Nobody Is Sure Why they Call It a ‘Martini’

Tastes just as good, though

Cheers! Pixabay

Shaken? Stirred? Wet? Dry? Burnt? Dirty?

The martini comes with its own lingo–and, as James Bond famously emphasized, everyone has a preference in how the versatile drink is made. With a name and a pedigree like that, you might imagine that “martini” comes from an elegant town in Italy or an attractive person’s surname. But the truth is, nobody really knows.

“There’s no cocktail more distinctly American than the martini,” writes April Fulton for NPR’s The Salt. “It’s strong, sophisticated and sexy. It’s everything we hope to project while ordering one.”

But it best-known origin story don’t sound terribly sexy, unless you like camping for weeks near a gold claim in the California backwoods. “Many historians follow the martini back to a miner who struck gold in California during the Gold Rush,” she writes. “The story goes that a miner walked into a bar and asked for a special drink to celebrate his new fortune. The bartender threw together what he had on hand — fortified wine (vermouth) and gin, and a few other goodies — and called it a Martinez, after the town in which the bar was located.” The city of Martinez stands by this story, she notes.

Another story, told by journalist and drink historian Barnaby Conrad III, is that the martini was invented by “Professor” Jerry Thomas, the man who professionalized bartending and wrote several books on the topic. Conrad acknowledges the Martinez story, but he thinks the drink was actually concocted by Thomas in San Francisco. 

The second edition of one of Thomas’s books, The Bon-Vivant's Companion, contains a recipe for a drink known as the Martinez, writes William Grimes for The New York Times. But that recipe is for a drink that contains a maraschino cherry, sweet vermouth and sweetened gin.

Maybe that was some variation on the martini, writes Grimes. After all, some early recipes for the martini called for “gin and vermouth in a 50-50 ratio, and almost always ... orange bitters." That recipe "does not look very much like the mercilessly dry vodka martini of the present day,” he writes.

But others argue “that the history of the Martini name is simply a matter of branding,” writes Sipsmith London. “Martini & Rossi, an Italian sweet vermouth that was first produced in 1863, seems to be an obvious source,” Sipsmith writes. After all, asking for a “gin and Martini” could easily become asking for a martini.

Those are just three of the theories–another links the drink to a New York bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia, Sipsmith writes. Still, at the end of the day, as you’re enjoying a martini, the drink’s origin probably doesn’t matter much.

The drink is clear, but the martini’s origin story is opaque. Elegant, no?

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