Friday, April 13, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Martinez

During a conversation with a friend about cocktails – I have these conversations a lot – I relayed a theory put forth by Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson. Namely, that “many Americans end up drinking what they enjoyed in high school or college” because of “the visceral experience of memory,” the familiar flavor conjuring up the good old days. I’ve found that the opposite is also true; people will avoid a beverage with negative connotations from their past, be it poor quality or, ahem, youthful excess.

“That’s why I can’t drink gin,” my friend said. “I never got over thinking it tasted like Scotch tape.” I love gin, and even I have to admit I see what my friend’s talking about.

For decades, gin didn’t taste like Scotch tape at all. What’s consumed now under the name would have been unrecognizable to pre-Prohibition tipplers. Gin then came in two styles: the lightly sweetened Old Tom and the richer Dutch genever. In cocktail historian David Wondrich’s essential 2007 book Imbibe!, he lamented the latter’s absence from the American marketplace and the fact that Old Tom’s taste could only be approximated by adding gum syrup to Tanqueray.

A mere five years later, genever is again available Stateside and several enterprising distillers have painstakingly recreated Old Tom gin. Ransom Spirits in Oregon even had Wondrich serve as a consultant. Rosemarie and I had a chance to sample it a while back and finally splurged on a bottle.

It took a while to crack the wax seal; ultimately I put the bottle in an apple crate with a rabid wolverine and stood guard. But the reward was worth the effort. Ransom Old Tom gin is slightly aged and made with malted barley as its base, giving it a dense taste and viscosity more akin to whiskey than contemporary London dry gins. Several bartenders suggested using it in traditional bourbon cocktails, with no less an authority than Murray Stenson telling me it makes a killer Old Fashioned. But the liquor also retains the becoming splash of botanicals that gin drinkers expect. It’s still a guess as to whether gin really tasted like this in 1885; in those days gin would have tasted completely different in saloons one block apart. But this replication is deeply satisfying.

My first experiment with the Old Tom was the Martinez. This predecessor of the Martini has a convoluted history and a host of more current variations that I’ve never tried. I held out for the original, cited in both O. H. Byron’s 1884 Modern Bartenders Guide and “Professor” Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders’ Guide (1887): Old Tom gin, Italian vermouth, maraschino and bitters. (OK, it’s not the original original. That recipe calls for Boker’s Bitters, which like Old Tom vanished from the earth to be reconstituted a century or so later, but only in the U.K. And I didn’t go with equal parts gin and vermouth – or even with the alternate suggestion of a 2:1 ratio of vermouth to gin, because I had Old Tom. If I can taste history, I want it front and center.)

The resulting cocktail doesn’t just have a big, bold flavor. It has the kind of flavor that pulls a leather wing chair closer to the fire and settles in for a long evening. And it packs a punch like a lead weight in a feather pillow. The use of sweet vermouth and bitters makes it a kissing cousin to the Manhattan; in truth, despite its history it would appeal more to partisans of that drink than the Martini. I prefer to think of it as a bridge between those twin titans of the cocktail world. It may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly for me.

The Martinez (variation)

2 oz. Ransom Old Tom gin
1 oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
2 dashes Fee Brothers old fashion aromatic bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.