Gin And The Murky Origins Of The Martini

  • In hell, said Randal Jarell, Americans tell each other how to make a martini.

    A martini — “the elixir of quietude” as E.B. White described it — consists of gin and vermouth. The ingredients are chilled and then strained into a cocktail glass. That, at any rate, is the original martini, though vodka is now, somewhat grudgingly, accepted in the place of gin.

    Gin is a strange and fascinating spirit, with a long and diverse history. It is in essence an admixture of grain alcohol and juniper-berry oil and was invented by a 17th Century Dutch medical professor named Francois de Boe Sylvius, who created it to relieve kidney disorders and, he said, “to purify the blood.”

    Sylvius called his confection “Genever,” which is the Dutch word for juniper.

    Gin is relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, and, in large part for this reason, it took England by complete storm.

    Vermouth today — whether sweet or dry — is an entirely different deal from the vermouth that existed back in the days of Francois de Boe Sylvius. Back then, you see, Vermouth was a sweet(ish) digestif made from a myriad of things, such as: orange peels and flowers, juniper and nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, marjoram, brandy, white wine, tree bark, and that’s not even the half of it. Today, however, vermouth is mediocre wine, usually white, with herbal-and-spice infusions and alcohol fortification. Sugar is often added.

    The true origins of the gin martini are murky, though many stories do exist. Some, for example, say that back in 1912, a legendary New York bartender by the name of Martini invented the drink. Others believe it was first concocted much earlier and in prototypical fashion, back in 1850, in San Francisco, by Professor Jerry Thomas, who purportedly made it for a miner on the way to Martinez, California. The result: the Martinez cocktail, which is a gin-vermouth-maraschino drink, slightly different from the martini, but a venerable drink nevertheless, which still exists to this day. Yet the citizens of Martinez, California say that the martini originated right there, in 1870, and the bartender who first built it was a man named Julio Richelieu.

    One thing that’s known for certain: The Martinez cocktail first appeared in The Bartenders Guide in 1887.

    The Oxford English Dictionary, a usually impeccable source, tells us — incorrectly — that the martini was invented in 1871, but this was a full twenty years after Jerry Thomas’s drink came into existence.

    The English, on the other hand, say that because of its kick, the martini comes from a strong British rifle called a Martini & Henry.

    Many New Yorker’s would have us believe that a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel — one Martini di Arma di Taggia — invented the drink in 1911 for John David Rockefeller, who, by the way, took his martini with London Dry Gin, dry vermouth, bitters, lemon peel and a single olive.

    But, whatever.

    About the shape of the glass there is little dispute.
    The ritual is really the thing,
    holding the stem of the chalice to the light,
    somewhat to bless the dying day.
    But ever you are ready to begin,
    Be extra careful not to bruise the gin.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

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