Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pouring a Line in the Sand

OK, I’m doing the martini post. This is total filler, with zero science.

Side Note: But if you want martini-related science, check out this post from last year about junipers, berries and the parallel evolution of “fruit.”

BTW, gin is not made from fermented juniper berries. It’s a neutral liquor, distilled from malt or grain, and then either a) distilled again, with juniper berries, in which case it’s called distilled gin, or b) simply flavored (but not re-distilled) with juniper berries, in which case it’s called compound gin.

I’m doing this post for 2 reasons. First, last week SkiBikeJunkie did a thoughtful post asking readers, if they could have drink but one drink in addition to water for their rest of their lives, what would it be? A great post topic, but the responses were, well, a bit lame. Diet Coke, coffee and lemonade were some of the more popular candidates. I piped up for something alcoholic- specifically a gin martini- and in a huff of bravado bragged that I would post about how to make a decent one. This post is making good on my huff.

But the 2nd reason is that although this blog covers all kinds of things, one of my excuses for rambling on and on about this, that and the other is that I like to think that, in my own little way, I am somehow making the world just a little bit better place. And you know what’s wrong- like really, truly, fundamentally wrong- with the world today*? There are way too many really bad martinis being made every day, that’s what.

*Yes, I get that, strictly speaking, a nit-picking reader might point to world hunger, poverty, AIS or global climate change instead, but I’m not going to be able to overcome those problems in a single post. But, by God, I can do something about all these lame cocktails floating around.

Seriously. People make “apple martinis” and “teqinis” and “espresso martinis” and water-logged martinis with chips of ice swirling around in them. Enough is enough. I’m drawing- or rather pouring- a line in the sand right here and now. The world can be a better place, one cocktail at a time.

Tangent: BTW, while researching* this post, I came across a fascinating new blog: Daily beer project. This guy, who apparently has not previously been a beer-drinker, is embarking on a month-long taste-test to determine if he likes it/acquires the taste. I don’t know anything else about this guy, but clearly, he is committed to the Scientific Method in a huge and awesome way.. I am totally following along, and you should too- this should be fun.

*OK, I didn’t actually do any research- I’ve been making martinis since college. I was just killing time and screwing around when I stumbled across it.

My philosophy about martinis is consistent with my overall philosophy regarding hard liquor, which is that like red meat, if you are going to consume it, it is far better that you should do so sparingly and of high quality.

Tangent: If this seems like a weird post, I should mention that it is a weird week. I’m out on the East coast for work, visiting the HQ of the company that acquired mine last week. For 8 years I’ve run the sales team for a small technology research company. And the company we competed against most regularly and consistently during those years was the one that bought us. This week I’m at their headquarters, for the sales management kick-off, clapping for quota achievers, and attending training and group workshops. It feels weird. It feels kind of like…

Imagine it was 1985, and one night President Reagan came on the TV and announced that the country had been acquired by the Soviet Union. Then some Soviet generals and such came on TV, welcomed us to the Soviet Union, talked about the great opportunities we’d have in our new country, and how nearly all of us- 93% to be exact- would be offered Soviet citizenship.

So the next week you flew out to Moscow for a big 3-day meeting in the Kremlin, where you attended party rallies and workshops on Marxist theory and collective farming. And actually, it turned out that the Soviets were generally really nice and welcoming, and went out of their way to ease your transition and make you feel at home. And by and large your visit was fine. But every once in a while, in the middle of a meeting or workshop or whatever, a little voice went off in your head and screamed, “Holy crap! I’m in the Soviet Freaking Union!”

That’s kind of what this week feels like.

Getting Started

boodles First, start with good gin. Tastes vary, but my absolute favorite is Boodles British Gin*. Conservative, but with a very faint “fruity” undertone. My second favorite is Plymouth Gin, a quality, traditional choice. Hendricks is also a solid conservative option.

*Can’t get it in UT. Try one of the places in Evanston, or AJ’s Discount Liquors in Mesquite.

plymouth Sarticious is a sort of “wild” gin, with a powerful unique aroma and strong fruity taste that’s sometimes- but not always- to my liking. You have to be in the mood for it, and if you’re not it comes across as harsh and almost violently over-flavored. I should mention that the last decade has seen a surge of boutique, sometimes local gins, many of which are worth a try as well.

Side Note: I tired of Tanqueray years ago. It has a very distinctive flavor and smell, which, while not unpleasant, dominates any martini constructed with it. I do like the flavor in a G&T, but not in a martini. Bombay and Bombay Sapphire are OK in a pinch, but sub-optimal for a fine martini.

The brand of vermouth doesn’t have as much of an impact. I usually keep a bottle of Martini & Rossi around, and it lasts for a couple of years.

The first key to a great martini is preparation, and the most important (OK, really only) step of that preparation is this: keep the gin in the freezer. Not the refrigerator, and-for God’s sake- not the cabinet. The beauty of hard liquor is that it can be cooled to temps far lower than 32F without freezing, because ethanol doesn’t freeze until -173F. The exact temp at which hard liquor freezes is dependent on its alcohol content, or proof; gin generally won’t freeze until around -15F.

Super-cooling gin is not without controversy; critics point out that cold gin won’t release the aroma of its botanical flavoring agents (juniper, sometimes lemon and other things). This is a valid concern, but we’ll return to it later in the post.

Side Note: Yes, I’m omitting vodka from this post. I really have nothing against vodka martinis, other than that they’re, uh… not actually martinis.

With your gin super-cooled, you’re ready to begin. First, you must decide your gin-vermouth ratio. This is a matter of taste. Pre-prohibition martinis were supposedly 50/50. A 2-1 martini today is considered soaking “wet”. I usually favor somewhere between 8-1 and 6-1*.

*Actually, I used to prefer 8-1, but more recently I think I’m doing more like 6-1. I do seem to like them a tad wetter as I get older, a trend toward which I was encouraged by my best friend and fellow martiniphile, Arizona Steve.

Martini1 Next, you must line the glass with vermouth. We’re neither shaking nor stirring because we’re not using ice. This is my pet martini peeve. People get a great, expensive gin, pour it out into a cup, and totally mess it up by shaking/stirring it around with tap-water ice cubes! Lining the glass allows you to gently mix your martini, as we’ll see in a moment.

Many martiniphiles use a vermouth-mister, which is a small pump-spray container, to line the glass. Misters work well, but unless you pump it like a hundred times, misting-only results in a very, very dry martini, which may not be to your taste. If you use a mister, but prefer a wetter martini, you must add vermouth to the bottom of the glass.

The other, no-frills, way to line the glass is to fill the bottom with the desired amount of vermouth, and then tilt and rotate the glass a couple of times to coat the interior with vermouth. This is where the distinctive shape of a martini glass really comes into play; it’s hard to effectively rotationally-coat a standard water, beer, or even wine glass in this manner.

Martini2 After the glass is coated, you’re ready to pour. Pour the gin from the bottle with one hand (I recommend the non-favored hand) while slowly rotating the glass, with 3 fingers on the stem such that the gin “stream” impacts on the side of the glass. As the gin hits the vermouth coating, it mixes and slides into the pool at the bottom. Keep rotating until the glass is filled about ~2cm from the brim. Ahh… we’re almost ready!

Martini3 Martinis are fine “naked” but a a couple of gin-soaked olives make a wonderful appetizer, so I recommend adding 1 or 2. Pitted are the lowest hassle*. Traditionally I’ve favored “empty olives (i.e. no pimentos) but of late I’ve become a sucker for olives stuffed with garlic cloves. Yes, it sounds abysmal, but wait… You should just plunk the olives into the drink- no toothpicks or plastic sticks- they just get in the way.

*Because there’s just no way to gracefully chew an olive, spit out the pit, and still look James-Bond-Cool.

Now you’re ready to drink. A martini is best drunk with a good friend or two- not more than ½ a dozen* in any case. If you’re looking for an all-night big-party drink, choose something else. And only drink martinis with good friends- never with people you dislike, or for whom you have mixed feelings. Drink it slowly- you’re only having one. As you sip the martini, 2 wonderful things will happen. First, the stiff alcohol, delivered in nearly pure form, will smooth the “edge” off your mood. The day’s troubles will recede, and your pace of thought will slow just a titch. And as you sip, your mind and palate will open just a little bit, and as they do, concurrently the martini will gently, slowly warm. It’ll take a nice long time to do so, with the gin being super-cooled.

*Friends, not martinis.

As the martini slowly, slowly warms, and your mood gently eases, a most wonderful thing will happen; the subtle flavors of the gin will slowly start to develop and emerge- flavors that you couldn’t have quite fully appreciated when you first sipped the drink, before your mood was eased and you were past the initial “smack” of a stiff drink. After a while, when you’ve sipped your way down about ½ - 2/3, you’ll be able to pluck the olives out with your thumb and forefinger; soaked with gin, they’ll be full of flavor. When you finally reach the bottom, pause for a moment and bask in the afterglow. But stop here; no matter how good an idea it seems at the time, 2nd martinis just never recapture the moment. And worse, they lead to sloppiness, drunken foolishness and hangovers.

Side Note: With 2 of these martinis, it’s highly unlikely you’ll pass a breathalyzer, and I’m not even sure you’d pass after just one. This is strictly a designated-driver, or walk-to-the-neighbors drink.

I have, of course, had more than one more martini before*. And what’s interesting is the way in which it affects me. Multiple martinis manifest themselves in one very specific muscle of my body- the tip of my tongue. Really, I’ll feel just fine, but the very tip- and only the tip- of the tongue will be very slightly slowed. As it slows, it will just barely “miss” the front of the roof of my mouth, and I’ll start to lisp my “S”’s.

*Because I have in fact, tried a wide array of ill-advised and poorly thought-out things,mostly in my younger years, when I was young and stupid. Now I’m just stupid.

As the “edge” slips from your mood, a nice effect may become evident: jokes will seem funnier. I don’t know why alcohol makes things seem funny, but it does. And to prove it, I have included a Test Joke for your convenience. Your can read this joke now, and maybe have a chuckle, but I recommend you save it for after a martini. In any case, it includes exactly 1 bad word, so skip over if profanity offends you.

The Joke

So this stockbroker from New York City strikes it rich, retires, moves out to Montana and buys a ranch. His first day, as he’s unpacking, he hears a knock at the door, and opens it to see a grizzled old rancher standing at his doorstep.

Rancher: Howdy neighbor!

Stockbroker: Neighbor?

Rancher: Yeah, I live in the ranch 20 miles down the road, and here in these parts, that’s neighbors! Anyway, I just stopped by to welcome you to the neighborhood and invite you to a hootenanny I’m havin’ Saturday night.

Stockbroker: A hootenanny? What in the heck’s a hootenanny?

Rancher: Aw, a hootenanny is a great ol’ time! That’s when we get together, do a little eatin’, a little drinkin’ and a little dancin’. Later on we do a little more drinkin’, a little more dancin’, maybe some fightin’ and… (with a conspiratorial wink) maybe even a little f*ckin’!

Stockbroker: Wow, that sounds like a great time! Count me in!

Rancher: OK then, see you Saturday night!

The rancher turns and starts to walk away, when the stockbroker thinks of another question.

Stockbroker: Hey, uh, by the way, who all’s going to be there?

Rancher: Oh, just you and me…

It’s not a drink to drink every day, so I save it for something special, like after a long, stressful week at work, or seeing an old friend after a long time apart, or maybe celebrating a promotion or a big event with friends, or, oh I don’t know… maybe after your company gets acquired, you cash out your options and the wire xfer hits your account.

PS: On a serious note, my friend and fellow mtn biker/nature blogger KB is undergoing surgery today to have several vertebrae fused in her neck. Stop by and wish her well. Thanks.


maggie said...

isn't 7am a little early to be blogging about martinis?

Kristin said...

I'm sitting in a hotel room on the West Coast and have found several times this week as I've talked about working for the "Soviet Union" I too have had the 'Holy crap I work for the Soviet Union now' moment. I laughed out loud as I read that tangent. Thanks for the early (west coast time) laugh.

Kevin Vigor said...

Disclaimer: I can't stand gin. But I am an amateur whiskey snob, and I learned from a co-worker (who happens to be a very serious whiskey snob) that just a very small splash of water or a single small ice cube has fascinating effects on the nature of the drink. For some varieties it completely changes the character. So don't be so quick to mock the ice-users. Give it a try.

// and then you put in OLIVES? For sheesh, man!

dug said...

okay, so when does your experiment start when martinis become the ONLY thing you drink, maybe for a month.

start filling your cages with tumblers instead of bottles.

KanyonKris said...

I'll admit I'm clueless on this topic, but I must ask:

I can see how the selection of gin and vermouth affect the taste of the martini, as does mix ratio, cooling the gin, and adding or not adding water/ice. But how does the vermouth coating and pouring the gin make it taste different?

Your enthusiastic description of preparing and enjoying a martini is fascinating. Similar to when a co-worker waxed nearly poetic about the pleasures of enjoying a good wine. It almost made me want to try it.

KanyonKris said...

Oh, and I loved the Soviet Union analogy.

Enel said...

Another occasion for drinking a martini will occur when you see your tax bill on said cashed out options.

ElZo said...

A belated congrats on being bought by the USSR.

Only one of the several small software companies I've worked for has turned my options liquid, when we got bought out by a much larger company. There weren't any "holy crap, I work the Soviet Union", because the acquiring company hadn't had any products in our market, before.

The amount of money I got out of the deal amounted to an extra-large bonus. It would have bought me a decent car (I bought a motorcycle, and saved the rest). But getting that check was still pretty great, if only for the sense of accomplishment that came with it.

(Side note: I figured out pretty quickly that, happy as I was about the acquisition, the acquiring company wasn't a place I wanted to work, and moved on. Hopefully the USSR is a better place for you.)

Eric Wright said...

So here's the thing- i know this is your blog and all- but I can't stand idly by while you espouse bad Martini best practices. tsk tsk.

So- shaking or stirring w/ ice ads water which dilutes the gin allowing you to taste it. I prefer stirred, but shaken will get you more shards... and coldness.
IMHO you should leave your gin at room temp and use the ice(lots of ice) to cool the gin- which helps you water it down a little.

In addition I think the glass coating with vermouth is theatrics as is the misting. I prefer to mix in my vermouth early so that I get a uniform mixture- and a more consistent drink.

the rest I can survive with.

I do however propose a taste test/ and scientific method of testing the 'tinis

KanyonKris said...

Martini war ... fight!

Colin said...

Hmmm, maybe we should change our camping drinks from margaritas to something more high class.

Watcher said...

Maggie- 7AM is early to drink martinis, but not to blog about them. (Actually, I often blog in the evening, sometimes on planes or in hotel rooms. But I almost never post until morning. Gives me a chance to re-read the draft and think, “Do I really want to post that?” Sometimes I wish I’d save all my deleted tangents for another, anonymous blog…)

Oh, Eric, Eric, Eric- what are we going to do with you? Drowning fine gin in ice baths- your martini bar sounds like a 7-11 slushie counter… Alas, I fear should we ever meet in real life, it will not be over a round of ‘tinis. Unless I guess if we each make our own. And then I suppose we could do that taste test, though we’ll have to close the shades first, so none of my neighbors see us defiling good gin.

Kris- with the coating/rotational side-pour, you mix as you pour- smooth even, no clinking and dinking around stirring. Like a… oh never mind, I was going to start waxing poetic again, but it’s late.

Kevin- Thanks for your thoughts. However, I must point out that a gin-hater giving martini advice comes off a bit like the Pope trying to write a Dan Savage column.

Enel- yes indeed. I have been through this experience before. That may in fact be one of my rare two-‘tini events.

Colin- I’ve flirted with adding a tini component to our trips. OCRick and Hunky Neighbor are already fans of my concoctions. (And I think Vicente will drink pretty much anything.) I have trouble visualizing RSP with ‘tini in hand, but the picture alone would be worth the effort.

ElZo- thanks for the good wishes. Glad one of your Marxist uprisings paid off.

Comrade Kristin- you’ll be happy to know that, while at HQ, I recommended you for party membership. Oh, and we’re collectivizing your cube.

Nicholas said...

"your martini bar sounds like a 7-11 slushie counter" - hahaha wonderful! Let the fight begin! :)

Thanks for a hugely entertaining post. I've always had a taste for Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire.. they seem so sweet, spicy and soothing at once.. never tried a martini tho'. I think you got me convinced to give it a go :)