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Mix and match

There is no single recipe for any cocktail. Most have evolved over the decades depending on public tastes and the availability of liquor. But the martini is an exception.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2009 20:59 IST
Vir Sanghvi

My favourite cocktail joke comes from Brunch. It appeared in High Spirits, a column that Bhaichand Patel used to write for this magazine. The joke goes something like this: What do you do if you are shipwrecked on a desert island but have been fortunate enough to be washed onshore with part of the ship’s bar?

The answer is easy. You try and make a dry martini for yourself. No sooner have you finished making the cocktail than you will be rescued because somebody will turn up to tell you that you are making it all wrong and only he has the real recipe. The joke tells us something about the absolute certainty with which pedants approach the subject of cocktail making. To listen to some self-styled expert’s talk there is only one way of making any cocktail and all other methods that deviate even slightly from this recipe are wrong.

In fact, there is no single recipe for any cocktail. If there was, then there would be no point in naming good or bad bartenders. All bartenders would make exactly the same cocktails to exactly the same recipes. The truth is that most cocktails have evolved over the decades depending on public tastes and the availability of liquor. The martini is a good exception. When the drink first became popular it consisted of gin and a fair amount of vermouth.

Over the years however, generations of Americans began to regard the vermouth component as effeminate and not worthy of the spirit of American manhood. Various recipes that made jokes out of the quantity of vermouth required began to do the rounds. In one version, you rinsed the martini glass in vermouth, poured it out and then filled the glass with gin. In another, you gently sprayed a little vermouth from an atomiser before pouring in the gin. And in a third, you merely ceremonially opened a bottle of vermouth somewhere near the glass without actually pouring any in.

I have no problem with the real-men-don’t-drink-vermouth agenda of these recipes. But I do have a problem with those who regard this as a martini. A glass of neat gin is a perfectly acceptable drink – more so if you happen to be a dipsomaniac – so why bother to call it a cocktail which it clearly is not?

Martini recipes also vary according to fashion. It was Ian Fleming who made James Bond drink a martini shaken, not stirred. Since then, a generation of bozos has lurched to bars all over the world demanding that their martinis are shaken in the manner of Bond. But the shaken versus stirred debate misses Fleming’s real contribution to the martini.

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me (though there are many theories), Fleming chose to make his Russian-hating spy a drinker of Russian-made vodka. So Bond’s martinis were not made with gin but with vodka instead (and sometimes with both). This was a perfect gift to American manufacturers of vodka who had been pushing bartenders to make Bloody Marys in an effort to popularise vodka. Now, they just asked them to make vodkatinis instead.

But as the vodka martini caught on, the term vodkatini fell from fashionable use. These days you are likely to be offered a dry martini made with vodka unless you specify that you prefer gin. Vodka has become a more fashionable drink while gin is seen as being fuddy duddy. So what is a genuine martini recipe? One that uses gin? One that uses vodka? One that involves shaking the cocktail?

In the light of all this confusion, the macho nonsense about dispensing with the vermouth seems both minor and silly. To write sensibly about cocktails you need to appreciate that there are few golden rules and no standardised recipes. If you want purism then stick to spirits. The whole point of a cocktail is that you experiment with various combinations. Good bartenders come up with better combinations than others and that’s what makes them famous. And the reason we make cocktails at all is because we like the idea of injecting each drink with our own little twist.

The reason I’ve always liked Bhaichand Patel’s recipes is because Bhaichand understands cocktail lore but does not take it too seriously. He knows, for instance, that the first martini Bond ever ordered in Casino Royale had both gin and vodka. As he writes: “Hardcore martini aficionados like Bond can be a pain in the neck.”

But it is worth noting that in Casino Royale (the first Bond book that Fleming wrote) Bond asks for Lillet, a liqueur, to be added to his martini. (This sequence reappears in the Daniel Craig movie where Bond christens the drink the Vesper martini after the film’s heroine.) Bond’s patronage led to a boost in Lillet sales (as did the film more recently) but it must surely dent his reputation as the sort of fellow who likes his martinis full of spirits and no vermouth or liqueurs.

Bhaichand is now the author of the Penguin Book of Cocktails which is titled Happy Hours. Knowing Bhaichand, I am guessing that he would have preferred to have written a book that better reflected his columns: lots of stories and then a few cocktail recipes at the end. But I imagine that some bright spark at Penguin decided what they really wanted was a collection of cocktail recipes strung together with an introduction by Bhaichand on the grounds that there will always be a market for recipes.

Even so, it’s a great book though the best part – as you may have guessed – consists of the essays that Bhaichand contributes on each subject. He notes that Winston Churchill liked to make his martini by pouring gin into a jug and then, to make it dry, glancing briefly at an unopened bottle of vermouth across the room. Bhaichand’s own martini recipe steers clear of all controversies by saying that the dry vermouth must be “added to taste” though he recommends a ratio of 5:1 in favour of gin.

If I have a criticism of the recipes, it is that they are a little too old fashioned. The days when we focused on the difference between a martini and a Gibson (cocktail onion rather than olive) are long past. Nowadays, martini is used as a generic term for any vodka-based short drink served in a martini glass. The availability of flavoured vodka and the tendency to muddle leaves or mash fruits into the drink has opened up a world of possibilities and rare is the modern cocktail bar where the conventional martini is the most popular drink on the menu. But I love the jokes which always enliven Bhaichand’s writing. Here’s one: “The bartender at the Taj Mahal hotel presented a customer with his bill and the man was outraged. ‘Mumbai is the most expensive city in the country,’ he complained. ‘Back in Bangalore you can drink as much as you want in a bar without paying, sleep in a fancy hotel for free and wake up to find a thousand rupees on the bedside table.’

‘That can’t be true,’ the bartender said. ‘Has it really happened to you?’ ‘No,’ the man admitted, ‘but my wife tells me that it happens to her all the time.’” And then there’s this one: “A man is asked the secret of his long-lasting marriage. ‘It’s easy,’ he says. ‘My wife and I take time off to go to a restaurant two times a week. There’s a candlelight dinner, some good wine, soft music and dancing… She goes Tuesdays. I go Fridays.’”

I would have been happier if the book had been more Bhaichand and less Penguin. But even so, I have no hesitation in recommending it heartily.