The drink that Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev once called "America's lethal weapon" is easily the most written about cocktail in history. The "lethal" aspect of the martini is what most Americans know to be the large proportion of gin, or vodka, to a minute flavoring of vermouth. The less one uses of the aromatic dry wine, which takes its name from the German word for "wormwood," the better; this becomes a mark of the martini's degree of "dryness." The martini is to be served ice-cold, which only makes successive ones go down with relative ease. The martini owes its staying power to two contradictory elements: first, to its ability to reinvent itself; and second, to the martini drinker's fervent exactitude concerning the drink's preparation. This demonstrated meticulousness has produced a whole culture (or cult) around the drink: the martini is accompanied by its own particular codes, accessories, and literature. The drink has been praised in the works of such twentieth-century authors as Ogden Nash, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and H. L. Mencken.
The martini is believed to have been invented during the decade following the Civil War. By the 1880s, the drink was included within several bartender's manuals, where it was first referred to as the "Martinez." According to Max Rudin, the "Martini" spelling first appeared in 1888, in Harry Johnson's New and Improved Illustrated Bartender's Manual or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style. Early recipes for the drink are nowhere near the cocktail with which a twentieth-century American would be familiar—namely because the nineteenth-century version was too sweet to qualify. Sweetened gin, sweet vermouth, and orange-flavored bitters were employed in strange recipes that varied from the cold, dry drink that most twentieth-century Americans came to know.
As with so many other popular cocktails, there are a number of competing claims for the martini's origin; none have been conclusively proven. One theory states that the drink was invented in San Francisco by a passing traveler, who was bound for Martinez, California. Citizens of Martinez claim the traveler was leaving for San Francisco and that he invented the cocktail in Martinez. Other claimants include the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, which employed an immigrant bartender in the early 1900s named Martini di Arma di Taggia, who was famous for his dry gin and vermouth cocktails.
Once the trade in alcohol became illicit during Prohibition, hard liquor commanded large profits. Gin was easier to counterfeit than other liquors, such as whiskey. A new status had been conferred upon liquor: drinking a martini became a defiant statement against the intolerance of temperance zealots. As speakeasies encouraged the mingling of men and women in a way that saloons previously didn't, the martini connoted a new sexuality reflected in these lines from Dorothy Parker:
I like to have a Martini,
Two at the very most—After
three I'm under the table,
After four I'm under my host.
The drink is configured by several codes. The martini's associations are that it is American, modern, sophisticated, upper class, urban, and optimistic, and is by implication not European, old-fashioned, working class, rural, or pessimistic. "It found its essential form at just about the same time as the skyscraper, the airplane, jazz, and the two-piece business suit," wrote Rudin. "Like them, the martini evoked something essential about twentieth-century America."
Drinking a martini is often a statement of what one is not as much as how one wishes to be perceived. In the 1951 story "Goodbye, My Brother," John Cheever's Pommeroy family makes its annual pilgrimage to the beach house, where they relax by drinking martinis between swims, dinners, and dances. The tone for the story is set when one of the characters, Lawrence (Tifty), displays his ignorance of the family drinking code:
"Isn't the beach fabulous, Tifty?" Mother asked.
"Isn't it fabulous to be back? Will you have a Martini?"
"I don't care," Lawrence said. "Whiskey, gin—I don't care what I drink. Give me a little rum."
"We don't have any rum, " Mother said. It was the first note of asperity.
Lawrence represents a gloomy, antisocial nature that the rest of his family (and by extension martini drinkers) abhors. "(Mother) had taught us never to be indecisive, never to reply as Lawrence had … she is deeply concerned with the propriety of her house, and anything irregular by her standards, like drinking straight rum or bringing a beer can to the dinner table, excites in her a conflict…."
Cheever's story also marks the move that social drinking made into the home, following the end of Prohibition. A market for accoutrements such as shakers, pitchers, triangle-stemmed glassware, glass stirrers, and even vermouth-infused stones met the needs of the home bar. The drink that once was so modern and avant-garde had become conservative and suburban by the 1960s. The martini's dark days continued into the 1970s when the Carter Administration used it as a political football by eliminating the tax deduction for the three-martini lunch. Even the conservative swing of the 1980s failed the drink: its reputation for high potency conflicted with anti-drunk driving sentiments.
As Americans returned to less healthful indulgences like red meat and cigars during the economic boom of the 1990s, the martini became an obvious companion. The martini's resurrection is also testimony to its adaptability, however much the purists might object. Traditional dry martinis gave way to drinks made with flavored vodkas and gins, in cocktails that often forgot the vermouth altogether. The martini remains for many an icon of a lost world that Rudin characterized as the "product and symbol of a time in America when 'modern' meant something good—smart, sexy, and pulse-racing, technologically-advanced, intelligently made, an example of Americans leading the world."
Conrad, Barnaby, III. The Martini. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1995.
Edmunds, Lowell. The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1981.
Regan, Gary. "Shaken and Stirred: When Is a Martini Really aMartini?" Nation's Restaurant News. April 14, 1997, 45.
Rudin, Max. "There Is Something about a Martini." American Heritage. July/August 1997, 32-45.
Steinriede, Kent. "Not Your Grandfather's Martini." Beverage Industry. September 1997, 24-5.