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On martinis, the power suit of cocktails

Drink about it

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I can still remember the first time I attempted to order a drink for myself at a bar.

I was feeling very mature, meeting my new friend and the guy she was seeing for drinks at a chic downtown restaurant. She was stylish and worldly, and not only because she was dating a much older man. He was something of a mover and shaker in Boston’s downtown restaurant scene and English to boot, which only added to the allure and my inflated sense of superiority having been cool enough to be included in this cosmopolitan confab.

There was just one problem – I had no idea what to order. My only exposure to alcohol had been Budweiser, my dad’s preferred brand, enjoyed preferably from the comfort of our TV-room couch. There were also the amber bottles of Courvasier my grandfather would sip as he beat BBQ guests at pool. And then there were the hot pink daiquiris, usually virgin, that my aunts occasionally ordered when we went out to dinner. Needless to say, none of these felt like viable options.

“I’ll have an apple martini,” I said to the waiter, enthusiastically. It was the only cocktail I’d ever tasted, probably a sip as a pre-teen at the Cheesecake Factory, which at the time felt like a sophisticated choice. My friend’s boyfriend looked horrified, like I’d just ordered chicken nuggets at a Michelin-rated steakhouse. Realizing my faux pas, I followed my companion’s lead and, like a rite of passage, traded the apple pucker for olive brine. That night I had my first adult drink — a dirty martini — and I never turned back.

A simple cocktail, the traditional martini is made with gin and vermouth, served with an olive or lemon peel garnish. Yet, in a world gone mad for finicky, hand-crafted cocktails, it maintains an almost mythic place in American culture. We all know how James Bond takes his. And watching Mad Men, martinis are swilled with the same casual abandon and sex appeal with which Don Draper smokes. And who can forget Carrie Bradshaw in the hallowed offices of Vogue, loosening up with the martini fixed by her editor so she’d finish her column? I’ll admit, a martini has never failed to give me the inspiration I needed to make a deadline.

Perhaps the best illustration of our cultural romance with the martini that I can think of, comes in a brief, glimmering scene from the movie Carol. It’s the moment Cate Blanchett, as Carol, sweeps into a dark, secluded restaurant to meet young ingenue, Therese (played by Rooney Mara) for lunch. Carol tosses her coiffed locks back, a weary picture of beauty and wealth, sophistication and culture, and orders her lunch without pause: “I’ll have the creamed spinach over poached eggs, and a dry martini with an olive.”

Later, when Carol asks Therese if she wants to marry her boyfriend, blinded by Carol’s self-possession, Therese admits she “barely knows what to order for lunch.” Here the martini comes to symbolize experience, even power. The martini is the power suit of cocktails. You order one because you mean business. The martini imbues one with a confidence that, Therese, as a young ambitious girl questioning her sexuality, finds hard to swallow.

When ordering a martini, go with a higher-end gin or vodka, something you like and are willing to spend a little more money on to enjoy. After all, one martini goes a long way. I think it was the cartoonist James Thurber who said, “One martini is fine, two is too many, and three is never enough.” So, take it slow. It’s worth every sip.

I prefer mine dirty, with that dash of olive brine, not least of all because it was my first experience and you can make flirtatious remarks like “the dirtier the better,” to handsome bartenders. In fact, the savory juice of olives, or pickles if you prefer, provide a welcome reprieve from the sugary, fruity cocktails that abound. It’s the same reason Bloody Marys can be so delightful.

In my personal opinion, martinis are best enjoyed in cool, dark spots, ideally somewhere with a long, lamp-lit mahogany bar. The kind with the old school red lampshades. In Charleston, Rue de Jean offers the perfect martini atmosphere, and if you get there early enough you can beat the dinner crowd. Martinis do not go well with over-crowded bars where you can’t lift your drink without spilling it down your shirt. You need room to spread out.

Another great spot is 82 Queen. The long arm of the bar, which often boasts several empty stools, makes the perfect roomy, late afternoon perch for finishing up those last few work emails, chatting with the friendly bar staff, or perhaps having a chance meeting with a tall dark stranger.

Martinis at home can also be a treat. You’ll need a mixing tin, a strainer, and a martini glass of course. Also, a bottle of your favorite vodka or gin (I prefer Ketel One), dry vermouth, and lemons or olives.

Fill your shaker with crushed ice, add a healthy pour of vodka or gin, a touch of vermouth (or olive brine), and shake. Presto. Chill your glass in the freezer or by filling with water and ice. Strain the contents of the shaker into your martini glass, and finish with olives or a lemon peel. Drink to your health.

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