Brilliant and a must-read for anyone who enjoys good writing and a great martini. I heard of this fantastic site while listening to John Gruber’s “The Talk Show podcast.” Put me in the “shaken” is better camp.
Q: What is a Martini?
A: Do you want the short answer or the long answer?
Q: The short one first, please.
A: A Martini is a cocktail containing unequal portions of gin and dry vermouth (in a ratio of somewhere between 2:1 and 15:1, inclusive) served chilled, in a conical stemmed glass, garnished with either a green olive or a lemon twist.
Q: OK, I’m ready for the long answer now.
A: A highly vocal minority of Martini drinkers, the Prescriptivists,1 insists that the short answer is in fact the only answer. Any deviation from this definition may produce an enjoyable cocktail, but it will not be a Martini. (There is a single exception: one may use less vermouth.)
Strict adherence to the Prescriptivist position brings with it several undeniable benefits. Foremost among these is the quality of the drink itself: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to truly improve on the classic American Dry Martini. There are also practical benefits, since the Prescriptivist has no need to stock an elaborate bar. Give him an ample supply of the two base ingredients and a fresh stock of garnishes, and he’s set. Finally, there is the bracing sense of keeping the barbarian at the gate, of shielding a flickering flame of culture against the gusts of fad and fashion.
In the end, however, the Prescriptivist position is untenable, because both the English language and the Martini itself are constantly evolving entities.
In truth, there has never been a single definitive version of the Martini: it was born through variations of earlier, similar cocktails; the earliest recorded recipes differ significantly from each other and even more greatly from the classic American Dry Martini; and continuous — sometimes radical — modification of the basic recipe has been a part of the drink’s identity and appeal throughout its history. The rise of vodka as the most popular base spirit and the multitude of Martini variations that became popular in the 1990’s are only the most recent cycles in a process of mixological experimentation and exploration that has accompanied the Martini since its inception.
The difficulty surrounding precise definition is compounded by an additional factor. In a manner shared by no other cocktail, the Martini has become an icon. For many it is a symbol, either of a certain subset of American culture, or of America itself. As Lowell Edmunds discusses in his scholarly deconstruction of the cocktail, Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail, the word “Martini” evokes not only a cocktail, but also an image and an idea. The symbolic potency of the Martini depends very little, if at all, on its ingredients. It depends somewhat on the conical cocktail glass in which it is traditionally served, and it depends above all on the name: if someone identifies a given drink as a Martini, then, for symbolic purposes, it is a Martini.
One may, however, arrive at a workable definition by setting aside consideration of the Martini qua symbol as a matter calling for scholarly exegesis rather than definition, and by adopting a descriptivist stance toward the definition itself. This is what Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown have done in Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini: “a Martini is a short drink made with either gin or vodka and served straight up, in a Martini glass” (14).2 While Prescriptivists may shudder at some of the concoctions that this definition allows into the fold, and while others may be disappointed that their favored avant garde Martini-like drink is not blessed, this definition does accurately describe the drink throughout its history, while remaining narrow enough to distinguish Martinis from other cocktails that happen to contain gin, vodka, or vermouth, or happen to be served in a Martini glass.
1 “Prescriptivist”, in my usage here, is not a synonym for “Traditionalist” or “Purist.” Traditionalists and Purists are those who drink traditional Martinis, made according to the short definition. Prescriptivists are those who insist that cocktails made according to the short definition are the only true Martinis, and that deviant varieties should be referred to by a different name.
2 A “short drink” is a cocktail that contains primarily spirits — such as a Martini or Manhattan. A long drink is mixed drink served in a tall glass, containing approximately eight parts non-alcoholic mixers to one part spirits — such as a Screwdriver or Bloody Mary (Miller and Brown 14).The Martini FAQ, by Brad Gadberry