Understanding the new twist in martinis Trend: The libation's latest variations might not sit well with purists, but then, the martini has always been more about attitude than vermouth.


James Bond looked carefully at the bar man. "A dry martini," he said, "One. In a deep champagne goblet."

"Oui, monsieur."

"Just a moment. Three measures of gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?"

-- "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming (1954).

That was then. This is now:

James Bond looks carefully at the martini menu in the martini bar. "Hmmm. So many different versions. How's the Oreo cookie martini?"

"It's good," says the bar man. "Vodka, Kahlua, Bailey's, Licor 43, cream and an Oreo cookie garnish. If you're more a traditionalist, I'd recommend the chocolate martini: vodka, dark cacao, Bailey's, German chocolate."

Or so my imagination conjured up as I sat at the bar in the Neon Moon in Canton one recent night, discussing martinis' resurgence with bar manager Tom Jones. Neon Moon's martini list offers 39 martinis -- make that quote martinis unquote -- some of which have some combination of the traditional ingredients of gin and/or vodka, Vermouth, or possibly some other dry aperitif, garnished with olive or onion or twist of lemon peel, but most of which don't.

Lest you think this is cutting-edge pioneering, you should know that the "martini bar" has swept the country. There are several others in Baltimore besides the Neon Moon.

Spot-checking here and there, I find that imaginative concoctions called "martinis" are popular border to border and coast to coast. In just the past few days a friend brought me martini menus from two different establishments he patronized while on a trip to Cincinnati. One, the Plaza 600, offered 11 versions. Most (but not all) were in the ballpark of the real thing (gin or vodka), but with this twist: only two used vermouth. The others substituted Cointreau, creme de menthe, Pernod, cognac and so forth.

Another friend called to tell me about a new hot spot in the old home town, Atlanta -- the Martini Club. Its signature "martini" is made with gin, ginger liquor, blue Curacao and a chunk of crystallized ginger.

Joining the club

Such clubs are now to be found in every major city. Most of them are new to this decade. And they're popular. An assistant manager of the restaurant/martini bar FiftySeven FiftySeven at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan told a reporter alcohol sales have soared 20 percent in the past two years.

That's typical. Nathan Beveridge, manager of the Havana Club at Ruth's Chris Steak House near the Inner Harbor, says his martini business is booming.

The drinks are so popular that he changes his martini menu seasonally, to make sure experimenters can always get something new. The current version offers 25 martinis, many pretty traditional or at least close to it, many others not, for instance one with white chocolate liqueur, white creme de cacao and shaved chocolate.

Chocolate pops up everywhere. The Martian Martini Bar, upstairs over the Fells Point Station tavern, offers a Milky Way martini. Manager Steve Reech also offers several traditional martinis. Those take a lot less time than some of the elaborate takeoffs on his 12-martini menu. But he doesn't mind the extra time spent, since those takeoffs are his best sellers. (Conversely, at the Havana Club, says Beveridge, 75 percent of the martinis ordered are of the more or less classic type.)

What's a purist to think?

It is tempting for veteran, conservative martini drinkers like me to be upset and not a bit moved -- or should I say shaken and not stirred -- by this turn of events, and to be even more contemptuous of the Gen-Xers and baby boomers who have taken over so many of America's bars and bartenders.

I think that's part of the point of these imperfect martinis. Tom Jones at Neon Moon says the martini menu there is in small part spoofery, aimed at us traditionalists, who can be, let's face it, often boring, pompous and silly with our precise and elegant formulations for "the perfect martini."

What the hell. Ian Fleming was probably poking fun at martini-philes when he had James Bond order so singular a martini.

Not only that: The Bond martini was a slap in the face -- or at least a poke in the ribs -- of 1950-ish traditionalists. Gin and vodka! Vodka was just coming on the scene in Britain and America; it would be years before the vodka martini, which now outsells the gin martini, became accepted by that generation of martini drinkers -- if it became accepted at all.

Like so many social phenomena, the martini bar/martini menu, with variety beyond reason, may be becoming most noticeable just as it is coming to a close. I think I've seen a distant early-warning sign.

The first martini menu in Baltimore was (so far as I can tell) in the Pub at the Admiral Fell Inn when Savannah restaurant was located there. It offered 18 different martinis, half of them pretty close to classic recipes, and including "The 007," made exactly according to the "Casino Royale" formula.

Savannah has moved to the Sylvan Learning Center building and changed its name to Charleston. Bar manager Peter Keck has replaced his Pub Martini Menu with a Charleston Cocktail Menu. That is a list of 20 "Specialty Drinks." Only seven of them fall in the martini family. Two are perfect, and two others are nearly so.

I'm a traditionalist but not a barroom Grinch. I think it's fine for people to drink bizarre "martinis," if they like them. Why should the martini experience be reserved for purists?

The bartender at the Purple Martini in Denver offers this wisdom about that: "Nouveau martinis are a way for less seasoned drinkers to have the martini experience without getting the straight alcohol."

Nathan Beveridge of Ruth's Chris Steak House says, "A martini is 99 percent attitude and 1 percent ingredients. Some people like to hold the glass but don't like gin." Tom Jones at Neon Moon and Steve Reech at Martian Martini say many of their customers enjoy flaunting the classic martini glass with some colorful concoction in it. It's fun.

I might even do that myself. Sometime. In a crowded, noisy, happy bar full of unseasoned revelers.

But never, ever in the privacy of my own home.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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