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Wednesday
Feb222012

Enjoying the Elixir of Quietude

There Is Something Magical

When You Mix Gin With

Vermouth and an Olive

By Lew Marcus

Who Knows His Way Around a Drink

 There is nothing comparable to a Martini.

   Drinking the right Martini is a lot like falling in love. This is all you want, all the time. Nothing else. And nothing else replaces a Martini. Beer certainly has its place: a hot summer's day at the grill with a Blue Moon and a slice of orange; a Magic Hat Number Nine to wash down a savory dish. What's better than a complex Belgian beer or the new generation of India Pale Ales? Chimay on draught is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Of course, us mountain folks certainly know the virtue of sippin' a little sour mash from time to time. A jelly glass filled with ice and Gentleman Jack is a nice way to help the evening go by. My son-in-law likes his Scotch long-in-the-tooth and neat -- and there certainly is something to be said for that.

   But nothing beats sitting back in that armchair, holding that simplistically elegant Martini glass and tasting that hypnotically exotic blend of London dry gin (with its subtle complexity of botanicals), Italian vermouth (with its amalgam of complementary spices), and the olive. Don't forget the olive.

   It is always the perfect time to sing praises of the Martini. It is a wonderful addition to any party; the perfect drink to share when two friends repair to the library for a private moment. I actually am lucky enough to have a library. We call ours my office but it is that perfect lair for an escape from the maddening crowds of family at holiday time. "Shhhh! Dad's in the library with Uncle Terry. Give them a moment."  

   Uncle Terry and I are discussing business. The business of The Martini --An Appreciation. It was Terry who introduced me to the marvel that is the Martini. It was those super amazing college days when everything was an adventure. Terry, my roommate at Penn State when I lived in the only high rise facing campus in those days, came home with a bottle of Gordon's London Dry Gin, a bottle of Martini & Rossi's Dry Vermouth, and a jar of Pearl Brand Queen-sized green olives. It was a present from his father. He said it was time we became men.

   Terry's Dad introduced me to a whole new world I never knew existed. He was involved in the Greene Dreher Sterling Fair held on that mountain ridge in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, down the road from Terry's house. Every August, I'd revel in those great bluegrass acts Terry's Dad would book. This was authentic mountain music played by people who played because they knew no other way. Earlier in his life, Terry's Dad had an even more active role in bluegrass and ethnic music when he discovered this guy down in the bayou country of Louisiana who could play Cajun fiddle and sing at the same time. It was a feat unheard of and Terry's Dad was quick to sign Doug Kershaw to a management contract and take him on the road. Mountain folks' jaws would drop when Ole Doug would crank up the fiddle and sing right along.

   For me, it was just a short walk down the road before I discovered Doctor John, Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, King Oliver and Louie Armstrong. From that exposure to Kershaw, I learned to love all kinds of New Orleans music: Cajun, Creole, zydeco and red-hot jazz. Nothin' better than kicking back and listening to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five's 1927 recording of Struttin' With Some Barbecue -- with an ice-cold Martini in hand. For walking down Canal Street or over to Bourbon Street, nothing beats a beer. But if you were sitting on the porch with Stachmo on the Victrola, it had to be a Martini.

   It just dawned on me that some of you might be under the wrong impression. Let's clear the air. We are talking about GIN and not vodka. And anything else but gin, vermouth and an olive is called something else entirely. At least the inventor of the Gibson was so kind as James Bond Mixing the Dreaded VODKA Martinito coin a new name for the drink instead of calling it "a Martini with a Pickled Onion Instead of an Olive." No luck with such damnable frauds as the peach martini, the appletini, the Sake martini and the greatest imposter or all, the vodka Martini. I'll never forgive James Bond for drinking a vodka Martini.

   Gin is an unlikely champion for such a subtle and magical drink. It actually was invented by a British government that was looking for a cheap alcoholic beverage to keep the teaming masses of Britons in check. A little alcoholic stupor goes a long way in quelling the formenting rebellion. Gin was also good for England's agricultural economy. Seems the Brits were hard hit with a strain of grain that was of such poor quality you couldn't even use it to make beer. The government had the solution. Distill this vile concoction from this poor-quality grain and add some botanicals to mask the gut-wrenching taste of the stuff. To insure its success, Parliament passed laws insuring no tax on gin but an increased tax on whiskey.

   Leave it to the ingenuity of humankind to master the formula. By 1769, Gordon's was making a most acceptable gin replete with a floral bouquet. Fifty years later, Beefeater's starting distilling the first of the premier gins, using a proprietary blend of nine botanicals to create its iconic clean taste. Today, my favorite is Bombay Sapphire, with its regal visage of Queen Victoria on the bottle's label and 10 botanicals blended into the distillate.

   It took almost another 100 years before England's love affair with gin would morph itself into the creation of the Martini. Up to then, the Brits had to settle for gin fizzes, gin-and-tonics, Primms Cups and Lime Rickeys. However, flash forward to one magic evening when John D. Rockefeller was having a drink in John Jacob Astor's new hotel in Manhattan, the Knickerbocker. Legend has it that the bartender, Martini di Armi di Taggia, was challenged by Rockefeller to make him a new drink. The Martini was born.

   The Martini immediately established itself in the marketplace in the same league as Cadillac. As an adult beverage, long before that term was coined, the Martini was the benchmark of success. If you drank a Martini, you had arrived. It was cool and smooth and packed a punch. It was depicted in the movies with millionaires in brocade smoking jackets or leather patched herringbone sports jackets. Men with slick-backed hair and tuxedoes drank Martinis in swanky nightclubs. You reached a certain status in life if you were privileged to the three-Martini-lunch. And if you were James Bond, you slid out of your Aston Martin into the outdoor bar in some exotic clime and ordered one, shaken not stirred. I like mine shaken so cold that it takes your breath away.

   While Martini laid down a strictness in the general formulation of a Martini (gin, vermouth, olive -- shake or stirred, but always up; never on the rocks), the variances inside that formulation is open to interpretation. Like any great chef will tell you, season to taste.

   When Terry taught me to drink a Martini, it was with as little vermouth as possible. He advocated a "very dry" Martini. He would joke that his father instructed him to pour the gin into a shaker filled with ice and take the vermouth bottle and hold it up to a stream of sunlight. The green pale of sunlight was enough vermouth for him. He probably got that suggestion from the British playwright Noel Coward who suggested "filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy." Even more dry than Terry's Dad liked it.

   Over the years I have come to respect the chemical reaction that happens in the construction of the perfect Martini. I use three large jiggers of gin to a third of a small jigger of vermouth. My brother-in-law makes an "In-and-Out," which is splashing the ice with vermouth and pouring it out. His wife sprays vermouth into her glass from an atomizer. But that isn't enough vermouth to spark the chemical reaction. It is kind of like smashing atoms to set off a nuclear explosion. You need the right conditions. After I shake it extremely cold, I strain it into an ice-cold Martini glass and add three green Pearl Queen olives stuffed with pimento -- one for each jigger of gin. It is slightly cloudy from the ice mist that rings the glass. Deceptively simple. Derangedly delicious. And that is why I drink Martinis. I loooove the taste.

   Occasionally, on those very rare occasions, I will retreat to my library, close the door, settle into my couch, pull a good book off the shelf and enjoy a Martini all by myself. Invariably, I will think of one of my kid's favorite writers,  E. B. White. You remember him? He wrote Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.  Well, he wrote something for me, too. He so aptly called the Martini "the elixir of quietude."