The Martini Part II: The History of the Martin[x] Family

I promised some time ago that there'd be a follow-up post on the history of the Martini. I like to think of myself as someone who keeps all his promises eventually, so here it is at last. (If you're looking for a recipe guide or the Herzog Cocktail School's Official List of Martiniological Heresies, click here.)

My thanks and apologies to David Wondrich – his book Imbibe! is my primary source for what follows. If you'd like more detail on this story, I highly recommend it. It also contains far more historical recipes than this blog post will.

The story of the Martini, and of the dozenish related cocktails we'll need to discuss along with it, begins with vermouth. It made landfall in the United States in the middle part of the nineteenth century, and within a few decades it had been adapted to the existing American culture of cocktails.

At the time, that meant serving the vermouth iced, bittered, and lemon-peeled, and calling it a Vermouth Cocktail. This was a refreshing change of pace for people who found that 40-50% ABV Gin or Whiskey Cocktails didn't agree with them.

But the next step, crossing the one with the other, was inevitable. The endlessly inventive barmen of the nineteenth century would devise hundreds of variations on this theme, only a few of which have survived to the present day.

Primordial Soup
"The Martini is merely a geographical expression."
- Klemens von Metternich, probably

Of that enormous menu of vermouth-and-spirit drinks, the Martini and the Manhattan are by far the most famous today. They also seem like the natural winners of the bunch – in the same way that apple and cinnamon seem to have an innate bond, one might well say that both whiskey and sweet vermouth and gin and dry vermouth are simply complementary pairs.

Except for one thing: the Martini that we think of today - gin, dry vermouth, an olive or a lemon peel, and absolutely not one other godforsaken thing - was a later invention.

The "Dry Martini," it was originally called (I always assumed that people who ordered Martinis that way were saying they wanted the vermouth to be a rounding error, and that may be true for many of them, but it turns out they're in the right anyway, for historical reasons). It used dry vermouth and London dry gin specifically.

That's utterly unlike the first drinks to be called "Martinis," which appeared in the 1880s. They used sweet vermouth - the only vermouth available in the 'States at the time - and Old Tom gin, which is sweeter than London dry. It was a really sweet drink, is what I'm saying.

Some variations used Hollands or Plymouth gin, also still with sweet vermouth, before the London dry version came screaming onto the scene so loudly that we all just collectively forgot there'd ever been anything else. Wondrich dates the Dry Martini's ascent to the mid-1890s.

(Here's quick primer on gin styles, if you need one to follow all that.)

All of these drinks also called for bitters, generally orange ones. At the time, the presence of bitters was still part of the definition of “Cocktail” (and by the 1890s, really the only part left that would be unfamiliar today). Oh, and those first “Dry” Martinis could be as much as 50% vermouth.

The Gibson: Our Secret Patrimony
"The captive Gibson has captivated her uncivilized conqueror."
- Horace, probably

Which brings us to the roundabout history of the Gibson. Coming out of San Francisco around the turn of the twentieth century and known across the country by 1904, it, too, was a concoction of dry gin (London or Plymouth) with dry vermouth, and likewise a 50/50 drink. At the time, it was made without bitters, just enough to distinguish it from the Dry Martini.

It was also originally served without a garnish, the first on record being a hazelnut. Meanwhile Martinis were being garnished with citrus peels and the occasional olive, much as they are today. Somewhere along the way, somebody started using pickled onions, most likely as a quick visual cue that the contents of the glass were specifically a Gibson and not a Martini. The Negroni's orange peel replaced the Americano's lemon in the same way.

But as the twentieth century wore on, the bitters fell away from the main-branch Martini, too. The vestigial onion became the only difference between it and the Gibson – because the Martini had essentially become a Gibson. 

The Drying of the Dry Martini
"How about 73 Dry Martinis?"
- Ernest Hemingway, apparently

The breeding-out of the bitters is just part of the story, though. What started out as a 1:1 drink had become a 2:1 drink when the Savoy Cocktail Book was published in the 1930s; it could be as much as a 7:1 drink by the late forties, when David Embury was writing; and could at least satirically be a 20:1 drink when taxpayer money paid for this in 1974.

At some point it was decided by the Fashionable Set that it was proper to make a Martini with just a rinse of vermouth, or just an aerosolized spray of vermouth, or – God help us – no vermouth at all, just a bottle on the shelf to nod to or a solemn look in the general direction of France.

Footnote? Those mid-century miscreants drinking their Big Glasses 'o Gin and calling them "Martinis," appalled at the thought of fortified wine befouling the taste of juniper and alcoholism, are in my view no different from the people who order their meat burnt black. Yes, you probably have a higher tolerance for harsh flavor than the average person. Congratulations. You are still missing the point.

And this heresy begat another, paving the way for the Appletini and its unholy brood. It was the gin-drinkers who first declared that something that was certainly not a Martini could still be called one if it was served in a cocktail glass. The next generation of drinkers took notice, and when they cast off the stodgy straight gin of their parents, embarked on an admirable if depraved explosion of creativity, filling cocktail glasses with sour apple schnapps, literal coffee, or just plain ol' vodka and sour mix, and attaching at least a '-tini' to the end of each.

But I digress.

The Paths Not Taken
Remember that ur-Martini recipe, with the sweeter Tom gin and the sweet vermouth? It survives to this day, in the guise of the Martinez.

We treat the maraschino liqueur as an full-fledged ingredient in the contemporary Martinez, but that would have been absurd at the time of its invention. Nineteenth-century barmen used maraschino - and absinthe, and curaçao - the same way they used bitters: drops and dashes at a time. Swapping out, say, Boker's for maraschino was a much smaller change to them than it would be to us, even if they were using a full quarter of an ounce.

This means that the common narrative (for certain values of “common”) that the Martini descended from the Martinez is at best half true. They're related, sure, and the Martinez is attested first, but they both started out as sweet gin + sweet vermouth + some kind of bitters or bitters-like-thing= drink.

In fact, according to Wondrich, the Martini and the Martinez were bouncing around at the same time as the Martine, Martineau, Martigny, Martina, Martena, and so on: all names that got applied to that same sweet+sweet+[something] cocktail at various times in various places, most likely due to a giant, continent-spanning game of Telephone. In other words, these two are related by parallel and not by direct descent, each a grandchild of the Martin[x] cocktail concocted back in the 18somethings.

A family tree for all the branches of vermouth cocktails discussed in this post. Not pictured: cadet branches featuring other spirits, like the El Presidente and the Metropolitan; mixed-base cocktails like the Vieux Carré; and structurally-similar but independently-evolved drinks like the Negroni.

A family tree for all the branches of vermouth cocktails discussed in this post. Not pictured: cadet branches featuring other spirits, like the El Presidente and the Metropolitan; mixed-base cocktails like the Vieux Carré; and structurally-similar but independently-evolved drinks like the Negroni.

Certainly, they've both evolved since then, the Martini more dramatically but the Martinez noticeably as well, despite its reputation as a living fossil. Today, it's very frequently made with orange rather than aromatic bitters, the proportion of maraschino has tended to increase, the curaçao one might have seen in it in years past is nowhere to be found, and now and then one finds versions that are deliberately spirit-forward rather than 50/50.

Second Cousins, Once or Twice Removed
Having adjusted the taxonomy of the Martin[x] family, we can posit a similar close relationship for the Manhattan and the Brooklyn, the whiskey-based variations on this same theme.

The Manhattan, we all know, combines whiskey with sweet vermouth and aromatic bitters. The Brooklyn has a long and tortured history of its own but the version most commonly treated as canonical is Jacob Grohusko's from 1908, was originally made with whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino, and Amer Picon (a very old-school orange-flavored bitter aperitif).

If we think like nineteenth-centurymen and treat the Brooklyn's bitters and maraschino as interchangeable with the Manhattan's Angostura, the drinks differ only in the vermouth. And there were early variations on Grohusko's recipe that used the sweet stuff, too.

There were also early Manhattan recipes that called for maraschino or a dash of curaçao along with the aromatic bitters – in which case one might reasonably call the drink a Bittered Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn's evolution over time has some interesting similarities to the Martinez's. Its proportion of maraschino has tended to increase, and it's established itself as the quirky one in the family, more old-fashioned and less mainstream than its unambiguously classic cousin, even as it, too, has kept up with the times.

You've Been So Patient, Here's a Recipe
If you're like me, sixteen hundred words on Martiniological history makes you thirsty. Here's the recipe for the contemporary Martinez I just poured myself.

2 oz. Chesuncook Gin
1 oz. Dolin Sweet Vermouth
¼ oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
2 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a coupé glass. Or serve with ice in a rocks glass – you do you.

The Martinez, I hope you've gleaned by now, a is a Wild West of a drink. The combination of things we've settled on as standard for its current incarnation is a little arbitrary, and a little variable, but the general theme is gin with sweet vermouth, orange, and maraschino. And you can make a very tasty drink that way.

Don't go too dry on the gin – it'll just end up tasting like a weird Martini. I tend to think the drink benefits from a little earthiness, so I used the Chesuncook gin from Maine, which is made from a base of distilled carrots. (No, really.) If you've got a nice, malty genever on hand, give it a try. Plymouth would work quite nicely, too, and in general I recommend Plymouth as an all-purpose gin to keep on hand.

As for the cocktail, in this version, at least, the nose is juniper, an almost berrylike sugar, a hint of citrus, and the heathery Maine spices from the Chesuncook. The sip starts with earthy sweetness from the vermouth and maraschino, with a very noticeable, very rich mouthfeel. It dries out fast on the swallow, with a burst of citrus and those lovely Maine botanicals.

Man, it seems a long time since I've written out tasting notes for a cocktail. Feels good to be at it again. As much as I enjoy writing long history and opinion pieces, it's the drinks that matter most, right? Right.

Tune in next time, for the first in a three-part series on the muddled history of blue curaçao with extensive footnotes! (Kidding!)

((...maybe not kidding. We'll see.))