’tini time!

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

After those articles about our frustrating loss at the WTO relating to excise taxes on distilled spirits, I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to one of those real, truly exalted, achievements of mankind and that is: the martini. Oh, "what it does for the soul!" as Evelyn Waugh was once said to have exclaimed. And who can blame him? And I am in complete agreement with James Thurber: "One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough."

The ridiculous thing about this so supremely sublime is how simple it actually is. Or perhaps that’s the secret. Truly great things, things of genius, are actually simple. It’s only the blockhead who can make simple things seem complex. But the real great intellects are the ones who can make even the most complex of matters seem simple. As you can see, talk about martini and instantly it leads one to profundity. Which of course depends on what one means by "profound."

The classic martini is the only true martini: a goodly gin, a tiny dollop of vermouth, ice, stir, into a chilled martini glass. And that’s it. The question now is the matter of the lemon peel and the olive. Purists of either side of the great martini religious schism say discard the peel and just have olive. The olive would then give that olive-y, salty flavor over an otherwise crisp drink. Others believe in twisting a lemon peel on top of the martini to impart that citrusy flavor, not to mention the scent. Me, being a true Catholic and thus quite universal in outlook, would rather have it both: a single olive, with a large lemon peel.

The true origins of martini is as mysterious as God’s ways: the most commonly accepted version is that the martini is derived from the Martinez cocktail, allegedly mixed by bartender Julio Richelieu, which consists of vermouth, gin, bitters, ice, and a twist of lemon. Then there’s the tale of Jerry Thomas, a famous 19th century bartender in San Francisco. Another story involved John D. Rockefeller, who got enamored with this drink at the old Knickerbocker Hotel way back when and served by head Knickerbocker bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia. Or the martini could simply have come from a brand of vermouth commonly used for it: Martini and Rosso. Whatever version you believe, there is one commonality in all of them: a martini must have gin and vermouth.

Which leads to the topic that makes most martini purists foam at the mouth: vodka. Simply put, a vodka martini is not a martini. It is a vodka martini. And perhaps the only reason why vodka martini has the eminence that it has right now could be either laid at the feet of Frank Sinatra (who used Stolichnaya as his martini base) or, for which I’m more inclined to blame, James Bond.

But Bond’s martini is wrong on so many levels. Consider that classic piece of dialogue taken from Ian Fleming’s "Casino Royale (1953)":

"[Bond] looked carefully at the barman.
A dry martini," he said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."
"Oui, monsieur."
"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"
"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
"Gosh, that’s certainly a drink," said Leiter.
Bond laughed. "When I’m… er… concentrating," he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name."

Bond would eventually call his creation the Vesper, named after a woman who would soon after betray him. Served him right. First of all, Kina Lillet isn’t even a vermouth. And, finally, to shake a martini rather than stir it would have a twofold effect: "bruise" the martini and then dilute it. So this tough guy actually prefers his drink watered down. But we shouldn’t really be tough on Bond. In fairness, vodka martini is not even his favorite drink. Not even the Vesper. It’s actually whiskey, straight. Which speaks positively about his character.

My favorite martini story is how Winston Churchill liked it so dry that he just strains chilled gin into his glass while looking at a bottle of vermouth. Indeed, the driest of martinis is one of the best things one can indulge in that doesn’t come with the drag of emotional wear and tear. As Sinatra was wont to say: "I pity those who don’t drink because when they get up in the morning that’s as good as they’re going to feel for the rest of the day."