I ordered my first martini when I was 17. It was in a bar in Potts Point, and I had taken the overnight bus from Brisbane to see Cats: The Musical with my friend Steven who had organised a hotel for us in Kings Cross.
I was fully expecting to be murdered in my red organza formal dress at any moment in this huge, scary metropolis but on a post-Jellicle Cats high, followed Steven into the bar and ordered what I thought sophisticated people in big cities order. A martini.
The questions followed. What sort of martini? How did I want it? I had no idea but a martini was produced and what seemed like an enormous sum of money was exchanged.
I hated it.
Of course I did.
Island Cooler had been my drink of choice until then.
Close to three decades later and I still think a martini is the height of sophistication. Every time I get one in my hand, there is a little of the excitement of the world of drinking that had beckoned to me from television as a child. The martini is not a drink for girls, it is a drink for women.
Women like Mae West and Rosalind Russell.
Women like Dorothy Parker, who was widely (and I will reluctantly admit, probably wrongly) attributed for saying;
“I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
Women like the one I’ve always wanted to be.
Now I know exactly how to order a martini. A gin martini, very dry, with an olive (but I’m secretly hoping for two). I would be very happy with a bartender who followed the example of young Patrick Dennis in this great clip from 1958’s Aunty Mame. This scene was set in 1928, when the fashion was for a ratio of two parts gin to one part vermouth, so Patrick was way ahead of his time.
I’ll state for the record that I do not believe there is any place for vodka in a martini. Let’s blame James Bond for starting this ridiculous trend in 1962 with Dr No where he ordered a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. We’ll examine the shaking/stirring debate here at some stage and will try the Vesper Martini (gin AND vodka – gasp!), but to my mind, a martini has GIN.
And so why not try the martinis on offer at some of Wellington’s best bars?
If you haven’t caught up on recent marketing campaigns, New Zealand’s Wellington is pushed as the “coolest little Capital”. It promises a lot, and delivers. The question as to why Behind Bars is starting with Wellington is three-fold; it’s got a lot of great bars, they’re close together, and most importantly, my mother lives there and can look after the children during important field testing.
So we tried three of Wellington’s many fine cocktail bars, places known for having serious bartenders who can mix a serious cocktail. Matterhorn (my favourite bar in the Southern Hemisphere and worthy of its own post, if only to cover their selection of 19 fine gins from around the world and matched tonic waters, or their Saffron Gin and Rhubarb Negroni or their bar snack felafels), The Library and Hummingbird. By wonderful cosmic coincidence, when we entered Hummingbird near midnight – our last bar for the night – THIS was the song playing. While a strange and perhaps not terribly good choice for a DJ in 2015, it was the last song that was played at my high school formal. Instead of the romantic slow song we were all hoping for to accompany the final pressing of our formal-clad genital regions together, the bright lights came up and John Denver sang of his delight of piggies in his bed and much teenage ardour was doused (albeit temporarily) by some canny educators. But I had worn my red dress, the same one I wore the first time I ordered a martini, so it was with confidence that I climbed onto one of Hummingbird’s high bar-stools and ordered a martini. A good omen, I thought.
And it was. A bearded bartender whose name I didn’t get, but since he was handsome and Canadian, we’ll call Justin, nodded his understanding and set about making the martini. If pressed, I’d have to reluctantly admit that Hummingbird was my least favourite bar of the night (by a whisker – a John Denver-shaped whisker), but bearded Canadian Justin is a master martini maker. Not only because he presented an offering with THREE olives (and explaining that it needs to be an odd number, something I now intend to embrace), but because he adopted the less-is-very-much-more approach to Vermouth. Justin poured a slug of vermouth into the glass, swirled it around and then tipped it onto the bar-room floor, flicking the glass dramatically to ensure only the merest coating remained. Genius.
A word here about Vermouth.
Firstly, it’s a fortified wine and you should keep it in the fridge. It’s an aperitif, which means it is designed to be consumed before meals to stimulate the appetite. You can read everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Vermouth here, but the important thing to know is that it comes from Italy (for brands like Cinzano) or France (for my personal choice, Noilly Prat, which I have no idea how to pronounce).
The other thing about vermouth is that Rita Hanson from Groundhog Day used to drink it. She’d order “sweet vermouth on the rocks, with a twist.” If, like me, you love this 1993 movie but could never understand how Phil Connors could fall for Andie MacDowell’s supercilious sap Rita, this drink order (here) just nails her as an INAPPROPRIATE LIFE PARTNER for Phil.
I hope they broke up immediately after leaving Punxsutawney. I don’t like to be judgmental (ok, yes I do), but no one needs to drink vermouth like that.
And no one needs much for martini perfection. Just take a glass full of ice cold gin and follow Churchill’s lead, bowing in the direction of France (or Italy if you prefer).
This is where the pursuit of the perfect martini gets dangerous. See a martini that’s “perfect” actually implies a specific recipe. And when offered a perfect martini at Wellington’s very groovy, lounge-chairs-like-your-Nanna’s-and-wall-to-wall-books bar, The Library, I jumped at it, only to realise that I didn’t know what that means. A “perfect” martini has equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. Rita Hanson wouldn’t drink it, it isn’t that sweet, but I’ll know better than to order a perfect martini again.
But that wasn’t The Library’s fault, that was ignorance – hopefully a life mistake you can learn from me rather than needing to make it yourself.
Don’t say I never do anything for you.
PS Two weeks to Christmas and I’ll be trying to find a Christmas-themed cocktail to One-for-the-Road-Test that wouldn’t be sweet enough for Rita Hanson but does fit the festive bill.