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Back Page: Mixed Messages

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Concern for the fate of the martini in the hands of the unsophisticated masses is understandable, but bear in mind that the gin-and-vermouth classic has proven nothing if not resilient. A decade ago, a generation new to the cocktail circuit discovered the martini and could not leave well enough alone. At the behest of these young revelers, bartenders tinkered with and ultimately bastardized the original recipe. “Martinis have become so popular, people will order some weird concoction and ask me to pour it in a martini glass, just so they can say they’re drinking a martini,” Tom Bitler, a bartender at the Bull & Bear in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, told Robb Report in “The Martini Mystique,” our December 1993 feature on the resurgence of the martini.

Alas, the phony martini fad never passed. Bartenders continue to pour all sorts of inventions containing neither vermouth nor gin into the iconic conical glasses and call them martinis. Those who raise their glasses to The Thin Man view this practice as representing nothing less than the decline of civilization. Those who consider Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw (the Thin Woman) as a symbol of urban sophistication simply order another round of cosmopolitans.

Research conducted by the Adams Beverage Group, an organization that analyzes the alcoholic beverage industry, confirms that the martini has been enjoying another surge in popularity. On the Adams Beverage Group’s list of America’s top 10 cocktails, the martini placed seventh in 1999, jumped to third in 2000, and has ranked second only to the margarita since 2001. However, the numbers from the Distilled Spirits Council, another industry group, indicate that the real martini might be losing ground to the impostors. The council’s statistics show that gin consumption has declined over the last decade, while vodka sales have risen. Worse still, flavored vodkas, which serve as even more potent catalysts for bartender innovations, accounted for 11.3 percent of all vodka sales in 2003. “Bartenders like to use [flavored vodkas] as a base, and the public likes them because of their sweetness,” notes Steve Burney, manager of Oliver’s Lounge, a Seattle bar known for its superb martinis, traditional and otherwise.


H.L. Mencken once called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.” It is difficult to imagine him saying the same thing about the appletini. But beverage professionals such as Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail, do not view the fruitier drinks as liquid blasphemies. In fact, he flatly states, “I can make an apple martini that will knock your socks off,” and then graciously shares his personal recipe: an ounce and a half of Absolut Citron vodka, half an ounce of Cointreau, half an ounce of Berentzen apple liqueur, half an ounce of fresh lemon juice, a dash of sour apple schnapps, and a slice of Granny Smith apple for garnish.

DeGroff, who also teaches mixology, believes there are no bad drinks, only badly made drinks. “As long as it tastes good, as long as you have the talent to make it taste good, I’m on your side,” he says. “A lot of my more conservative mates would be shocked by that revelation, but I know what a great martini is. I’m a gin martini drinker. I’m not confused. The gin martini is not going to go anywhere, no matter how popular the others become.”

Still, he and Burney agree that we may be in the midst of a cataclysm that threatens to transform the meaning of martini. “The word has been used loosely for quite a few years now,” says Burney. “People think of the term martini as a general term for a cocktail.” The linguistic shift would not be without precedent, according to DeGroff, who claims that the word cocktail no longer carries the same definition as when it was first recorded in 1806. “Bitters defined a cocktail,” says DeGroff. “Without bitters, it wasn’t a cocktail.” Gradually, the term came to describe all mixed drinks. “In the new millennium, the same thing is occurring with the word martini,” he says. “It’s becoming more related to the glass rather than the contents of the glass.”

DeGroff, for one, is not alarmed by this turn of events. “All new martinis have an adjective in front of the word martini,” he assures. “I think it keeps the purists happy and the philistines at bay.” 

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