The metaphysics of the Martini revisited

The esteemed Brandon Watson calls our attention to this list of classic cocktails, which makes reference to a variation on the Martini I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before: the Burnt Martini, wherein scotch takes the place of vermouth. Naturally, I mixed one right away upon learning of it. But I think I was too timid: Nervous about overdoing the scotch, I erred in the wrong direction and could taste it not at all. I’ll try again someday, but deviations from the Martinian norm should be indulged only rarely.

But is there a norm here? I addressed the question once before in a gag post, but since we’ve been discussing the metaphysics of artifacts, let’s address it semi-seriously. To certain super-sophisticates, vermouth, never mind scotch, shouldn’t appear in a Martini at all. (There’s the famous crack about Churchill to the effect that when mixing his Martinis he’d look in the direction of France, which would suffice for the vermouth. Perhaps Churchill’s Burnt Martini recipe would have called for a mere glance northward toward Scotland or a toot on the bagpipes.) This seems to me more than a little precious. And just false. Here’s the basic reasoning: A Martini is a kind of cocktail; cocktails are mixed drinks; gin by itself is not a mixed drink; ergo, gin by itself is not a cocktail, and thus not a Martini.

Would a mere hint of vermouth suffice? In his fine little book How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, Eric Felten tells us that M. F. K. Fisher would use an eyedropper to dispense her vermouth. Others spray a fine mist of vermouth over the top, or merely swish the vermouth around in the glass before tossing it out and pouring the gin. Felten thinks this sort of thing is silly, and so do I. If pure gin is not a Martini, neither is that which is indistinguishable to the taste from pure gin. Yes, one can definitely overdo the vermouth, but so too can one underdo it.

But scotch? Wouldn’t this give us another drink altogether? I think not. But then, does anything go? Must we tolerate Cosmopolitans and “Appletinis” as legitimate riffs on the genuine article? Again, I think not. Why not? Martinis are not natural substances, after all, but artifacts; thus, one might think, there is simply no “fact of the matter” about what counts as a Martini. But that is too glib. Cornbread and corncob pipes are artifacts too, but there is certainly a fact of the matter about which of them it was that General MacArthur liked to smoke. It is because artifacts are defined by the contingent human interests they serve that they exhibit an ontological fuzziness that natural substances do not, but those interests are stable enough that we can at least in most cases get a reasonable enough fix on what counts as an instance of a certain type of artifact and what does not.

What is the relevant defining “interest” in the case of the Martini? The origins of the cocktail are not entirely clear, but it seems to go back 140 years or so to a concoction called a “Martinez,” which was significantly different from what we think of as the “standard” Martini today, particularly in being sweet-tasting. (Felten has a sketch of the history, as do other books.) It was when, in the common mixing of the drink, the now obscure sweet gin then in use gave way to the more familiar dry variety, and sweet vermouth to its dry variant, that the Martini as we know it emerged. It seems also to have been around this time that it became The Martini – something that stood out from other cocktails and would eventually come to be regarded as the King. The “dryness” was key, in that it required of the drinker more discipline and refinement – like the opera enthusiast who knows he’s arrived when he’s made it through to hour four of a Wagner epic and likes it. (As a guy I used to know liked to put it, “If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, do it ‘til it does” – though it isn’t clear that Martinis and the Ring cycle are what he had in mind. I don’t know whatever happened to him and I’m not sure I want to know.)

It’s an excessive if forgivable devotion to this dryness that leads some to affect an aversion to vermouth. But if they go too far, they at least grasp the essence of the thing. Hence, it seems to me, scotch is plausibly in as a vermouth replacement, and even vodka as a gin replacement, though why anyone would want it I have no idea. Any garnish consistent with the theme is also in – even the lemon peel, since it gives something less than a hint of sweetness, though why anyone would prefer it to the olive is also beyond me. Indeed, I take just a bit of the briny to be an invaluable addition to the overall taste of a Martini, though the Dirty Martini goes too far. In any event, Cosmopolitans, Appletinis, and the like are definitely out.

Mind you, I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever be drunk – even by men. Just don’t pretend such a thing is a species of Martini. And don’t tell anyone about drinking one either – on a blog, say. Take the time a friend and I watched The Usual Suspects – he for the first time, me for the twenty-third – while the wives talked about whatever in the other room. It would have been preposterous to drink a Martini in such a context, or scotch, or wine (while munching on potato chips or popcorn, no less!) Something lighter, and sweeter, was called for. But it goes without saying that you couldn’t expect us to drink soda pop or lemonade either. And the ladies had already left the ingredients out anyway, so…

Ah, but this is a blog!
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