1950s Archive

Martini-Zheen, Anyone?

Originally Published January 1957

Across the Bay in The City, which is the way you talk about San Francisco if you live just outside it, people drink whatever has the quickest answer. The bleak, stylish bars off Montgomery Street are straight-faced about Gibsons, a more or less western and much ginnier version of the dry Martini, which is to say that a Gibson has almost nothing in it but cold gin, with an onion instead of an olive for the fussy oldsters. One barman ostentatiously puts a single drop of vermouth from an ophthalmologist's instrument into his concoction at the last minute; another, with half an eye on the publicity department, uses a perfume atomizer to spray a first and at the same time final whiff of the fortified wine over the glass of icy liquor.

Across the land in Boston, too, the proportions of gin to vermouth have risen, even since Robert Benchley's dictum that there should be just enough of the latter to take away “that ghastly watery look.” Now even the best clubs serve Martinis which are almost colorless.

As one travels toward Europe, the dryness of a dry Martini depends on the type and nationality of the transportation.

Most of the airlines have now come to the same conclusion that I did in 1929 on a ship: that there is nothing much better to combat a general feeling of queasiness than a judicious application of gin and vermouth, except of course Champagne sec, which I could not afford. Numerous bored or frightened air passengers have found relief and courage in the little noggins of ready-mixed cocktail put into their hands as the safety belts tightened around them near La Guardia. And in the same way, the people who still think there is nothing quite as exciting as the sea approach to a new continent reach for a dry Martini in the ship's bar and feel better for it in spite of the increased volume of vermouth as they approach Plymouth, Antwerp, Hamburg, or Cannes.

The same rule applies by air and by sea: subtly and irrevocably the cocktail becomes more wine and less liquor the nearer one gets to Europe. And this isn't for reasons of economy, since gin costs ten times as much as vermouth, but because European bartenders believe firmly and stubbornly and even passionately that anyone who asks for a Martini wants a drink made mostly of Martini—and Martini is the name of a vermouth, is it not so?

By the time the plane lands at Orly or the boat train pulls into the Paris station, strong men and resolute women who, in San Francisco or Boston, would turn gray or even green at the idea of swallowing a Martini that is less than perfect, feel what probably amounts to resignation about the European version of the silvery cocktail. They know that if they make themselves very loud, and scowling or pouty depending on their age, sex, and general tendencies, they may possibly get something reminiscent of what Dad used to shake up during prohibition. It will be made of a local version of English gin, unless they are knowing enough to demand English gin. It will be made of sweet red vermouth unless the American tourist is knowing enough to demand dry white vermouth, and it will be made without ice unless he demands ice. And if he is foresighted enough to demand ice, it will be served in a lump in the glass, which will often be a tall lemonade glass with the “cocktail” down in the bottom. The cocktail will be made, if the American is very fortunate, in the proportions of half and half—and if he is less so, in The City's proportions but in reverse, so that a flick of gin has been gently and cautiously passed over the ruddy, sweet, herby, and strangely bolstering potion.

This dispassionate description of a European Martini springs, I must point out, from what I have observed here in Aix-en-Provence on behalf of a Visiting American. As a footnote to the footnote, I shall add that there are bars, in most great cities of France, which can and often do serve Martinis as dry and as impeccable as those of the United States. But in Aix (“Ancient city of fountains, culture, music, almond cakes and carnival; population some 32,000; 747 kilometers south of Paris and 29 kilometers north of Marseille”), people who drink before meals are comparatively few. Those who do, usually outsiders from Paris or Lyons or even Marseille, are, according to the Aixois, nervous or overtired or just plain crazy.

I have often found myself in this category, and very pleasurably so, but have seldom felt it enough to insist on a dry Martini. To most people in Provence (including me, except in states of dire and fortunately rare duress), a glass of the cool pink wine I plan to drink with the meal is also very good indeed beforehand—and much simpler!

But this is not the case with my Visiting American, a good sensitive creature who had flown thousands of miles to spend a few crowded days here with me. Perhaps I have a lingering feeling of guilt because I exposed my friend to the local vagaries of “le cocktail.” Certainly this visit and its accompanying alcoholic research would not have happened if I, and therefore my guest, had been in Casablanca or Caracas. No wonder I find myself worrying and even having predawn nightmares about dry Martinis, my inadequacy in procuring them, and their ultimate unattainability in the south of France.

To get the whole thing into a fairly practicable formula which can be used by other people fated with the same problem when they are somewhat off the beaten path (that is, not in Cannes or Nice or even St. Tropez), let it be understood that there is no use asking for a dry Martini. Even more so, one must not try to Gallicize the name and ask for a Martini dry: this means a dry white vermouth made, if one is lucky, in Martini, Italy—and in the back room of the bar, if one is not. This is sometimes served chilled as it is supposed to be and occasionally one finds in it a little piece of tired lemon peel. To get a dry Martini, one must unhesitatingly ask for a Martini-gin, pronounced zheen. In hamlets, gin is usually unheard of anyway; in villages, there may possibly be one half-empty faded bottle left from the Liberation in '44, and in towns of 10,000 and over, one may actually find real gin.

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