The History of the Martini

When John’s mother Ann orders her drink — “a very dry martini, with plenty of ice... and a small twist of lemon” — her patrician credentials are on full display. The martini is the beverage par excellence of America’s much-dwindled leisure class. Eschewing flashy colors and overpowering mixers, it relies instead on a refined balance amongst a few ingredients: ice, dry vermouth, a twist of lemon or an odd number of olives, and gin. It is an acquired taste, unapologetically strong, and rooted in tradition.

Besides these philosophical affinities, the link between the martini and the subculture that it came to symbolize is as elusive as the drink’s history. The most that anyone can say is that the martini emerged sometime in the late 19th century, and that its earliest incarnations were substantially sweeter: gin-vermouth ratios of 2:1, or even 1:1, were common. By the 1930s, it was the picked poison of writers, business elites, and politicians. E.B. White, FDR, Noël Coward, and Winston Churchill all partook, contributing recipes, bon mots, and fierce opinions over the merits of shaken or stirred. Along the way, the proportion of vermouth dropped drastically, helped by wartime shortages and celebrity tastes. (Churchill is variously reported to have whispered ‘vermouth’ to a glass of gin before drinking, bowed across the Channel towards the continental sources of the beverage, or simply glanced at a bottle of vermouth before pouring.)

By the late 1970s, the period of The Cocktail Hour, changing tastes for fruity cocktails and exotic spirits displaced the martini from the mainstream. So too did public debate disparaging the “three martini lunch” of pampered executives. Not until the late 1990s, as retro became a style choice, did the martini brush aside its apple-tinged imitators and return to the world stage — or, rather, bar.

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