Food History 101

The History of the Martini

By • May 16, 2014 • 5 Comments

In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: The murky history of America's classic cocktail.

Martini from Food52

Alongside our recent obsession with artisanally-crafted food lies a similar agenda pertaining to alcohol and cocktails. Bespectacled waistcoated “mixologists” muddle and mash their concoctions, creating original recipes with things like molé-infused bitters and bacon-flavored bourbon. No matter how much Earl grey syrup and hibiscus are swizzled into coupe glasses, though, there are some cocktails that cannot and will not ever go out of style. 

The martini, with its basic ingredients and air of refined panache, is one drink that cannot be outshone by the latest trends. From James Bond’s widely recognized “shaken not stirred” endorsement to Ernest Hemingway’s pronouncement in A Farewell to Arms, “I’ve never tasted anything so cool and clean...They make me feel civilized,” this gin-based beverage has been and will continue to be an iconic stalwart of the cocktail lexicon. 

Like the dirtiest of martinis, the history of this American drink is more than slightly murky. One prevalent theory points to the town of Martinez, California, where historians and town inhabitants alike claim the drink was invented during the mid-1800s Gold Rush. Apparently, a gold miner who had recently struck it rich decided to celebrate his good fortune at a local bar. He requested Champagne, which they didn’t have, so the bartender insisted on concocting another beverage made from ingredients he had on hand: gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur, and a slice of lemon. Thus, “The Martinez Special” was born. The miner so enjoyed the cocktail that he tried to order it again in San Francisco, where, of course, the bartender required instruction in its preparation. The popularity of this sweet, bracing drink spread, and it was first published in the Bartender’s Manual in the 1880s. 

Martini from Food52

However, this theory isn’t unanimously accepted: Barnaby Conrad III, author of a book on the Martini’s origin, claims that the drink was, in fact, invented in San Francisco, after a miner requested a pick-me-up in the city on his way to Martinez. There are also assertions that it originated in New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel. Still others assert that the drink was named after “Martini & Rossi” vermouth, which was first created in the mid-1800s. Apparently in the interest of brevity, the drink became known as the “Martini.” 

The popularity of the Martini never seems to wane, and it was particularly de rigeur during the 1950s and 1960s, when the “three martini lunch” was a widespread practice for cosmopolitan executives and businesspeople. Our societal stance on daytime drinking (not to mention standards of productivity and workplace culture) have changed somewhat since the Mad Men era, and these days the Martini is more commonly consumed in the evening hours...at least on weekdays.  

More: Get everything you need for a cocktail party in our Cocktail Party Essentials collection. 

Martini from Food52

Numerous theories on the cocktail’s origins exist, as do numerous versions and recipes. A traditional martini contains gin and dry vermouth served extremely cold with a green olive or lemon garnish -- the additional ingredients from the earliest version were quickly abandoned. In the Martini’s earliest incarnation, the ratio of gin to vermouth was 1:1, but the amount of gin has steadily increased over the years. These days, the ratios are approached with much subjectivity, and vary according to personal taste. A “dry” martini contains less vermouth, while a “dirty” one includes dashes of olive brine. When vodka replaces the gin, it’s known as a “kangaroo,” and a “Gibson” swaps the olive for a cocktail onion. James Bond favors the “Vesper," made with gin, vodka, and Kina Lillet vermouth, garnished with a twist of lemon peel. A martini “on the rocks” is served over ice as opposed to being strained into a cocktail glass, and “with a twist” refers to the addition of a thin piece of citrus peel, often shaped into a decorative curlicue. As any Bond fan (or person with a modicum of pop culture knowledge) will know, 007’s drink of choice is “shaken, not stirred,” although Martinis are often stirred instead of shaken.  

Lately, the practice of attaching the suffix “tini” to a number of cocktails is all too pervasive, particularly among fruity, sweet drinks like “appletinis,” “lycheetinis,” and even the cloying “mochatini.” Many of these drinks have little to do with the original cocktail, but are thus named because of their use of the V-shaped glass, often thought of as a Martini glass. 

While we may be at odds regarding its origin, there’s no denying the popularity of this drink, which writer H.L. Mencken referred to as "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”

How do you take your martini? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: history, food history, martini, cocktails

Comments (5)

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2 months ago Catherine

Thank you for this. Always a gin martini, never vodka, definitely dry.

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2 months ago dymnyno

definitely.

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2 months ago cucina di mammina

My husband and I love our martinis very dirty with traditional loves, at least three... dirty ice on the side. Delicious

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2 months ago cucina di mammina

oops! I meant "olives". Darn spell check )

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2 months ago dymnyno

A Martini is my summer staple. In the Napa Valley, we love them made with local gin maker, Leslie Rudd's "209" and Vya dry vermouth. One of my own house cured olives finishes the cocktail. (straight up, of course)