The history of the Martini is colored by war, murder and class warfare

Matt Hershberger

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As with all perfect things, the Martini's history is drenched in blood and shrouded in lies. The cocktail itself could not be simpler: all you need to make one is a glass full of gin, a dash of vermouth, some ice, and, if you're feeling fancy, an olive or a lemon peel as a garnish. A proper dry Martini is a thing of beauty.


But it took almost a century (with a lot of war and murder and just a bit of class warfare) for the Martini to reach its current form. The evolution of the drink was influenced by some of the greatest statesmen, writers, businessmen and movie stars of the 20th century. 

Origins and bathtubs

The most popular origin story of the cocktail comes from the most famous brand of Vermouth, Martini & Rossi. At some point, somebody splashed the vermouth into some gin, and when pressed for a name, that mystery person looked at the vermouth bottle, and said, "It's a Martini!"

This tale, however, is hardly consensus. The Chamber of Commerce in Martinez, California claims that Martini & Rossi had nothing to do with it, but rather, that one day, during the gold rush, a prospector came into town having struck gold. In celebration, he asked for the house special, but the bartender was out of the ingredients, so he threw something better together called "the Martinez special." The Martinez was heavier on vermouth than gin, and included bitters and maraschino liqueur.

Another version of the Martinez’s origin story says that it was a drink served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco for customers who were about to catch the ferry to Martinez. The name, through the years, eventually morphed to the "Martini."

Regardless of the drink’s true origin, the fact remains that the Martini was a nightmare version of its current self until the early 20th century, with the majority – or at least an equal part – of the drink being vermouth. It would take several decades of global war and the gangland violence of prohibition to turn the Martini into the drink we know today.

Bathtub poison

Prior to prohibition, Americans preferred whiskey to gin. But you have to age whiskey; gin requires no such care. Bootleggers were often only a few steps ahead of the authorities, so they didn't have time to put their booze into barrels and wait around for a few years. Instead, they made it quickly and poorly in secret distilleries.

"Bathtub gin," as it was called, was basically moonshine that had juniper berries mixed in to mask the disgustingness of the drink. It was often basically poison, and a bad batch could blind or kill the drinker. To make the booze palatable, partiers in the 20s would cut it with other ingredients. The most popular cocktail to arise out of this mess was a heavy-on-vermouth Martini.

At that point, the Martini's highest quality ingredient was vermouth. When prohibition ended, gin started getting better, and the Martini began to dry out. World War II helped.

Drying it out

The history of the Martini is colored by war, murder and class warfarePhoto courtesy of Photo via Getty Images/SF_Foodphoto

While it's broadly thought that the Martini is an American invention, the cocktail had, by this time, become popular in Europe. It was a favorite of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But vermouth was usually made in Italy and France, and as World War II progressed, Britain stopped getting shipments from either of these countries. This did not hamper Churchill's Martini drinking, however. At the time, he quipped, "The only way to make a Martini is with ice-cold gin, and a bow in the direction of France."

This preference for a dry Martini (with little to no vermouth) was helped along by prominent cultural figures. Hemingway, always one to incorporate the belittling of someone else's manhood into his drink order, famously preferred a "Montgomery Martini." It was 15 parts gin to one part vermouth, and it was a reference to the British General Bernard Montgomery, who'd been commanded in the Second World War to limit British casualties to preserve the empire, and so wouldn't join a battle unless he outnumbered the enemy 15 to one.

Alfred Hitchcock's famous Martini recipe was "five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth." LBJ preferred to swirl vermouth around in the glass before dumping it out and adding the gin. And Clark Gable merely ran a vermouth cork around the rim of the glass.

The dry Martini was at its cultural peak. What awaited was its downfall.

James Bond and class war ruin everything

The history of the Martini is colored by war, murder and class warfarePhoto courtesy of Photo via Getty Images/Karandaev

The West Wing's fictional President Jed Bartlett describes the first problem with James Bond's famous "Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred," drink order: "Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James is ordering a weak Martini and being snooty about it."

That alone may have been fine – it's a mainstay of the spy toolkit, after all, to water your own drink down and stiffen your companion's – but the second problem with Bond's order almost single-handedly caused the decline of the cocktail: a vodka Martini isn't a Martini. The official name for it is a "kangaroo cocktail," but when James Bond uttered those famous words, an entire generation that wanted to look cool decided that vodka Martinis were the way to go. It also didn't help that at the time, the United States was beginning to drink more and more vodka, and less gin.

The next thing that nearly killed the Martini was class warfare: namely, the "three-Martini lunch." You'll be familiar with this if you've ever watched Mad Men – basically, executives would go out on long lunches and would get absolutely hammered. This could then be deducted from their taxes as part of "entertainment expenses." Because the Martini had become equated with high society (despite its modest bathtub origins), the three-Martini lunch became a natural focal point for people who wanted to draw attention to some of the more unfair elements of the U.S. tax code – there was no such tax deduction for the non-Martini drinking working class.

JFK decried the three-Martini lunch, then George McGovern, then Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford quipped, "The three-Martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?"

But Gerald Ford lost to Carter. And in the 80s and 90s the entertainment deduction decreased, and people got a lot less okay with getting wasted in the middle of the work day. The three-Martini lunch was dead, and the Martini was a throwback, a cocktail relic.

But now, the dry Martini is back on the rise. Drinks International ranked it as the fourth most popular cocktail in the world in 2018, up two spots from last year. It only has to beat the whiskey sour, the Negroni, and the reigning champ, the Old Fashioned. Let's hope its popularity sticks around this time. The Martini has been at the center of too much history for it to slip back into obscurity.


Matt Hershberger

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