The word “cocktail,” to my mind at least, conjures up images of city lights, Nick and Nora Charles, and cosmopolitan urbanity, the preface to a nice meal in a civilized setting. It was not always so. “Professor” Jerry Thomas, writing in his 1862 bartender’s guide How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, said, “The cocktail is a modern invention, and is generally used on fishing and other sporting parties, although some patients [emphasis in original] insist that it is good in the morning as a tonic.” More on the morning cocktail anon. An original copy of Thomas’s book, which includes “receipts for mixing” hundreds of drinks, is in the collection of the Harvard College Library, but it is still available in reprint.
Harry Craddock quoted the 1806 definition, from a New York periodical called The Balance, in his Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in London in 1930: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters… .” Sounds rather good. Make mine with rye, please. And easy on the sugar.
Of course this is more or less what we would call an Old Fashioned and indeed anything dating from 1806 qualifies as old fashioned in my book. However, it is still a drink very much in demand, and the contemporary bourbon maker Knob Creek even publishes a version called the New Fashioned, tricked out with amaretto.
But if that were the beginning and end of the cocktail, we would be missing so many other forms of what Bertie Wooster called tissue restorers. Manhattans, Juleps, and Sours. Stingers, Sazeracs and Sidecars. Russians, both Black and White. The Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and club soda) and its much improved cousin the Negroni, which substitutes gin for the soda. And then there are the tall drinks, Fizzes and Collinses and Highballs, including the preeminent Whiskey & Soda and Gin & Tonic. The list is nearly endless. Shelves full of books have been written on the subject, and no two agree on everything. Is a highball a cocktail or not? Let’s have one of each and discuss.
But my own heart belongs to that classic, the Dry Martini. If you want to go down the rabbit hole looking for the One True Martini Origin Story, I commend to you The Martini, by Barnaby Conrad III and The Martini Cocktail, by Robert Simonson. The exhaustively-researched conclusion of both books: no one really knows. But whether it started as the Martinez allegedly invented by Prof. Thomas in California Gold Rush days, the analogous kick of the Martini rifle used by the British Army in the late 19th century, Martini and Rossi brand vermouth, or most likely something else entirely, I say count me in. To quote Ogden Nash’s poem “A Drink With Something In It,”: “There is something about a Martini,/ A tingle remarkably pleasant;/ A yellow, a mellow Martini;/ I wish I had one at present.”
“Dry” nowadays is generally used to denote the paucity of vermouth in the mix, but it originally designated the use of London dry gin and dry French vermouth, rather than the sweet Old Tom gin and sweet Italian vermouth that comprised the original drink, as far as anyone can tell. The dry version had become standard by the early 20th century if not earlier, and in1946, when Lucius Beebe wrote The Stork Club Bar Book, it consisted of 2/3 oz. London dry gin and 1/3 oz. of dry French vermouth, and was listed along with the Manhattan in the section for “midmorning refreshment.” In his November 1957 Holiday Magazine article “Spendthrift Tour of New York,” however, he indicates a taste for two, three or perhaps more before lunch and dinner. Of course, if they really were only one ounce each, I suppose 3 might not be so bad, but it would be asking for trouble to indulge in a pre-prandial slurp of three of the birdbath-sized glasses the bartender is apt to slide across the mahogany today. A thirst for cocktails may help to explain why the colorful Beebe, author, New York reporter, columnist, chronicler of café society, scholar of railroad history, gourmet, member of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, and eventual editor of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, had the distinction of being expelled from both Harvard and Yale and once attempted to toilet paper J.P. Morgan’s yacht from an airplane. As James Thurber said, “One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.” It is that third and the ensuing rounds that earned this noble drink the unfortunate moniker, Loudmouth Soup.
But personal preferences aside, what is a cocktail for? It is for punctuation, for one thing; if not a period, at least a semicolon dividing the public day from the personal evening. It is for contemplation; reflecting on the triumphs, defeats, joys, tragedies or more often the simple banalities of the day. It is for relaxation; winding down between the rigors of work, or sport, or yardwork, or errands, or desperately trying to entertain children, or whatever the day has held, and easing into the breaking of bread. Bernard DeVoto wrote in The Hour in 1948, “The rat stops gnawing in the wood, the dungeon walls withdraw, the weight is lifted. Nerve ends that stuck through your skin like bristles when you … shut the office door behind you have withdrawn into their sheaths.” I’ll have what he’s having.
And, ideally, it is for conversation. A cocktail party is one where the conversation takes center stage, and can be a pleasant occasion indeed when the company is good and no agenda is hovering overhead or darting about underfoot. How to dress for a cocktail party? Town & Country suggests the following as one approach: “If you do like to wear a tie, this would be the occasion, and plan to keep the blazer on.” But the article also advises, “A suit and oxfords are always a sure bet, but you can be creative and more casual.” The blog LifeTailored says “Cocktail attire started in the 20s as an alternative to formal attire. In today’s world, the culture as a whole is entirely more relaxed, which makes dressing for ‘cocktail attire’ that much more confusing… . Cocktail in essence boils down to wearing a smart suit, shirt and tie, but there are exceptions.” British GQ earlier this year also suggested a suit and tie, but acknowledged that in recent years the tie is not strictly required, although still recommended. I tend to wear a coat and tie most days so this poses no hardship, but I leave the matter entirely to you.
However, too often a cocktail party can be an awkward amalgam of strangers with too much alcohol and not enough food. A business or social obligation with shrimp on toothpicks and poorly made drinks, rather than a proper punctuation between work and dinner. No. I am thinking here more of the cocktail hour. In A.R. Gurney’s play The Cocktail Hour, a character explains the difference between a cocktail party and a cocktail hour this way. “A cocktail party is a public thing. You invite people to a cocktail party. A cocktail hour is family. It’s private. It’s personal. It’s very different.” DeVoto wrote, “May 6:00 never find you alone.” One’s spouse or friend or neighbor or cousin or colleague, or grown children, or a combination of the above, is perfect. These days, with too many of us in solitary confinement due to the viral plague, perhaps the conversation must be by phone or Zoom. Pets can be good listeners, if you don’t expect too much give and take.
But what if no one else is around, and social distancing has made even passing a few words with the bartender at one’s favorite watering hole impossible? M.F.K. Fisher famously wrote, “A well-made dry Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature,” but that always made me feel rather sad for her. I say, put on some music you enjoy, sit outside if you can, or just squint out the window, and with hair combed, feet shod, dinner nearly ready and perhaps a few crackers with cheese or nuts close to hand, have a well-made glass of whatever you prefer and muse on what you have. DeVoto again: “… you did well enough, you did well. The day was not bad, the season has not been bad, there is sense and even promise in going on.” Here’s to that. — CHARLOTTESVILLE
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This is a favorite version of the Martini that my wife and I often share. For each drink:
2 oz. dry gin (Plymouth if I decide I can afford the splurge, more often Gordon’s; 82.4 and 80 proof respectively.)
1 oz. dry vermouth (Dolin if I can find it, usually Noilly Prat; both are French and both are good.)
1 dash orange bitters (a fillip found in some old recipes (see, e.g., Esquire Drink Book, 1956) which has become quite popular again; Angostura and Fee Brothers both make good versions of orange bitters and are widely available.)
The proportions above are traditional, but others insist on a higher ratio of gin to vermouth. Kingsley Amis in Everyday Drinking called for a ratio of 12 to 15 parts gin to one of vermouth, but that is between you and your liver. I sometimes go in the other direction using a ratio of one to one, which cocktail expert Audrey Saunders at her now sadly closed Pegu Club in lower Manhattan dubbed the Fitty-Fitty. Shake in a cocktail shaker or stir in a mixing glass filled with ice cubes to a slow count of not less than 30. William Powell in The Thin Man, 1934, instructed the barman that a Dry Martini is always shaken to waltz time, but I have found that a rhumba, cha cha or bossa nova rhythm works as well and adds a festive air. Stirring is traditional, shaking is acceptable and faster, but either way it must be cold, approaching the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The ingredient list of one old recipe ends, tongue in cheek, “and 500 pounds of ice.” In addition to chilling the drink, the slight melting of the ice mellows and softens it. Strain into a cocktail glass or coupe and garnish with an olive on a toothpick or a twist of lemon, the oils of which are expressed onto the top of the just-poured drink. Sip. Exhale slowly. Smile. Ahhh…