In the never-ending quest to encourage the enthusiastic consumption of spirits, another National “Something” Day is upon us. Today, June 19, is officially National Martini Day, which in the grand scheme of “National” whatevers is as fine an excuse to have a drink as any.
The noted satirist H. L. Mencken once remarked that the martini is “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” It's not often that cocktails are equated with poetry, but a truly fine drink can indeed inspire fanciful musings. And there's nothing more poetic in the cocktail lexicon than the chimerical combination of gin and vermouth that produces the martini and its variations.
It's quite possible that no other drink has been riffed on as much as the martini, that no other drink has caused so much bibulous debate — about its origins, its measurements and especially its garnishes. So instead of arguing semantics, and instead of the usual top five roundup, let's celebrate the diversity of the martini and its evolution.
5. 1886: The Martinez
The history books tend to agree that the Martinez, with its Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, is the precursor to the martini. Vastly different in flavor, this is most definitely not a “dry” martini, but you can sip it confidently knowing that you're drinking history. And, considering that the Martinez is mentioned in O. H. Byron's Modern Bartender's Guide from 1884, you will find a fitting locale to imbibe at the 1886 Bar in the Raymond Restaurant, formerly the caretaker's cottage of the once glorious, now defunct Raymond Hotel (built, appropriately, in 1886). 1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave, Pasadena; (626) 441-3136.
4. The Tasting Kitchen: The Gibson
Some folks say that olives simply muddy the waters in a fine martini. After all, there's a reason that they call dirty martinis “dirty,” thanks to the olive brine that flavors and clouds up the pristine waters of the drink. If you're on the fence about an olive or a twist, consider a Gibson, which is truly nothing more than a martini with an onion in it. At the Tasting Kitchen, Tyler Loughlin, who makes all the pickled vegetables for the restaurant's Bloody Marys, also pickles the onions for the Gibson. 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 392-6644.
3. La Dolce Vita: The Vesper
Die-hard cocktailians hold fast to the credo that a true martini is made with gin, but James Bond drank his with vodka, and “shaken not stirred,” as we all know too well. But before Mr. Bond was sipping vodka martinis, he imbibed a drink of his own creation, which combined gin and vodka with Kina Lillet (now just Lillet). He named it after his one true love Vesper Lynd, and when Vesper died, so did Bond's taste for the drink. Be advised, Bond liked his drinks strong — his original recipe was 3 parts gin to 1 part vodka, and a ½ ounce of Lillet. The proportions at La Dolce Vita, a former Rat Pack stronghold, are a more manageable 2 to 1. Still, like the spy who loved it, the Vesper is a stealthy drink. 9785 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 278-1845.
2. Osteria La Buca: Le Chiffre
Given that the Italians often claim the birth of the Martini is linked to the Martini and Rossi Company, who make sweet and dry vermouth, it seems fitting to include an Italian-inflected martini variation. At Osteria La Buca, bartender Travis Archer says “I was playing with the specs of the Vesper and I wanted to mix it up. We had just got the strega in…” And so it goes. Archer's Le Chiffre, which uses Plymouth, a classic martini gin, as well as Lillet and Strega, a saffron-colored and flavored Italian liqueur, is potent but elegant, maintaining the soul of the martini while reinventing the flavor profile just enough to shake, or rather stir, things up. 5210 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (313) 462-1900.
1. The Musso & Frank Grill: The Martini
Variations aside, there's nothing quite like the real thing, and there is nowhere better to enjoy it than at Musso & Frank, a Hollywood original that is as classic as the martini itself. There's a reason that Mad Men held its season one premiere party at Musso's; it's old Hollywood in a new era, a place where tradition still matters. Together, Musso's bartenders have over 100 years of experience behind the stick. That is one helluva a lot of shaking and stirring. If these guys can't make you a stiff one, no one can. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; (323) 467-7788.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.