The Corner

Judge Bork & Martinis

From NR, Nov. 1996:

IT WAS the worst of the worst of times and the worst of times. It was the election from hell. Our long national nightmare turned out to be only halfway over.

How can we forget, how can we take the edge off our pain (perhaps the only pain Bill Clinton does not feel)? Different strategies will occur, but one of the most promising is the judicious use of alcohol. One cannot, of course, begin the forgetting process at breakfast and continue through the day, since that would have devastating effects on one’s career, marriage, and liver. The tactic is definitely recommended, however, for the early evening hours when, as you zap around the TV channels, you are all too likely to come without warning upon the Clinton visage. That can be a nasty shock to your nervous system. If you have not prepared yourself in advance, it will be too late to avoid the damage and you will totter off to bed to lie awake staring into the dark or to toss fitfully dreaming of fallen republics. Just the right amount of alcohol taken at the right time will, however, enable you to see the humor in America’s having a Banana Republic government, and to fall asleep congratulating yourself on having risen above despair.

The choice of drink, however, is crucial. Wine spritzers will not do it. Here we enter upon controversial territory, and what I am about to say will doubtless be resented bitterly by some conservatives. We must face the fact, however, that these things are not mere matters of personal preference. There is no room here for alcoholic relativism. Just as there are spiritual truths, so there are spiritous truths.

Wine having been dismissed, we may also eliminate, though with less certainty, bourbon. It is sweeter than alcohol should be, and it is likely to depress and make one maudlin when confronted with the Clinton countenance. Scotch is a better bet, but it is is not a bracing drink and so lacks the capacity to tone us up in the way that we will need in these dark days. No, there is only one drink that conveys conservative correctness, spreads warmth and courage throughout one’s soul, and has the additional merit of being the most delicious cocktail ever invented. I refer, of course, to the dry martini, a distinctively American invention, which Bernard DeVoto called the “supreme American gift to world culture.” (Not that the world accepted the gift very eagerly: until recently the only sure way to get a decent martini in England was to go behind the bar and make it yourself. Most of the rest of the world is hopeless.)

The awful truth, however, is that the martini was on the verge of extinction. Just a few years back, no one under the age of forty drank it. Though I can hardly take full credit for the drink’s resurgence, I made a contribution. When I was a judge, I used to tell my clerks, who had never tasted one, that martinis are essential to cultural conservatism. Furthermore, I described the ideal recipe. Several of them accepted my argument, with only one unfortunate result: they took to entering bars in Washington and ordering “Judge Bork martinis.” This gave a somewhat false picture of life in my chambers.

Well, then, what is the description of the proper, indeed the perfect, martini? There is in this matter, as on every serious subject, a number of heresies. In the first place, a drink made with vodka is not a martini. A martini means gin. Second, olives are to be eschewed, except by people who think a martini is a type of salad.

Finally, the martini must be straight up. I recall once seeing a martini “on the rocks” and murmuring, “Oh, the horror, the horror!” Insofar as “on the rocks” indicates a form of bankruptcy, it is a perfectly accurate description of gin and vermouth on ice. There should be some small amount of water in a martini (that is inevitable in the chilling process and makes the drink smoother), but when it is served on the rocks, the amount of water keeps increasing, depriving the martini of its special tang. That is no doubt why Lowell Edmunds writes in The Silver Bullet that “the martini on the rocks is an abomination, and must be classed with fast foods, rock ‘n’ roll, snowmobiles, acid rain, polyester fabrics, supermarket tomatoes, and books printed on toilet paper as a symptom of anomy.”

Well, what is the recipe for the perfect martini? Edmunds says the proportion of gin to vermouth may range from 4:1 to 8:1. The upper end of that range is preferable, and one may even go to 10:1 (the martini that American officers called “the Montgomery” to annoy British officers with a reminder of the Field Marshall’s unwillingness to fight except with overwhelming odds). Some years back a despairing producer of vermouth took out ads advocating 3:1 and asserting that “a dry martini is not a hooker of gin.” Not quite, but a hooker of icy gin would be infinitely preferable to a 3:1 martini.

The three best gins, in my view, are Bombay, Bombay Sapphire, and Tanqueray, but it is possible to make a fine martini with lesser gins. Domestic vermouths are to be avoided. My favorite French vermouth is Boissicre. A piece of lemon rind is to be twisted so that lemon oil comes out of the skin. I am usually unable, however, to get enough oil to drop from the rind to the surface of the martini and so, contrary to the best practice, I place the rind in the drink. The martini should be served in a stemmed glass that has been chilled until it is as cold as possible.

The martini is a very potent cocktail. It is not to be drunk rapidly, but rather sipped and savored. That said, this cocktail is not merely the best means of restoring the tissues, as Bertie Wooster would put it, but also the best means of restoring one’s sanity and sense of humor after the carnage of the ‘96 election. The martini was brought back by Republicans with the ‘94 elections; it will help us forget ‘96 as we yearn for 1998 and 2000.


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