Call it nostalgia or call it a yearning for a time when possibilities were limitless, when leisure was an art, and the cocktail hour poised on the brink between the day's attention and the evening's reflection, between the day's duties and the evening's promise. In bar rooms and living rooms across the country, Americans are enjoying the classic cocktail, most notably the Martini and the Manhattan.
William Grimes, author of "Straight Up or On the Rocks, A Cultural History of American Drink" observed a trend back to classic cocktails in the mid-nineties, following a twenty-year American affair with lightness characterized by sweet, frothy, mixed drinks on the order of the Jell-O Shot and Fuzzy Navel and wine spritzers.
Just before the turn of the century bartenders across the country are reporting notable increases in requests for Martinis and Manhattans. Born in the 1880s and raging in popularity from the glamorous thirties through the flirty fifties, Martinis and Manhattans are now the order of the day in political D.C. watering holes, retro clubs in New York City, the heartland of America, and even the herbal tea-drinking mecca of San Francisco.
What is it about the classics that makes them appealing? According to Grimes, "Whatever a cocktail's ingredients, the whole should add up to more than the sum of the parts. A good cocktail, properly mixed, should lift the spirits, refresh the mind, and put into healthy perspective the countless worries and grievances of modern life."
In the colorful and engaging book by Barnaby Conrad III, entitled "The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic." Conrad traces the origins and ascent of the Martini, a cocktail steeped in legend, lore and romance. Conrad, whose father owned the swank El Matador nightclub in San Francisco, confides he was enamored by the mystique of the Martini. "I heard magic in the gravel-like hiss of the Martini shaker. It went well with the jazz piano, the low lighting, and the conversational secrets of adult life. I wasn't cool then, but I knew Martinis were cool."
Among the few survivors of over 100 years of changing tastes, the Martini and Manhattan evoke a sense of civility, selectivity and "having arrived." In a singular tribute to their renown, the classic triangular shaped glass in which Martinis and Manhattans are served is now the accepted international symbol for a bar.
The Legend and Lore of Origins
As with most spirited lore, there is much debate as to the origins of these cocktails. The Martini may have been first served in California to a traveler bound for Martinez. Another legend has it that a gold miner traded a gold nugget for a bottle of whiskey and received, as change for the difference: a cocktail. Or perhaps its creator was a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, Martini di Arma di Taggia.
One might expect that the Manhattan was invented in the vicinity of its namesake. The Manhattan Club claims to have served it first, at an electoral victory banquet in honor of Governor William J. Tilden in 1874 in order to tame American whiskey for the hostess, Winston Churchill's grandmother. Others argue it was invented in Maryland to revive a wounded duelist in 1846.
"Most of the classic cocktails, including the Martini, the Manhattan, the old-fashioned, and the Bronx," writes Grimes, "were born in this high-living, productive era."
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts
Experimenting with ingredients is part of the Martini and Manhattan experience. Depending on where you order a Manhattan, it may contain bourbon, whiskey or rye. While traditionally the Martini is mixed from gin and vermouth, in recent years vodka has proven a popular rival as the main ingredient.
A Martini at Morton's Steakhouse in Chicago is a matter of style and has nothing to do with ingredients; the menu offers 40 varieties, not just with gin or vodka, but bourbon or tequila, and with garnishes ranging from jalapeño to raspberries. Nonetheless, tradition still reigns at Morton's where the gin outpaces vodka for Martini drinkers.
Shaken or Stirred...
Just as many legends exist about origin and recipe, yet more opinions abound about proper preparation. Whether to shake or to stir, to garnish with olive or onion, lemon twist or cherry, to use vermouth or bitters... these are matters which can evoke intense debate.
According to the character Nick Charles, portrayed by William Powell in The Thin Man, "The important thing is the rhythm. A Manhattan should be shaken to a fox trot, the Bronx to a two-step, but a dry Martini must always be shaken to a waltz."
For one of the bartenders at Oliver's in the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle and two-time winner of "Seattle's Best Classic Martini" competition, there are seven keys to his Martini-mixing success: start with top-of-the-line spirits, use a ten-to-one ratio of gin to vermouth, swirl the inside of the mixing glass with the vermouth and then dispose of the vermouth, shake don't stir, let stand for two minutes, pour into an ice-cold glass, and, garnish with vermouth-marinated Italian olives.
But, you may wonder, what's really behind all this renewed interest? The General Manager of the Mayflower Park Hotel comments, "we're witnessing the return of a more romantic lifestyle for Americans who are getting older and more graceful." According to William Grimes, it's "the style of the drink, which represents glamour the way it's portrayed in the movies. It mentally puts you in that Hollywood Place."
As far as Barnaby Conrad is concerned, the Martini "represents a return to style and tradition" by the next generation. Indeed, Grimes believes that it's not that the Martini ever went away, simply "a new generation grew into it. It's a drink that says you have arrived."
There are other weighty matters to consider. Why is it that other cocktails haven't fared so well? What became of the Sidecar, Bronx, and Singapore Sling? Which of today's popular concoctions, such as the Metropolitan, Cosmopolitan or Seabreeze, will stand the test of time?
Well then, isn't it appropriate that the cocktail party, replete with jacket or dress and trays of canapes, is also making a major comeback. What more fitting a venue in which to experiment with mingling friends and colleagues, to stir a debate, and to savor the romance. Oh yes, and to raise a toast to "the good old days, which we are having right now."
At Glass With a Twist we offer three different types of personalized martini glasses. Our martini glasses are full size and made of high quality glass. We offer an 8 oz. capacity Classic Martini glass, an 8 oz. Stemless Martini glass, and a unique 9 oz. Z-Stem Martini glass.