Gold Rush Sophistication & the Shaken Sexiness of a Martini

It’s impossible to be a great writer and not like a good one. Or a dry one. Maybe even one that’s a little dirty. I’m talking about martinis.

We all know what Ian Fleming thought of martinis – drawing infinite attention to whether Bond’s should be shaken or stirred. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink was allegedly a very dry martini. And NPR reported in a feature about martinis, highlighting their sophistication and sexiness, the fact that H.L. Mencken is said to have called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”

According to the folks orchestrating National Martini Day, the first recipe for a martini (known then as a “Martinez”) appeared in print in 1887 in, of course, San Francisco. Why a Martinez? Well, there’s a lovely little burg on the outskirts of San Francisco that I’ve been to … by the name of Martinez; and this adorable little town – and supporting folklore – claims that the martini was invented here by a Gold Rush miner; or rather, a bartender creatively trying to provide good customer service when he was out of champagne.

What’s in a martini? You don’t want to ask that embarrassing question in public, so I’ll tell you here. Thankfully the Huffington Post posted an article titled “How To Order A Martini Like A Pro,” in which it’s explained quite simply that a martini is a cocktail made of gin and vermouth, “with a general proportion of one part dry vermouth to four parts gin, depending on the type you’re making; it’s usually garnished with a green olive or a lemon peel.” If you’ve ever seen the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest, you may recall Cary Grant tended to order a drink called a “Gibson,” which is a variation on the martini with an onion as garnish. Hmmm. I think only Cary Grant could get away with that one.

If you want a complete run-down on the etiquette, form and function of ordering martinis to impress ladies, you could check out the less-politely-titled “Stop Ordering Your Martini Like An Asshole.” Might be worth 5 minutes to check out. Who wants to sound like an asshole when ordering a martini? Not me.

And, not to upset my friends in Martinez, there are some who claim the name of our sophisticated drink comes directly from Martini & Rossi vermouth.

Regardless of its founding, martinis came into their own during Prohibition. The Flapper Era. There's a mystique about that time – 1920 to 1933 – that is so distinctly American, yet probably more fun as nostalgia than the reality itself. Sneaking around trying to suck down a spot o’ homemade and illegally obtained liquor in hidden closets behind funeral homes probably wasn’t really that glamorous. Yet the image of forbidden booze, hot jazz, smokes and flappers is just so appealing. It makes me feel like throwing some Count Basie on the phonograph and lighting up a Chesterfield.

Since I can’t do that – since (the original, at least) Count Basie is no longer with us and Chesterfields are unfiltered, awful things – I go back in time by frequenting my favorite establishments in San Francisco.

My main character in my upcoming novel, Henry Quantum, thinks the best martini in San Francisco is at Bix, which claims to have re-instigated the cool factor of a martini in the 1980s. I would have to agree with Henry, although I may beg to differ with Bix in that I can’t imagine the martini ever wasn’t cool.

Just walk in the door to Bix, and you’ve re-entered the Prohibition era, where there’s a bowl full of stemware chilling on crushed ice right there on the bar. I don’t think I’ve ever word-for-word quoted a business’ marketing-speak, but just take in this description of Bix from their website: “On an enticing alley in San Francisco's historic Jackson Square, a lone neon sign leads into a soaring room of fluted columns, mahogany paneling, plush banquettes and distinguished artwork. White jacketed bartenders hold forth behind a gently curved bar, mixing what many have called the city’s best classic cocktails. Variously described as a civilized speakeasy, a supper club and an elegant saloon, BIX offers modern American cuisine served in a soaring two-story dining room to the strains of live jazz nightly.”

So who’s in? Henry and I might stop in one of these days – maybe with our friends Humphrey Bogart and James Bond – and pony up for a little sophistication, with a splash of vermouth.