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An illustration of a martini

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It’s Martini Time

At New York City bar Bemelmans, drinking the classic cocktail feels both of the moment and eternal

Martinis tell time. They’re not to be rushed or wasted; you’re supposed to savor them, in sips that set their own clock. Martinis, like moments, have ephemeral power. “The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived,” Bernard DeVoto, the essayist and martini apostle, wrote. “The fragile tie of ecstasy is broken in a few minutes, and thereafter there can be no remarriage.” That and many other odes have accumulated over the decades, echoing through bars like Bemelmans, which opened in 1947 in the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“A martini is classic,” Dimitrios Michalopoulos, the bar manager, told me. “It gives you the impression you live in the old days and you live in a different world.” A majority of visitors come just for the martinis, which are made to taste; on a typical night, between 60 and 100 are served. There are waiters in white tuxedo jackets and black bow ties, a guy named Earl Rose at a baby grand playing a jazzed-up version of “Gymopédie No. 1.” The murals on the walls — painted by Ludwig Bemelmans, an old days’ Carlyle tenant, for whom the place is named; also, the author of the Madeline children’s books — depict scenes of Central Park and musicians who once performed at the bar. Paul McCartney has been a regular for years; his drink is not a martini but a margarita with some orange juice and a pineapple wedge. The bartenders accommodate him.

Drinkers are particular about what they want; with martinis, the concern has always been how. They arose at the end of the 19th century, first appearing in bartending manuals in 1888. The ingredients were gin and vermouth, sometimes bitters or curaçao. In a new book, The Martini Cocktail, Robert Simonson, who writes about drinks for the New York Times, explains that early versions were sweet. “Sweet vermouth?” Michalopoulos said, disbelieving. “Oh, we wouldn’t ask if people want that, because that would be something different.”

Martinis became popular almost immediately, mythologized by literature and film, contemporaneously and nostalgically, with poetic observation and absurd exaggeration. They’ve had high and low points. Ernest Hemingway, famously, in A Farewell to Arms: “They made me feel civilized.” Nikita Khrushchev, cheekily, during the Cold War: They’re “America’s most lethal weapon.” They’ve become dryer and dryer: During the Prohibition, according to the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes, the spirit-to-vermouth ratio went from four-to-one to eight-to-one; in 1952, the Times reported “mass madness, a cult, a frenzy” driving the dry-martini market. Martinis came under attack by Jimmy Carter and were defended by Gerald Ford, who argued, “The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency.”

For a while, martinis looked endangered; people tried them on the rocks. In the early ’90s, in Athens, Ohio, a man named Robert Donohoe grew concerned about the situation, and so started the American Standard Dry Martini Club, which produced a newsletter called “The Martini Hotline.” Donohoe was a stiff-necked advocate of the American Standard Dry Martini (straight up gin, though he’ll let you stir clockwise, counterclockwise, or in a figure eight) and once told the Times, “a vodka Martini is not a Martini at all.” He would be cited as a martini titan by Lowell Edmunds, a Rutgers professor who wrote the preeminent history of martinis, published as Martini, Straight Up when the ’90s brought a cocktail revival — just in time for the last of the three-martini lunches, more than a few of them at Bemelmans.

When you sit down for a martini at Bemelmans, after the applause dies down for Mr. Rose, a waiter asks what kind you want. “Gin,” you say. “What kind of gin?” comes the reply. “Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s, Monkey 47…?” The waiter runs down a menu of 13 options (there are also nine vodkas). You ignore the fact that Bemelmans imposes a $4 “as a martini” surcharge; an order with Hendrick’s costs $25. Then the waiter asks how you like it. “Most of our crowd, they prefer their martinis dry, which means no vermouth,” Michalopoulos told me. None at all? “Nothing,” he confirmed. “In Europe it’s mostly gin and they always use vermouth. Here, it’s different preferences.”

The tendency toward fastidious martini orders is maybe a function of how little there is to a martini, and how much weighs on what’s there. I tend to focus on the vermouth. Simonson explains that the color of an early martini resembled that of a Manhattan, its Irish twin, because whiskey then was lighter and vermouth was amber. Ogden Nash’s “mellow, yellow martini” would have been faithfully descriptive, and not too dangerous. Defenders of dry ones may ask for just a “whisper,” which has been taken to extremes: in the ’50s, a “vermouth atomizer” was invented, to add a “mist” to your drink; in the ’60s came a “vermouth dropper,” which resembled a piece of medical equipment. Then there’s the tried-and-true technique of pouring a bit of vermouth into an empty glass, giving it a swirl, and dumping it out. That’s not enough for my taste, though it’s hard to deny that either too much or too little can ruin a night. Vermouth is what determines your fate: There are memorable martinis and there are unmemorable ones, and that is not the same thing as good and bad.

“It’s always stirred unless they ask for it to be shaken,” Michalopoulos went on. (James Bond, as everyone knows, is wrong.) You can get a twist of lemon, olives (Bemelmans defaults to three), or pickled onion. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll get the bar’s standard version: vodka, slightly dirty, with olives. The other night, I swear I saw a stately woman in a ponytail sipping on a martini with both an olive and a lemon in it.

Simonson’s message, as with Bemelmans, as with Burger King, is Have It Your Way. His book contains recipes that include historic preparations and creative ones (the Sakura Martini, at Bar Goto, with a slightly salty cherry blossom; the Fitty-Fitty, at Pegu Club, which is as wet as you’d want to get). He argues, “Everyone is wrong about the martini, because everyone is right about the martini.” Within reason, I guess, because there’s invention and there’s distortion: i.e., the raspberry martini, the Lady Godiva martini. Bar Louie, a national chain, has a menu of “Signature Martinis” that includes, among other oddities, “The Clover (200 cal.)” with Maker’s Mark, Courvoisier, agave, “fresh lemon and oranges juices,” and an orange twist. Not to be a total Donohoe, but if we don’t draw a line somewhere, won’t the martini name be rendered meaningless? When Simonson addresses similar angst, he shrugs; the name doesn’t always refer to what’s inside: “The glass was the thing, not the drink,” he writes. (He then excludes nontraditional martinis from the recipes in his book.)

The glass matters. At Bemelmans, a serving is three ounces, with most of it poured into a traditional glass — a straight-sided cone on a stem — and some extra in a little carafe, hugged by cup of ice. The coldness of a martini — the icy sting of it — is often thought to be its essential feature, and that’s what Simonson’s father told him made a martini his drink: “It’s a definite shock, the feeling and the taste. It makes you sit up and pay attention.” According to Edmunds, that sensation is a function of the glass design, too: “It is a glass from which a drink is easily spilled.” A martini is a privilege, a responsibility, and you’d better keep your eye on it.

In that sense, to drink a martini is to experience the present. Martinis tell time, and keep you still. They’re not merely wistful; they’re assertive. They insist upon your attention to the shocking, gripping, disagreeable, loving world. And you can’t set them aside. Per DeVoto: “You can no more keep a martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss in there.”

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. She previously worked at the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic.
Bárbara Malagoli is a multidisciplinary artist based in London.