Martini. It is the drink of the American Dream. Raise the glass, sip the liquid and taste the success. For more than a century, it has symbolized triumph, toasted prosperity, indicated affluence and epitomized opulence. The mere mention of its name conjures images of tuxedos and evening gowns, sparkling conversation in the cocktail lounge or dancing to the orchestra music at the supper club.
No other drink has captured our collective consciousness. H.L. Mencken called it “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” And so, I ask: Why is it so damned hard to find a good martini around Baltimore?
The martini began life as a gin drink and for our purposes here it will remain one. I know you may like vodka— I don’t care. I know you think the martini was invented at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City around 1910 by a bartender named Martini. You are wrong… by decades. “The New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual” by Harry Johnson listed the “Martini” in 1882. In it, Johnson wrote the gin-to-vermouth ratio was a precise 1-to-1, an equal partnership in which the vermouth, a 16th-century white wine fortified with herbs, tamed the bite of the gin.
But possibly from the pouring of that first martini, did the adjusting begin. More vermouth for a wetter martini; less for a dry one. And, over the years, gin got less sweet, so less vermouth was needed to temper it.
John Astin, an Academy Award-nominated actor who lives in Baltimore and teaches acting at Johns Hopkins University, remembers the 1950s martini era especially fondly. Eisenhower was in the White House and change was in the air. “It was the era of ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,’” he says. “Suddenly people were making martinis at 3-to-1 or even 4-to-1. It was positively daring.”
Astin locked in at the two-to-one blend and has been drinking them that way ever since. His was once the common mix. But at the moment the dry martini holds sway, leaving Astin to suffer greatly in this age of reduced vermouth. “I am looked upon as an absolute oddball. When ordering I try and make it as simple as possible so it doesn’t get lost in the translation between the waitress and the bartender,” he says. “I can tell just by looking if it’s been made right or wrong.”
And it is easy to tell just by looking— the Astin martini is distinctly more yellow in color than the martini typically served in bars today. Todd Headings, bartender at One World Café, says a martini as “wet” as Astin’s is rare. “I do use vermouth, but it’s a strong flavor,” he says. “Some people don’t care how much I put in— they just like holding the glass. But true martini drinkers are very specific. They’ll tell me what they want.”
It’s that “right or wrong” attitude that convinces martini fans that once a proper balance is found, nothing else will do. Formulas are perfected and passed down through generations, like directions for roasting the Thanksgiving turkey. Mine came from local author Neil Grauer, who years earlier learned it from Marc Davis, the Walt Disney animator credited with designing Bambi and Tinker Bell. Temperature is crucial. I keep my bottle of Bombay gin in the freezer. Gin stored this way drops to 10 degrees; gin over ice gets down to maybe 40 degrees. Stir five parts gin to one part Noilly Prat dry vermouth into a cocktail shaker— just stir, don’t shake. This is because shaking a martini is a silly thing to do and doesn’t really accomplish anything. Pour into a martini glass and add not only an olive, but also a twist of lemon. Now drink it. You’ll taste the gin and the vermouth. That’s what makes it a martini.
It can’t get much simpler, but somehow these basic steps are missing from the playbooks of Charm City’s bartenders. The most obnoxious habit among our drink mixers is an attempt at flamboyance. They pour a little vermouth into a glass, swirl it around then dump it down the drain behind the bar. If you ever see someone do this, I suggest you stop them in mid-mix, thank them and leave. They were about to sell you a very expensive glass of cold gin and call it a martini. “I don’t know where they learned that,” says Mark Russell, owner of the Maryland Bartending Academy. “They certainly didn’t learn it here. We’ve taught a 5-to-1 ratio for 30 years. I think it’s a case of a bartender not knowing what he’s doing, imitating another bartender who doesn’t know what he’s doing either.”
To make matters worse, somewhere along the line it was decided to cover up bad martinis by putting them in big glasses. Check out the 1934 film classic “The Thin Man.” William Powell and Myrna Loy are having the time of their lives sipping what look to be 4-ounce cocktails. By comparison the glasses in today’s bars are enormous, weighing in at 8, 10 or even a freakish 12 ounces. “I blame McDonald’s,” says Carl Kreps, a glassware salesman for Mid-Atlantic Restaurant Supply. “They started super-sizing their meals and everything got bigger in the bars and restaurants, too. Now customers don’t care what a drink tastes like. They just want a lot for their money.”
To review: Martini perfection can only be achieved if these three criteria are met. A.) The product is the right size— i.e. not served in a glass that can hold the contents of a bottle of beer. B.) Cold, and I mean cold, from start to finish. C.) Taste. And that dry martini gag where you fill a glass with gin and then whisper the word “Vermouth” wasn’t funny when your grandfather did it either.
The recent demise of Burke’s, Perring Place and The Valley Inn has left a gaping hole in the properly made martini scene. I hit the road looking for spiritual salvation, on a quest for the genuine libation. It was a journey filled with disappointment. One downtown hotel bar once popular with F. Scott Fitzgerald served a tepid martini with a wedge of lime stuck to the rim. If Fitzgerald weren’t dead already, that would have killed him. I also encountered a martini bar whose menu doesn’t contain an actual martini— only Lemon Drop, Chocolate and even Cheesecake “’tinis.” Just reading that drink list made me a little queasy.
But perseverance was its own reward. The following five watering holes met my unwavering standards, plus an added economic incentive— none cost more than $7. At each, I walked in, sat down and ordered a martini straight-up. And at each a chilly martini arrived, in a proper glass, with an appropriate amount of vermouth.
Seek out these bars and try them…but not all in the same night.
Pappas Bar: Just enough noise and neon. Behind the bar Craig Gallagher deftly pours a martini befitting his 17 years of experience. “I make ’em like I like ’em.” 1725 Taylor Ave., Baltimore, 410-661-4357, http://www.pappas-crabcakes.com
Johnny Dee’s: Black leather stools accent this Formica-topped throwback lounge. The place is cozy and dark, old-time Baltimore at its best. “I don’t know too much about life,” quips 16-year bartending veteran Barbara Sollenberger. “But I do know how to make drinks.” 1705 Amuskai Road, Parkville, 410-665-7000
The Peppermill: All 27 seats of this landmark bar are usually taken. Marcella Marsiglia and Chris Mattson work it like a perfectly choreographed ballet. Their 40 years of combined
experience show in every cocktail. 1301 York Road, Lutherville, 410-583-1107, pepmill.com
Tio Pepe: Clad in red jacket and black bow tie, Peruvian import Jonathan Delacruz silently stirs a martini. As he sets it upon Tio Pepe’s stunning tile bar he offers the traditional Spanish toast, “Salud.” 10 E. Franklin St., 410-539-4675
Jennings: (opening image) The martini shimmers, bathed in the red glow of this iconic Catonsville watering hole. Bartender Gretta Watson admires her creation, built on 21 years of know-how. Four olives on a toothpick top her masterpiece. 808 Frederick Road, Catonsville, 410-744-3824, http://www.jenningscafe.com