Wheat from the chaff, men from the boys. Patrick Leclezio steps up to the major leagues.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2014 edition).
It’s difficult to take cocktails seriously. They’re frivolous and insubstantial, and they’ve always struck me as a bit juvenile – equivalent to chocolate milk for children who won’t have it straight. Do you want a sippy cup for that Pina Colada, a squeezy bottle for that Daiquiri? Ok, I’m being harsh. Cocktails have their time and place – and, absolutely, there’s something orchestral, magical even, about marrying disparate ingredients into a harmonic and delicious whole. Most objectionably I’m painting all cocktails with the same brush and that’s just grossly unjust. There are some cocktails, few to be sure, but some nonetheless, that wear their spirituous authority like they were born to it, that lack for nothing in a measure of their gravitas (often oximoronically debauched it must be said, gleefully), and that in a contest of class concede to no other drink. First amongst these is the Martini.
The origins and originator of the Martini are a bit uncertain. The strongest claimant is probably the brand of the same name (dating to 1863), the Italian vermouth producers now forming part of the Bacardi-Martini group. The drink’s greatest proponent though, its unparalleled ambassador, is utterly without doubt: his name is Bond, James Bond. The source of Bond’s proclivities seems to have been the hard-drinking culture, as observed by Ian Fleming, which pervaded in MI6 in the period during and then after World War II: floating through the war on a river of booze was how one operative described it…or with words to that effect. The notorious double agent Kim Philby in particular was known to drink martinis in copious volume, and to serve them from a pitcher, as was the fashion in those days. Bond himself then was styled as an impressive drinker in the secret intelligence service mould – strong drinks, wide repertoire, steady legs, and cool demeanour – and one for whom the martini played an integral role.
Whilst I’m a great 007 admirer (aren’t we all), whilst I’m inclined to follow his lead in certain areas, and whilst I acknowledge his immense contribution to the Martini and its status, I hesitate to endorse his Martini preparation practices. Vodka? Really? It doesn’t make sense. Bond is nothing if not discriminating. So why would a man of such impeccable taste favour vodka over the vastly more interesting alternative – gin? In actual fact Book Bond drinks both vodka and gin martinis, almost equally, whilst Movie Bond, having clearly been forced to sacrifice his good sense to big product placement budgets, favours vodka. Or perhaps he just likes supersized vermouth. Bond’s technique is almost as questionable as his ingredients. “Shaken, not stirred” is arguably the dominant drinks related phrase in our collective consciousness. It’s a got an understated I-know-(precisely)-what-I-want cool about it. Unfortunately it’s also ill-advised. There are those who claim that shaking “bruises” the gin (and one would think the vermouth as well), but this has been disputed. And admittedly it does sound a little precious. It’s beyond argument however that shaking introduces aeration and additional ice-melt, and detracts in the presentation. So the alternative, seemingly, as Somerset Maugham was known to recommend, is that “a martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another”. This though would deprive us of the theatrical centrepiece of the Martini experience. Allow me to then to propose a remedy – neither shaken nor stirred, but swirled: languidly sophisticated (the best kind), and functionally sound. Done.
We’ve touched on the ingredients, but without really getting into the meat of it. The central requirements for a classic martini are gin (yes, movie Bond, yes), dry vermouth, and a garnish of either lemon peel (a twist) or olives, of which the most important, the bulk of what you’ll be ingesting, is the gin. I tend to favour a soft gin for a Martini. It’s strong in alcohol, like I said – serious, so you don’t want the flavour to be overpowering. I personally also want the vermouth get a shout – in contrast to Noel Coward who famously said that “a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy” (he clearly didn’t realise that the dry version used in the Martini is principally French). Something like Bombay Sapphire is ideal – velvety soft and smooth, and well-balanced with plump juniper and a slight citric edge. I can drink Bombay martinis all night without becoming bored with or tired of it. But this is a subjective choice and it may, and indeed should, change from person to person and mood to mood. We’re lucky to be living in a gin-loving era, as a result of which the marketplace is replete with many fine exponents with which to experiment and enjoy. Our ability to do the same with vermouth is unfortunately considerably more restricted, at least here in South Africa. There are no dry French vermouths commonly available, and no premium dry vermouths whatsoever. In the midst of this Martini drinker’s nightmare however, as you glimpse fleeting mirages of Noilly bottles during despairing moments, hang onto this little bit of hope. I recently learnt that Swartland winemaker Adi Badenhorst is reviving the old Caperitif brand, and will be producing a dry vermouth under its label sometime in 2015. Martini time baybee!
Book Bond, for whom I now have more respect than movie Bond, epitomises what the Martini is all about. It is utterly ruthless, unflappable, cultivatedly amusing, and effortlessly, all-encompassingly accomplished. It is the invitation to the ball, the inner circle, the reward on arriving. If you are what you drink, then I can’t think of much that’s more complimentary than a Martini.
Movie Bond on Martinis
From: Never Say Never Again
Fatima Blush: “Oh, how reckless of me. I made you all wet.”
Bond: “Yes, but my martini is still dry.”
From Die Another Day:
(At the party in the ice palace of Gustav Graves)
Bond: Vodka (Grrr…!) martini. Plenty of ice, if you can spare it.
From: Casino Royale
Bond: Vodka (sigh…) Martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?
The WoW classic Martini
2 ½ tots Bombay Sapphire
½ tot dry French vermouth
Swirl over ice in a cocktail shaker
Strain into a martini glass
Twist a sliver of a lemon peel over liquid’s surface, coat the inner glass above the meniscus, and drop the peel into the glass