Most of us were initiated into the world of alcohol with a cocktail – Rum and Cola. The sweet beverage diluted the fire a bit and made it palatable. Then one day, as we became ‘mature’, we grew out of our sweet tooth and said goodbye to Cola.
But that was not so in the west. Cocktails have become a way of life in America since the days of prohibition.
With no legal drink available in the market, life was not so easy for the tippler when America went dry at the beginning of the last century. One sip of the bootlegged spirit could make them retch for a whole week; such was the quality of the drink which was smuggled across the border. In order to cut the yuckiness, they began to throw in whatever came across them into the drinks – juices, herbs, vegetables etc.
Cocktail thus became popular. And in the country of cocktails, one drink soon emerged to become the king – the Martini.
There were half a dozen stories about its birth, but none has an advantage over the rest.
What is Martini? It was a happy marriage of gin and vermouth in 1:1 proportion (Vermouth is an aromatised fortified wine, flavoured with various botanicals – roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, spices). Toss in an olive and you had the drink in your hand. The dryness of the gin was cut by the sweetness of the vermouth. But the happy wedding didn’t last long.
Unlike whisky, which you can have from anything and anywhere, Martini demanded ambience and rituals. That was why bartenders were known for their martinis. So were hosts at homes.
During parties thrown at homes, a moment would come when all camaraderie stopped and eyes would be fixed on the host as he began to prepare the drink. He would announce to the silent crowd, as he mixed the drink, the brand of gin and vermouth, the proportion and if it’s shaken or stirred.
When prohibition was finally lifted, good gin began to pour in. The tipplers liked the taste. Why should we use vermouth to cut the manly taste of gin? They asked themselves. But the nostalgic about Martini still remained in their hearts. Taking it off completely would upset the old ritual.
The genius among the mixers now began to explore innovative ways to slight the vermouth part of the cocktail, without hurting its spirit.
A few kept vermouth in perfume bottles and gave the gin a quick misting before they drank. Some whispered ‘vermouth’ over a glass of gin before they sipped. Many others called their friends or relatives to check whether they had vermouth with them. If they had any, the callers would be relieved as they imagined that the phone call made close enough contact with vermouth for the gin at this end of the line to turn it into a Martini.
Winston Churchill, the great British Prime Minister used to pour himself gin and nodded at the other end of the room where he kept a bottle of vermouth.
But the award for the best idea goes to Louis Bunuel, the celebrated filmmaker.
“Allow a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat (vermouth) before it hits a bottle of gin…. A dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window – leaving it unbroken.’”
And do you know the greatest ambassador of Martini, who wants his drink “shaken not stirred”?
Bond, James Bond.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)