place in a court in Martinez, shockingly overturned the San Francisco decision and determined that the Martini was indeed invented in Martinez. San Francisco wasn’t the only party to roll their eyes at the “court decision.” Over in Italy, of all places, the company Martini & Rossi was claiming that they, or at least some Italian bartender, had invented the drink, and that the name “Martini” derived from the trend of asking for a cocktail by the name of the primary ingredient. Thus, a cocktail based on Martini Vermouth would simply be ordered by asking for “a Martini.” Hell, it’s as good a claim as any.
- 1 dash of Boker’s bitters
- 2 dashes of Maraschino
- 1 pony 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.
Jerry’s recipe calls for Old Tom gin. Old Tom is not a brand of gin, but a style, a little sweeter than London Dry. As legend has it (you’ll notice that a lot of what passes for fact in booze history begins with the qualifier “legend has it”), Old Tom gin got its name from the “old tom”cat-shaped signs that hung above many public houses in 18th-century England. The stories get more elaborate when they start to claim that, because gin was against the law at the time, enterprising pub owners would distill their own gin, which would then be pumped through a hose and out of the cat, where waiting gin fans could sneak a nip since nothing is less conspicuous than sucking a shot of gin out of a wooden cat sign. Old Tom gin eventually fell out of style until the craft cocktail and distilling renaissance of the 21st century sent young distillers digging through old records and recipes so they might recreate a lost spirit. Brands like Ransom and Hayman’s have done remarkable work bringing this forgotten spirit back from the dead, though without the need to suck it out of a cat’s butt.
From Martinez to Martini
It is unlikely, despite kangaroo cocktail courts (incidentally, the original name for a vodka Martini was the “kangaroo cocktail”) and marketing materials, that the origin of the Martini will ever be properly determined. Jerry Thomas passed away in 1885, blissfully unaware that the future would hold so much cocktail controversy. The Occidental was destroyed in an earthquake in 1905. With so much about the Martini’s genesis existing purely in the realm of hearsay and “legend has it,” modern drinkers are better off hearing the stories, filing them away, and simply enjoying the drink.
So how did the Martini of Jerry Thomas’ time become the clear, minimalist gin and vermouth concoction that became synonymous with James Bond, Don Draper, and mid-century cocktail culture as a whole? A number of factors contributed to the Martinez becoming the Martini. Part of it was simply changing tastes. Old Tom gin was replaced by the London Dry style — your Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Beefeater, or Gordon’s. Similarly, affinity for sweet vermouth was replaced around 1900 with a preference for dry vermouth. It’s around this time that New York City somewhat belatedly gets in on the “who created the Martini” debate. This particular legend comes to us courtesy of the New Yorker magazine, in an article that contains little in the way of supporting evidence. In 1911, the head bartender at the popular Knickerbocker Hotel in New York was a gentleman named Martini di Arma di Taggia. With London Dry style gin becoming more and more popular, it was purportedly Martini who mixed the first dry Martini and lent his first name to the cocktail. It’s also been claimed that the drink was either invented for or soon became the favorite of captain of industry John D. Rockefeller. This claim, at least, can be branded as exceptionally dubious, given that Rockefeller was a well-known teetotaler. Whatever the case, the Knickerbocker story gets us one step closer to the modern Martini.
The Knickerbocker Martini
- 1.5 oz London Dry Gin
- 1.5 oz Dry Vermouth
- 2 dashes Orange Bitters
Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass filled with cracked ice. Stir and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
Gin increased dramatically in popularity (the Martinez, if you look at the recipe, was primarily a vermouth cocktail) during Prohibition. Unlike a good whiskey, gin didn’t need to be aged, so it could be produced very quickly, in large quantities, for fairly cheaply. And as gin’s stock rose, the Martini transformed into a gin cocktail. When Prohibition ended, the gin Martini more or less as we know it today emerged as the preeminent star of the cocktail world, especially now that bathtub gin could be replaced with quality, professionally made gin. Exactly when and where the olive came into the mix is…well, you can probably guess by now that nobody knows for sure, but there are some legends.