Politics & Policy

Decline of the Dry Martini

And other tales of a stumbling Western World.

Consider, if you will, the existential plea: “Waiter. Two dry martinis — up, with a twist — please.”

No. Wait. Consider this: “Five dry martinis symbolizing the decline of the West — up with twist.”

I recently had the opportunity to reprise the decline of the West using the history of the dry martini as a proxy for Western civilization. This was accomplished with the aid of a barmaid who poured five simultaneous-but-historically-diverse martinis — each with a gin-to-vermouth ratio considered daringly dry in its day. Liquid representatives of The Gilded Age, The Jazz Age, The Greatest Generation, The Worst Generation and The Postmodern Age were arranged on the bar in chronological order for this tour of the decline of the Western martini.

To standardize test conditions, each cocktail was ordered “up with twist” and “stirred not shaken.” As a group these cocktails represent the death march of a great culture: first to achievement, then to excess.

For the purpose of this experiment vodka martinis were eliminated from consideration — a decision that sparked derision in some circles, but none we care about.

Here are the recipes used:

“The Gilded Age” (c. 1895-1920) • 3 parts dry gin • 1 part dry vermouth

“The Jazz Age” (c. 1920-1940) • 5 parts dry gin • 1 part dry vermouth

“The Greatest Generation” (c. 1940-1965) • 7 parts dry gin • 1 part dry vermouth

“The Worst Generation” (c. 1965-1985) • 15 parts dry gin • 1 part dry vermouth

“The Postmodern Age” (c. 1985-present) • 3 ounces of gin • whisper the word “vermouth” over the shaker

What We Learned

We learned that America’s rise to supremacy over Western civilization — like the decline in the vermouth content of the martini over the same span of years — led first to exhilaration and power, then to depravity and despair. And we learned that 7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth is probably about right.

Western civilization can be understood as a ballet in two acts: the European todtentanz that preceded the discovery of the martini and the American shim-sham-shimmy that followed. The pivotal moment occurred in 1895 when a visually challenged bartender in Sandusky, Ohio, accidentally poured gin and vermouth into an obstructed funnel and served the resulting aperitif to an unsuspecting Amish farmer who had ordered a champagne cocktail.

Contemporaneous accounts do not speak to the gin-vermouth ratio of the Sandusky martini. And the later recollections of witnesses differ widely. The patron who consumed the seminal martini wrote in his memoirs that he had no memory of the evening at all. The unknown fraction is a subject of bitter discord to this day. Although many have tried, orthodoxy has never been successfully imposed on the martini class.

Why the Martini?

The martini glass can be seen as an evolutionary (if you believe in that sort of thing) signpost marking the human transition to a higher life form from the lower strata of animal life (and perhaps of vegetable life). Indeed the desire for a good, dry martini has the potential to span the political divide if only it weren’t for Harry Reid. It is what sets humans apart from the apes and the dolphins.

When I was young I was taught that the trait that made Man unique was the ability to make and use tools. This was a handy definition and one well liked by Man as it tended to make him look good. But the resulting sense of self-worth was revealed to be a house of cards. This came crashing down when scientists made an amazing discovery: certain highly advanced monkeys were in the habit of stripping unwanted appendages from twigs. These “tools” were inserted into ant holes and quickly removed. The resultant ants were then licked off by the genius monkeys. It was considered a delicacy. This discovery (in combination with the feminist movement) threw male self-esteem into a nosedive from which it will not soon recover. Our tax dollars are spent primarily to promote scientific discoveries such as this one.

Yet this “science” founders on the fact that Man is the only known member of the animal kingdom with the documented ability to make and consume a martini.

The Driest Martini: A Rope of Sand

All of the above can lead to but one sad conclusion: the supremacy of the dry martini is under attack. Not only by those who would substitute vodka for gin. Or chocolate syrup for vermouth. (Much could be said about those perversions but that will have to wait for another day.) No, the deconstruction of the martini by moral relativists goes well beyond even a recipe change, and flies in the face of a literal reading of the word “cocktail.”

The earliest attempts to codify the martini formula were less than ambitious. A late Victorian martini text stated:

Martini

Medium: 2 parts dry gin to 1 part dry vermouth

Dry: 3 parts dry gin to 1 part dry vermouth

3 to 1 [emphasis added]. A ratio against which freethinking men, and newly emancipated women, were bound to rebel. The seeds of discontent were sown.

The Living Martini

In the early years — prior to the Great War — champions of a strict constructionist interpretation of the martini withstood the winds of change that howled around them, clinging to the mantle of legitimacy and stifling a nascent movement of iconoclasts. But practitioners of originalism could not withstand the Jazz Age — and the undeniable fact that the 6-to-1 martini was actually a vast improvement over the 3-to-1. As Plato pointed out, “only a fool could disagree.”

The American century would also be the martini century. A century dominated by a martini not bound by a precise written formula. The tablets had been broken. The temple lay in ruins. The genie declined to return to its bottle.

And, as with the corrosive force of abstraction in 20th-century art, the march toward dry extremism could not be resisted. If 6-to-1 was good, would not 7-to-1 be better? (It was.) Just as 6 begat 7, 7 begat 8. And how could those who once advocated 8 then attempt to stand in the way of 9 without being branded hypocrites? So in 1967, when 9 gave way to 10, not a single eyebrow was raised. And in short order an alliance between the moral relativists and the logical extremists (the same coalition that produced the counterculture) led to ratios of 15-to-1 and higher.

The Joke

The final assault on the dry martini came from within. The virus was homegrown.

The joke went something like this: I would like a martini so dry that the bartender need merely whisper the word “vermouth” over the shaker.

The joke was meant to be self-deprecating: “I am such a lush that I drink straight gin.” Apparently martini drinkers used to find this funny. But even after the Thin Man movies had left the theaters, the joke remained. And by the Eisenhower administration the joke was not just a joke. It had crossed the line that separates humorous exaggeration from cocktail dogma. This dogma is the true author of the chemical formula for the modern dry martini. The slippery slope had been slipped upon. The emperor had no clothes. The dominoes had fallen.

By the time I began ordering martinis in the late seventies, some bartenders were metering the degree of martini dryness with eyedroppers and perfume atomizers. The impending void was inevitable.

When is a Martini Not a Martini?

Studies now show that the contemporary American martini has a greater likelihood of a 1-to-0 ratio of gin to vermouth than any other proportion. If you do the math, that works out to be a glass of straight gin. The mind boggles. Prior to recent history the voluntary consumption of straight gin was strictly confined to the uncouth. It was, in fact, the very definition of gauche. The slums of 18th-century London famously demonstrated this point. But in the lost and dying world of today the martini class has been taught that straight gin — far from being the preferred beverage of the loutish — is the embodiment of sophistication. The modern martini drinker is either too ignorant to know better or too fashion conscious to speak the truth — that the martini of our time is God-awful.

Each American generation has felt the need to drink a dryer martini than did the generation that came before. It is this twisted mockery of the American dream that has led to the present state of affairs. A glass of straight gin can now be served without warning as a martini.

The deconstruction of the dry martini is now complete. Even in the best case one’s martini ambitions cannot be realized absent meticulous instruction to the bartender. Harder cases may necessitate a Platonic dialogue. And, when best efforts are greeted with blank stares, cultural reeducation may be the only solution. So I call on the martini tastemakers and cognoscenti to spread the word: no gratuity should be given for martinis without vermouth. It’s not too late to prove the fatalists wrong. The alternative is mixing your own drinks.

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