Barbarians at the Hotel Bar
A martini, high and inside, at least eight ounces by my wife's account, a strike that I never saw coming, ended the first evening of our vacation. I was out, not on the second or third drink, but on the very first drink. It walloped me just below my temples while I was still settling into my seat and readying my fork for my salmon dinner. I never made it to the julienned carrots and cucumbers or the garlic mashed potatoes, let alone the herb encrusted salmon. My wife, as she helped me to my feet, saw none of the poetry of this wonderful cocktail: the curvature of the glass, the ballonne' by the bartender as he mixed the gin and ice and touch of vermouth in the stainless steel shaker, the ellipse of the sip, but then again she had to drag me back to our room. An empty stomach and even the best gin and vermouth do not mix. I was out by the time she counted to three.
Until morning, when I woke refreshed and rather chipper, and considered at length the martini, a drink as classic as a Corinthian column, and why it has survived when other equally venerable drinks have died so ignominiously over the past decades. I submit that once ubiquitous drink, the Rickey (served with ice cubes or in simple fizz in a highball glass, the juice of half a lime to give it color and tang, lime skin to add an exotic touch, one jigger of whisky, topped with seltzer and stirred with a glass rod). Nothing better than a Rickey when poolside or if, as chance might have it, catching a breath while being chased by ravenous tigers in an intemperate subcontinent. Or, another highball that has fallen out of fashion: the Tom Collins (the juice of a lemon in a tall glass coupled with a generous teaspoon of sugar and a liberal jigger of gin, cracked ice and soda). Quite simple. Quite dead.
Yet the martini survives.
What drink is simpler than the Americano? It is a fine apéritif, worthy of Hemingway, and mixed with three ounces of Italian vermouth (which is sweeter and fortified with brandy as opposed to French vermouth), a dash of bitters, a slice of lemon peel and seltzer. Ask not for whom the ice clinks. It clinks for thee.
And no one drinks punch at parties anymore.
O where is the punch of my youth?
O you daughters of the west! O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you forget the Benedictine, the Curacao, the brandy, sherry, sugar, champagne and port, in our ranks you pour united, Punch! O punch!
But, you young and elder daughters, have left the punch bowl at home.
I understand the evaporation of certain drinks. Hot Buttered Rum for example. The recipe is such that the recipient might rub it on his or her chest instead of imbibing it. Two lumps of sugar are dissolved in a small amount of hot water, combined with a glass of rum, a lump of butter and topped with more hot water and a dash of nutmeg. The aficionados of this drink reside, if they are still alive, in the cardiac ward.
Some drinks are hard to mix, dangerous, unappealing in the extreme, obscure or politically incorrect. I give you the Pousse-Cafe (which requires an understanding of applied physics, the patience of Job and a steady hand in order to layer the components on top of the each other); the Lizard Skin (excavate half an orange, add brandy, light it on fire and run); the Black Velvet (part champagne, part stout with upset stomach to follow); the Royal Plush (clearly a cousin to the Black Velvet and consisting of equal parts of champagne and brandy); and the Jefferson Davis (which is not only named after the head of the confederacy but also garnished with unpeeled cucumber slices and must rest for 24 hours before serving and, frankly, political incorrectness aside, what thirsty soul wants to munch on cucumbers before knocking back Dixie).
Let us now mourn the Silver Fizz, the Ramos, This Ward Eight, the Clover Club, the Algonquin, the Ewing, the Fanciulli, the Brainstorm, the Floridita Special, the Gloom Lifter, the Chancey, the Harrity, the Cliquet, the Hearns, the Japalac, the Doolittle Special, McKinley's Delight, the Dessalines, the Byrrh, Cameron's Kick, the Bairn, Bill Orr, Gentle John, the Borden Chase, the Bunny Hug, the Floradora, the Golden Dawn, the Penedennis, the Prairie Chicken, the Third Degree, the Tipperary, the Trilby, the Tuxedo, the Yale, the Princeton, the Brown Derby, the Cool O' The Evening, the Peg O' My Heart, Harpo's Special, the Honey Bee, Prince George, the Roosevelt, the Marconi Wireless, the Merry Widow, the Caledonia, the Amaranth and the Zaza.
All of these drinks were of their time and place. Each of them was special — at least for an evening — and had meaning, however profound or frivolous, to their beneficiaries.
So many drinks, so many occasions, so little time ....
Ours is the culture of the quick fix, slip-on shoes and instant messaging. Bartenders do not mix drinks anymore. Not really. They pour them. And there is a difference.
Who shall frappé?
Who shall dance with Creme Yvette?
We will not even, if we continue on this path, be left with a Widow's Kiss (¼ Parfait d' Amour, ¼ yellow chartreuse, ¼ Benedictine and topped with the white of an egg). Try buying Parfait d' Amour at your local grocer. Just try.
Gone, baby, gone.
Just like your local grocer.
Whom, if still alive, won't be able to drown sorrows with a simple Rum Sour (¾ of an ounce of lemon juice, ¼ of a teaspoon of sugar and completed by filling the remainder of the glass with light rum and a cap of the highest proof rum that can be purchased). Let alone go out in style with a Suicide Cocktail (one drop of Haitian rum, one drop of Crème de Cacao, one drop of vodka and one life saver dropped from an impressive height followed by a dive after it).
The Sidecar (Cointreau, brandy and lemon), a delicious drink which had been making a comeback, is barely, now, inching along. It remains on some menus much like the lipstick from a kiss by Aunt Agnes that won't wash all the way away.
I ordered a Gibson the other day at a local bar. The Gibson, for the uninitiated, is a martini with cocktail onions instead of a lemon peel or olives. The bartender had to look up the recipe in a book. Whereupon she told me that she did not have cocktail onions but Spanish onions. I told her that if she had to look up how to make it I did not want it. That, moreover, Spanish onions belonged in a beef stew and not in a cocktail. I ordered a glass of wine. She insisted that she could make a Gibson and returned with a concoction made with French vermouth — enough of it to attract fruit flies — and, yes, slices of Spanish onions. I demurred and ordered a martini. She asked me if I wanted olives, and while I considered her question she offered to add onions and produced a dusty jar of cocktail onions! "Sure," I told her. "Throw in the small onions." When she handed me my drink I told her that she had just served me a Gibson. She blinked, uncomprehending. I, running late, had no desire to elucidate her as she flipped through her book of cocktail recipes. She did, in fairness, pull on the various beer handles with panache.
I could try to apply rational economic theory to why the martini has survived when so many of its brothers and sisters have fallen by the wayside. I might endeavor to use computer analysis and statistics, fabricate graphs of profit and loss and the cost of labor and show expenditures that have little to nothing to do with the production of pleasure. Why though? I know the truth of it. The bleary-eyed barbarians, apostates for all seasons, have arrived. They play beer pong and flippy cup, scattering beer cups as they ravage the countryside.
I had another drink the night after I was beaned by the martini. I stood proudly at the bar stool surrounded by Fuzzy Martinis, Tini Ritas, Saketinis and the like, all destined to die ignoble deaths in their time just like the cocktails that preceded them. (Does anyone still drink a Cosmo?) Still, the martini abides.
I smelled tropical peaches and stale beer. Body wash. The hotel bar was beautiful. Old. Mahogany. The bottles were stacked in a pyramid and illuminated from above as if on an altar, and just off center stood several bottles of gin, properly reflected in the mirror. The barbarians did not notice. The martini survives. It survives because it is right and good and if it ever leaves who among us will be left to mourn its passing?
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