Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Martini: What It Is, and Why How You Treat It Matters

"Are You Sure You Want to Write About Martinis in a Wine Blog?" -- a friend

"Yep. Nuance is a concept we can all learn from, and if it takes a Martini to do it, 
then so be it.   Besides, I like them."  -- Me

The Classic Martini. It's Made with Gin. (Hopefully Good Gin)

While I am a proud wine lover and student of all things wine, I do enjoy other beverages from time to time, and among them, my favorite to have as a before dinner drink or evening cocktail has to be the classic Martini (**see disclaimer below). There's something pure and simple about it. If you chill gin on ice for a short while (which adds some water as the ice melts), and add a couple of drops of dry vermouth, there isn't much to hide behind. The quality of the ingredients and how they are treated becomes very important. 

During the recent couple of decades the word "martini" has become associated with almost anything served in a martini glass, and sometimes not even that. They're usually made using vodka, combined with a plethora of flavoring agents (even the occasional "secret agent" ..yup see 007), many of them sweet. The pattern started when vodka--an essentially flavorless spirit--was discovered to be the perfect all-purpose alcohol to create cocktails with. It blends exceptionally well with almost anything. 

They Sure Are Pretty Though
Mixologists have had a field day, and the public is more than willing to go along with this exploration. 

We should not be tricked into thinking that these drinks are actually Martinis though. There are simply too many liberties taken for that word to be appropriate. OK call me a purist.  

I suppose room must be made for the evolution of our oh-so-flexible language, but let's at least recognize this fact:

Vodka, being nearly flavorless, does not contribute much 
other than alcohol to a cocktail. Even vodka lovers point to smoothness as the differentiating characteristic. 

Gin brings it's own very noticeable character to the table, one which becomes a major part of the drink's flavor.

I've met many people who do not like gin, however. It can be an acquired taste for many, but remember that each gin is a unique creation, with often many "botanicals" (flavor elements usually from seeds, herbs, flowers, citrus peel, cucumber, etc added both prior and/or after the distillation process). Juniper is the one defining botanical in gin... can not be called gin without it. Other than that, it's a canvas that's filled creatively by the distiller using flavorings from nature. So exploring gins to find some that best suit you can be a lot of fun. 

Higher end gins can be exceptionally nuanced and detailed in their flavors. So much so, that that tiny bit of dry vermouth that's in the recipe can ruin that nuance, or pull the flavors into a less than attractive direction. So can too much olive juice, or too much water from spending too much time on ice.  

And SO CAN SHAKING IT.  A generation that was introduced to the Martini as the drink of James Bond has been left with the idea that martinis are to be shaken. James Bond drank a rare version of the martini that used both gin and vodka, and shaking them in ice neutralizes much of the flavor. If you want to enjoy a classic gin martini, you should give it a gentle stir instead. This protects the original flavors of the gin's botanicals. Making the perfect martini can be an artform.

Sometimes You Just Need a Death Match in Your Mouth I Guess

**Disclaimer & Footnote: As a wine student and educator, I do have to point out that having something as potent as a martini before dinner can have two effects:  It can slightly anaesthetize your palate with the intensity of the alcohol content, and it can dull the senses overall, leading to you not tasting your meal as much, and requiring bolder flavors just for them to "get through". 

A famous winemaker and vineyard owner from Italy and I discussed this phenomenon last year, and its uniqueness to America (Russia notwithstanding). Francesco's theory was that Americans' palates have come to demand bolder flavors from both food and wine because they've often had a cocktail or two before dinner, whereas Europeans rarely do that. They'll have a milder dry or bitter wine instead, leaving them more receptive to flavors, and clearer headed. 

A cogent argument, though I am still digesting that one. 

'Till Next Time,

Your Favorite Student of Wine and Occasional Drinker of Gin,

Marc Soucy  FWS  CSW  WSET


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