Ordering Martinis, Maintaining Decorum: A Guide

Lookit, I’m something of an asshole but I reckon it’s like dealing with substance abuse — acknowledgement of the core issue is the first step toward recovery. Accordingly, I do spend considerable time and effort trying not to be one, or be less of one… It’s just that I find all this to be particularly difficult when ordering a martini.

Now, I like my martinis, and I haven’t let this challenge affect consumption. I developed a taste for gin long before I developed a taste for any other alcohol, so we go back a long way. I don’t claim any broad expertise on the martini subject, notwithstanding where I stand on it. In other words, I know what I like:

• I prefer Bombay or Beefeater: I’ll accept some lesser quality gin if it’s all that’s available. I’m not a snob about it, but these are my ideals. Tanqueray is fine with tonic. Better than fine actually. But it’s got a very different sort of taste that, to me, doesn’t work in the martini context.

• I don’t like olives: Yeah, I know this is absurd. Everyone loves olives, Dan Bern especially. These are the things that make the martini for many people, but I don’t like them on their own and I surely don’t want the oil, or the essence of anything — lemon peel, onion, or what have you — getting between me and the sublime chemistry of gin and vermouth.

• I want it shaken: Martinis should be served colder than cold, and shaking the ice, gin and vermouth together imbues this mixture with thousands of tiny ice shards that, when the drink is poured from shaker to glass, form a thin film of ice on the surface. It’s a beautiful composite thing, like a snowflake, each one distinct. What’s more it tells me the drink is cold and will remain so for as long as the immediate climate allows. There are establishments that will serve you a small portion in the martini glass, while the remainder is provided separately in a caddie, a small rounded beaker that in turn sits in a glass globe that effectively packs ice around said caddie. This is solid presentation and extremely practical; the martini stays cold. But I still want it shaken on the front end.

• I want it very, very, very dry: This does not mean that I want no vermouth at all. As you may have noticed, the dryness of martinis is the subject of much hackneyed martini humor. People will muse, upon my ordering a very, very, very, “Oh, so dry that you just wave the vermouth bottle over the glass?”, or “So dry that all you need to do is whisper the word vermouth over the rim?” No, that’s not it (and while you’re at it, stop trying to sound like Hawkeye Pierce). I don’t want straight gin. Vermouth does something specific and integral to the martini process, even in extremely small doses: It cuts the astringent edge of straight gin like nothing on God’s Green Earth. Now, some people like the taste of vermouth, which is an aperitif after all, and some enjoy that of vermouth mixed with gin. That’s all well and good. But people like me who want their martinis very, very, very dry do not like either of those things. They’re seeking the taste of gin minus that astringency, which is exactly what just the right amount of vermouth — literally a droplet per martini — provides.

[Let me share with you one of the world’s great, fool-proof drink tips: If you want a very-very-very dry martini and you’re mixing for a single , here’s what you do — pour the vermouth into an ice-laden shaker; gently stir it around a bit; then pour all the vermouth out, every drop. The vermouth that remains coated on the ice is the exact right amount for a bone dry dry martini. Just pour in a single serving of gin, shake with vigor, let sit 30 seconds, shake again and serve.]

Now, back to the asshole theme. It is fairly well impossible to sit at a bar and order a martini while conveying all this vital information without sounding like a pedant. If one were to provide even a quarter of this sort of detail, anyone within earshot would rightly assume that, “Jeezum crow, that guy there is a Grade A/No. 1 Asshole.”

The martini-ordering process is indeed rife with opportunities to sound like a self-important prick. Here’s another example: If you want your martini shaken, how do you make this clear without invoking a sort of fatuous, wannabe-James-Bond swagger? It’s difficult, let me tell you.

I’ve been drinking martinis for almost 30 years, and trying not to be an asshole for nearly as long. Here’s how I tiptoe through these potential social landmines: I have, over time, developed a concise, matter-of-fact, not-at-all swaggering script for my preferred martini order that, I daresay, has proved quite effective. Here’s what I say, every time, without fail:

“I’d like a very, very, very dry martini. Straight up. No fruit. Shaken. Bombay if you’ve got it.”

I intone “very” three times because I’ve noticed that if I say it four times, I’m an asshole; if I say it twice, odds are 50-50 the waiter or waitress will not effectively emphasize this dryness to the bartender, and my martini will come back tasting like a vermouth slushee. When it comes to “very”, the number of the counting shall be three. Five is right out.

Note the last sentence of my stock martini order — the brand specification. This was an addendum I’ve developed in the last 8-10 years in response to what is frankly a worrying trend. I’ll try not to sound like an asshole while explaining it.

It’s ironic that as the martini has grown in popularity — and I think we’ve all noticed this — two things have become clear: 1) Much of this uptick is due to the influx of specialty martinis; and 2) the vodka martini has similarly grown in popularity. These developments are co-dependent. Gin does not mix particularly effectively with, well… anything but tonic or vermouth. Vodka on the other hand is virtually tasteless and mixes well with all manner of fruit juices. So, when you’re concocting some abomination like an appletini or cranberrytini, the clear choice when it comes to a liquor base is vodka. I shouldn’t say “abomination”. That is too strong a word. What these specialty vodka martinis really are is “dangerous”. The martini is no joke, people. I’m a 5’10”, 210-pound man, and I only have a second martini when I’m at home, or not driving home. There is a built-in safety mechanism with martinis — when you’re drinking one, you’re damned cognizant of the fact that you are drinking something wicked potent. When you’re drinking an appletini, on the other hand, it’s a lot like throwing back some Hi-C (in a fancy vessel, laced with barbiturates). In other words, it’s all too easy to have 3 or 4, and that is a recipe for disaster. I also think there’s something else, something a bit cynical and sinister at play here. Let’s call it Bartles and Jaymes Syndrome, whereby alcohol purveyors (in addition to boyfriends and would-be suitors the world over) are continuously looking for new ways to get young women drunk as quickly as possible. The same people who drink appletinis drank wine coolers in the 1980s. Enough said on that.

But here’s the real reason I’ve been obliged to add the “Bombay if you got it” tagline to my standard order: If I don’t make this clear, the fool taking my order will inevitably ask me, “gin or vodka?”

I can understand why they ask, I really do. Half the people ordering a martini have never done so before, or they are used to ordering off specialty martini menus that bring untold variability to the process. However, as I hope we’ve made clear here today, a martini is a martini. It’s gin, full-stop. If I wanted a “vodka martini”, I’d have asked for that. But again, it’s really hard to make this point without sounding like an asshole.

5 Responses to “Ordering Martinis, Maintaining Decorum: A Guide”

  1. Jason Rathbun

    Pretty funny. I’ve never developed a taste for martinis but I can’t agree with you more on the topic of vodka martinis. I’m not sure abomination is too strong of a word but really what it the problem is, as I see it, is that it’s not even the same drink. It should be called something else entirely; it’s only called that because they want another reason to use those glasses. And, it should be noted, that West Coast rap culture has discovered that gin does go perfectly well with juice – specifically some kind of grapefruit juice. I prefer pink grapefruit juice cocktail (but I haven’t had this in about a decade).

  2. Bill

    I drink a vodka martini almost every night at home (I learned years ago that I’m a loud asshole after gin anythings), and keep it really simple. I leave a glass bottle of Stolichnaya in the freezer and just pour that into a stem martini glass. I add a couple of olives out of a bottle that I’ve earlier poured a little vermouth into. I don’t have to worry about ice diluting it. Bliss.

  3. Vic Williams

    Hey Hal, I love you, man, but you can have the world’s stockpile of gin. I had a run-in with the juniper juice back in college and have not darkened its door since. Nor has it darkened my gullet. Vodka marti straight up with a twist? Now you’re talkin’.

    Then again, you and I did pound our way through a few gallons of Thai (or was it Chinese?) beer not long ago. Cheers.

  4. Hal Phillips

    Vic: It is an acquired taste, and I acquired it early, before anything else, so it has stuck. Nothing wrong with a vodka martini or vodka in general. I just wish that when I order a martini, they stop asking me whether I want gin or vodka. It’s a sign of the decline of our civilization…

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