Drink what you like, but that's no martini bar

February 05, 2003|By Gwinn Owens

STROLLING INTO the lobby of the Meyerhoff in anticipation of a fulfilling evening of Dvorak and Richard Strauss, I was stopped in my tracks by what appeared before me:

A "martini bar."

Well enough, I suppose, for those who like their martinis after dinner. Then I looked at the menu: For a confirmed traditionalist who earns his living (or tries) by knowing the precise meanings of words, this was like a parody of the Apostles' Creed or of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

For 100 years, the martini, the world's most sophisticated cocktail, composed of a measure of gin, plus French (dry) vermouth to taste, has been an institution as changeless as the faces on Mount Rushmore. H. L. Mencken called the gin-and-vermouth martini "the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet."

The celebrated writer, critic and editor Bernard DeVoto topped Mencken. He said the martini was "the supreme American gift to world culture." My own research indicates the mixture was adapted, perfected and probably named by Americans from its ancestor in England known as a "gin and French." Today, three American dictionaries and one British define a martini as a "cocktail composed of gin and dry vermouth."

The DeVoto and Mencken quotes I owe to Lowell Edmunds, who wrote an entire book on the issue: Martini, Straight Up. Significantly, if not serendipitously, Mr. Edmunds is a professor of the classics.

What I'm getting at is that the "martini bar" at the Meyerhoff doesn't sell martinis. Nothing even close. Nothing even with gin. One drink called a "Purple Haze" has some vermouth, and that's combined with (ugh) Chambord, sweet and sour and lemon.

The rest is a litany of junk cocktails. How about a "Blue Danube"? That's vodka and Blue Curacao. There's the "Cosmopolitan" - vodka, cranberry juice and lime.

People have the right to drink whatever pleases the palate - vodka, chicken soup and 7-Up, if that's their desire. We're talking the integrity of words.

The gin-and-vermouth martini is America's most honored cocktail, hence its history and meaning should be untouchable. To call anything else a "martini" is as if General Motors were to put out a new model called a "Rolls Royce."

Gwinn Owens was an editorial writer and opinion page editor for The Evening Sun.

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