"He served the most delicious and the coldest martinis."
-- Pat Sherr on Robert Oppenheimer in American Prometheus
Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant and troubled physicist who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the early 1940's and who later directed the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was at least as well known for serving and drinking martinis as for making atomic bombs. He was the most famous physicist of his time, so what has happened to the drink he championed?
For one thing, people have forgotten the liquor a martini is made of. Nothing brings more trepidation about what one is about to be served than, upon ordering a martini, being asked, "Do you want that with gin or vodka?". "Vodka martini" is an oxymoron, and so-called martinis made with chocolate or pineapple are anathema in the way hazelnut or raspberry flavored coffee is.
There is, however, still some hope. Jump ahead (from 1947) to 1996 and Robert H. Bork. If you've forgotten, Bork was a U.S. Court of Appeals Judge in the mid 80's, nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, but rejected by the Senate. While I can't agree with his politics or his judicial philosophy, we do share common sentiments about martinis. The only point I differ on with Judge Bork is that a martini with olives is a more-than-acceptable substitute for a salad.
RIP Robert H. Bork, 1927-2012. Judge Bork died last December of heart disease. He was 85. There's an informative obit here.
The awful truth 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.
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. 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.
Excerpted (without permission) from National Review, 25 Nov. 1996. Full text can be found here.
Bird, Kai, and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: the triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, New York: Knopf, 2005.