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Nouveau Martinis: Cocktailing is Fun!

by Steven Van Yoder

In case you haven't noticed, cocktail hour is once again a popular social affair. Across the country young adults are pursuing the perfect mixed drink with zeal and cocktail culture is again on the rise. "Martini Bars" are springing up everywhere, complete with cigars, lounge music and smoking jackets. A wave of collective nostalgia is upon us and many bartenders are claiming that this trend is more than a retro-nod to once popular Martini culture.

In particular, there is a major buzz going on around the Martini. Bartenders across the country are hailing a Martini renaissance, declaring the Martini America's favorite cocktail. But this time around, the Martini is experiencing a shakeup of sorts. The traditional powerhouse mixture of approximately four parts gin or vodka to one part vermouth, shaken or stirred over ice, is no longer sanctified. Gin is the minor player this time, vodka and other cordials are in. In fact the only connection today's popular nouveau Martinis have to the original Martini "recipe" is the Martini glass itself.

Culturally speaking, the Martini has always been more than a drink. The Martini is an idea, a statement, and to the very devoted, a lifestyle. Put a Martini into the hands of a secret agent or movie star and you witness the iconic trappings of an aristocrat. Once upon a time if you were drinking Martinis, you had either arrived or were well on your way to where you were going.

According to Barnaby Conrad III, author of The Martini, the origin of the drink is up for grabs...and the name may not always have been "Martini." The Martini is said to have originated in San Francisco just after the gold rush. But the most interesting account, vehemently put forth by citizens of Martinez, California, holds that around 1870 a miner from San Francisco stopped at a local saloon tended by French-born Julio Richelieu. The miner plunked a small sack of gold nuggets before the bartender, asked for a bottle of liquor, and as a bonus received an unusual drink in a small glass with an olive dropped into it. "What is it?" asked the miner. "That," replied Richelieu, "is a Martinez cocktail."

The Martini waned in popularity in the late 1970's. Out went three Martini lunches and other indulgences, in came a more temperant approach to life, work, and drinking. Martinis fell into the same category as red meat, fur coats and cigars; a decadent reflection of an older time. But as history often repeats itself, Martinis (and many accouterments once glamorous and gone by) are becoming hot -- again.

What's going on here? That is the question I asked of several bartenders from Martini bars across the nation who had there own take (and several recipes) to donate toward the elucidation of the current nouveau Martini craze. At the risk of enraging purists, I will refer to these inventive cocktails as Martinis. Though many of these drinks contain no gin, vermouth or vodka, I will assume a stance of when in Rome....

The Velvet Lounge, Detroit, Michigan
According to Rob Potter, the Martini is a statement of class and dignified position...a return to a 1940s style of sheik socializing. "When people come here they really dress up and play the part," says Potter, "People believe Martinis are classy and elegant, so they want to look and behave that way themselves." Potter serves over twenty different Martinis on his menu. A favorite is the Orange Truffle, a mixture of orange flavored vodka and white chocolate liquor.

The Purple Martini, Denver, Colorado
Bartender David Borun, 25, divides Martini drinkers into three categories: beginner, novice and advanced. Beginners order Martinis that are part vodka, part juice. Novices tend to order mixtures of liquor and cordials. The advanced Martini drinker opts for the powerful wallop of a straight vodka or gin Martini. "Depending on the mixture," says Borun, "nouveau Martinis are a way for less seasoned drinkers to have the Martini experience without getting hit with straight alcohol." David serves over eighty Martinis but showcases the Purple Martini; a mixture of gin or vodka and "purple magic"...a top secret mix of cordials.

The Martini Club, Atlanta, Georgia
Bartender Todd Roseberry believes the current Martini renaissance signifies a return to quality over quantity--a move away from the excesses of the 1980s. His younger customers are the prime drinkers of designer Martinis and prefer vodka based drinks, but he notes that the renewed interest in the Martini is causing some customers to give gin a try. As testament, one his wildest creations is the China Blue Martini--a combination of gin, ginger liquor, Blue Curacao, and finished with a large hunk of crystallized ginger.

Coconut Grove, San Francisco, California
Bar manager Roberta Carroll, 26, says the Martini has made a "strong comeback" in the past year. She believes the Martini name evokes a touch of sophistication which appeals to younger adults sick of "sports bar" style drinking attitudes. "You won't find a guy in a baseball cap ordering a Martini," says Carroll, "Young adults are revisiting an older time when things were classier. They are taking an old idea and experiencing it in a style all their own." Her signature Martini: The Carnival--vodka, fresh lime and orange juice.

The Mashed Potato Club, Chicago, Illinois
Owner Greg Kovach believes the Martini ushers a return to blatant sensuality. "The glass, the very style of drinking a Martini is very sensual." He says, "When the Martini was popular in the 1950's, everything was indulgence. People are sick of clean living and want to go crazy." Kovach serves twenty five Martinis and his menu has gotten crazier over the past year. His wildest drink is a Chocolate Martini, made of white and dark chocolate liquors with a Hershey's chocolate kiss on the bottom.

Cedar Street, Austin, Texas
This popular hangout, touted as a "straight-ahead gin joint with jazz and good cigars," features fifteen Martinis on its menu, twelve of which are nouveau. Bartender Alex Pearson believes that the Martini represents cosmopolitan drinks and high culture. "The Martini is a fun cocktail that is the perfect drink for the perfect moment. I don't think this is a passing trend...people are getting turned on to something special that has always been around. They know there is more to life than a six pack from the Seven Eleven." Some of his popular drinks include the Satzchmo, made with cranberry vodka, cranberry juice and a twist of lemon; the Dirty Diz (ala Dizzy Gallespi) which contains Bootles gin, olive juice and a pickled okra spear; and the Cedar Street, which is a mixture of top shelf Tequila, Cointreau, and lemon served in a Martini glass rinsed with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ken Stuart's Grill, Akron, Ohio
A lively midwestern restaurant and bar and winner of the weirdest cocktail award--The Octopus Martini: A traditional gin or vodka Martini served with a smoked baby octopus, either speared or served dangling along the rim of the Martini glass. Says bartender Chris Ireland, "Our customers like getting back to the old-fashioned ritual of cocktailing. The traditional Martini is not all that popular, we even delete the vermouth unless it is requested."

Harry's Velvet Room, Chicago, Illinois
Bartender Jodi Hartwhe believes the current Martini trend is not about Martinis, but about a deeper need to socialize with class. "People are going crazy for Martinis in the Chicago area. I don't think the trend will pass anytime soon." Jodi enjoys mixing the Berry Martini, a mixture of Black Currant Vodka, Chambord and a handful of blueberries. She also mentions the popularity of her Martini garnishes--olives stuffed with blue cheese and red caviar.

The nouveau Martini trend has not gone unnoticed by major manufactures of distilled spirits. Some might say it is the introduction of infused spirits and the aggressive marketing efforts by these companies that are fueling the public fire for creative cocktails. Tanqueray, producers of gin, have recently released Sterling Spikes, a line of flavored mixers for, you guessed it, designer cocktails. Among the flavors are pecan, tangerine and strawberry. Stoli has also jumped on the bandwagon with a line of flavored vodkas, among them are orange, vanilla, lemon and chili pepper.

Whatever the reason for the Martini's resurgence there are definitely plenty recipes to choose from. Create you own. Suggest one to your local mixologist. Or, stop by one of the newly emerging Martini bars that has probably opened in a neighborhood near you. Wherever you go and whatever you choose, go nuts! The once defiant Martini is open to just about anything these days. Cheers!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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