Mixing martinis to take the edge off

April 05, 2000|By Rob Kasper

I AM NOT much of a martini maker, but if someone puts a perfectly made martini in my hand, I will happily sip the liquid and feast on the olives.

"It takes the edge off," the martini makers say.

Who am I to disagree?

I have always associated a certain degree of edginess, tension and attitude with martini drinkers, at least when they are in their pre-imbibing state. My image of martini drinkers has been that they are smartly dressed world-beaters. They are tense types who, after downing their favorite elixir, become less tense, less driven and, in some instances, less dressed.

In other words, martini drinkers are harried grown-ups. That probably explains how we tolerate the taste of the martini -- which, let's be frank here, is cool, numbing alcohol with a touch of bitterness. The longer you hang around on this planet, the more you begin to see the upside of numbness and bitterness.

Mixologists report that the martini is doing quite well these days. Joshua Horner told me martinis are popular both at the Havana Club in Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in downtown Baltimore, where he is the manager, and at the operation's new restaurant and 60-seat bar in Pikesville, where he worked last week. "There is a heavy martini crowd here," Horner said.

This did not surprise me. Anyone who has fought for a parking space in Baltimore or has tried to maneuver through suburban sprawl knows that living here can sometimes put you on edge, can make you thirsty for something cool and numbing.

Yet, I was shocked to learn that the martini is embraced in Seattle, a town I regard as a down-jacket, cyber-spacey kind of place. Steve Burney, manager of Oliver's Lounge in the Mayflower Park Hotel in downtown Seattle, told me he is selling as many as 500 martinis a week. Seattle and the nearby community of Vancouver even have an annual martini-making contest, which Burney and a colleague recently won.

"But Seattle is so mellow," I protested to Burney, when I got him on the phone. I went on to ask him how a martini, a drink with an attitude, could be so popular in a place where people are pleasant to one another.

His reply was succinct. What mattered in a good martini, he said, is what goes into the drink, not what is in the head of the drinker.

He went on to list the procedures he goes through to make a martini.

He said he uses gin, not vodka, as the main ingredient. The gin martini is the old standby, and the vodka martini is the up-and-comer. I thought that in a young community like Seattle, the martini of choice would be one made with a vodka, maybe even one flavored with a local fruit.

Burney said he uses gin because he wants to make a classic martini. He specified the type of gin, Bombay Sapphire, and the type of vermouth, Cinzano Dry. (In answer to my question, he said that neither the gin maker nor the vermouth maker had sponsored the martini contest.) The ratio of gin to vermouth is 10 to 1, he said.

The olives that go in his martini are soaked in a special bath, Burney said. He makes the bath by pouring the brine out of a 1-gallon jug of Italian olives and replacing the brine with vermouth.

These vermouth-marinated olives are chilled, as are the martini shaker and the martini glasses. The gin is not chilled, he said.

Next, he gives the martini shaker a vermouth rinse. He does this by pouring a little vermouth, a quarter of an ounce, in the martini shaker, swirling it around, then tossing the vermouth out. Then, he pours the gin and some ice in this shaker, caps the device and shakes vigorously.

He takes two vermouth-soaked olives plucked from the jug, skewers them on a toothpick and sets them on the rim of a martini glass. He pours the shaken gin over the olives, but does not let the olives swim in the glass. Keeping the olives confined to the edge of the glass gives the martini a mere hint of briny flavor, he said, not the heavier dose you get from free-swimming olives.

While some martini makers object to shaking the gin in ice, Burney said vigorous shaking is a key step to success. "Some people say shaking bruises the gin. Well, we beat it up. We make it black and blue," he said. This step helps form a thin layer of ice chips on the top of the poured martini. This layer keeps the martini cold and "takes the sharpness off" the drink, he said. "It is chilled, cold and smooth. It goes down like a fine wine," Burney said.

One night last week, as I drove through rush-hour traffic, I thought about what Burney told me about martini making. There seemed to be some contradictions.

If you want to appreciate the taste of something, you don't make it ice-cold. Cold hides flavors. And if you don't want the vermouth or olives to mingle with the gin, why do you even invite them to the get-together?

I struggled with these contradictions and with finding a parking space on North Charles Street, as I made my way to the apartment of a friend, whom I will call Neil the Numbster. Neil the Numbster makes a mean martini.

After two of his concoctions, I didn't care that ice masks the flavors of gin or that olives should be allowed to swim freely. I walked out on Neil's balcony just after a rain had washed the city. The lights twinkled. The streets glistened. The traffic glided by. I felt mellow, as though I were in Seattle. As though the edge were off.

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