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Can the Martini on the Rocks Make a Comeback?

August 15, 2017

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Lizzie Munro


Can the Martini on the Rocks Make a Comeback?

August 15, 2017

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Lizzie Munro

In the years following World War II, ordering a Martini or Manhattan on the rocks was a standard affair. For some drinkers, it still is.

Last May, I attended the reopening of the former Campbell Apartment, the secreted watering hole tucked inside Grand Central Terminal. To toast the newly refurbished rococo interior, I ordered a Manhattan.

My drink came in a rocks glass. On the rocks. “First night,” I thought. “The staff is still green. They mixed up my order.” But, no. That’s how they do the Manhattan at The Campbell.

“It’s a personal preference of mine,” said Vincent Mauriello, the managing partner of Gerber Group, which runs The Campbell. “We thought it was important to create our signature Manhattan. A lot of guests, when they ordered a Manhattan, they requested it on the rocks. It was enough that we thought we should serve it on the rocks.”

In cosmopolitan New York City, Campbell’s iced Manhattan is an anomaly. Most craft cocktail bars would sooner serve Zima than a Manhattan on the rocks. But outside the most urbane metropolitan areas, the order is fairly common—as is an item considered even more sacrilegious to the cocktail elite: the Martini on the rocks.

“I would say 40 to 50 percent of the time, [customers] ask for Martinis on the rocks,” said Mike Holmes, the beverage director at the Wickman House in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, which boasts one of the best cocktail lists in the state. “Usually an older crowd enjoys them that way.”

Indeed, the Martini/Manhattan on the rocks is a generational thing, a habit picked up by those Americans who came of age in the years following World War II. Adam Platt, restaurant critic at New York magazine, told me that, while his grandfather took his Martinis straight up, with a good amount of vermouth, his father preferred them dry and with “plenty of ice.”

I have experienced that generational divide in my own family. I grew up watching my father assemble his nightly Martini in a rocks glass: ice, a good dose of gin, a small splash of dry vermouth and a fat olive or two. To my eyes, it seemed the most slipshod cocktail imaginable. (I wasn’t of drinking age yet, but I knew from old movies that a Martini should look a lot classier than that.)

My father made no excuses. It was the drink he grew up with. “I vaguely remember making Martinis in a mixing glass, but it was so seldom,” he recalled. “I really started drinking them when I was going to college [in the early 1950s]. At that point, everyone was drinking them on the rocks.”

Recipes for Martinis varied during the first few decades of the drink’s existence, from the 1880s on. Some contained Old Tom gin, some went for sweet vermouth, while later formulas veered closer to the London Dry gin and dry vermouth mix we recognize today. But they all shared one thing: They were strained and served up, in a cocktail glass.

The Martini on the rocks began to nudge itself onto bar menus in the early 1950s. “Most popular cocktail seems to be a Martini-on-the-rocks,” wrote Bert Bacharach in “Stag Lines,” a syndicated column aimed at male readers, in March, 1953.

The elite on both coasts were lapping up the new style. The Detroit Free Press, writing about a new type of bar stool in 1952, talked of a time in the near future “When California sips its Martini on the rocks…” on the new chairs. Meanwhile, sportswriter Red Smith, in 1956, ticked off all the earmarks of modern Gotham life, stating, “This is the New York of air-conditioned skyscrapers and television towers, of shrimp cocktails and Martini-on-the-rocks and filter cigarets [sic], the New York of Grace Kelly and Orson Welles.”

By 1961, the New York Times, observed, “As for Martinis, the two most significant recent developments are the trends to the vodka Martini and to the Martini on the rocks.”

Gin brands were also trading heavily on the new fad. Gilbey’s Gin, Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin and Calvert Gin all ran ads boasting that their gin made the best Martini on the rocks. And they did not consider the drink a lazy man’s Martini. “The perfect martini-on-the-rocks,” preached Seagram’s, “does not happen by chance, but by dint of skill and perseverance.”

That hyphenated spelling was no mistake. Based on the way it was discussed in articles and ads at the time, the ice-bound Martini was considered something of a separate drink. It wasn’t a Martini on the rocks. It was a “Martini-on-the-rocks”—one word.

During these years, the Manhattan was also running a path from "up" drink to "rocks" drink. By 1959, you could order a Manhattan on ice aboard Capital Airlines. A decade or so later, with New York lurching toward financial ruin, newspaper jokesters began to refer to the drink as a Lindsay, after the city’s beleaguered mayor John Lindsay. (Manhattan on the rocks—get it?)

Today, the principled cocktail drinker might ask why anyone would debase two of the most perfect cocktails in creation by serving them over ice.

Well, for many reasons.

Ice, of course, makes things cold, and a Martini on the rocks is going to stay chilly longer than one served straight up. As Seagram’s crowed in a 1960 ad, “Who said the Martini isn’t a summer drink? Our good host above makes a martini-on-the-rocks that tastes fresh and frosty when it’s 90 degrees in the shade!”

Detractors will point out that ice, while keeping the cocktail cool, also dilutes the drink at a perilous rate. Yet, this, too, was considered an advantage at the time.

“They didn’t get you too drunk,” said Adam Platt, talking of his father’s usual, “a useful thing for a diplomat, which was his profession.”

A Martini on the rocks is also quick work, and thus appealing to the home bartender. There are no Martini shakers or pitchers to deal with, no bar spoons or strainers to clean. It’s a one-glass operation.

It’s also arguable that the on-the-rocks movement was yet another salvo in the postwar battle to banish vermouth from the Martini. That same 1961 New York Times article noted, “the die-hard drinker of the extra-extra-dry Martini has moved on to a straight gin on the rocks, a drink which, along with vodka on the rocks, has enjoyed considerable popularity in New York.”

Dale DeGroff, who bartended in New York in the 1970s, remembers those drinkers. He recalled what he referred to as “professional drinkers,” slipping their dry gin or vodka Martinis into Old-Fashioned glasses filled with ice.

While the cocktail revival of the last 20 years has done much to erode the prevalence of the Martini/Manhattan on the rocks, the style does persist at many rank-and-file bars and “old-school restaurants and country clubs," says Simon Ford of Ford’s Gin. Even a few discerning modern drinkers who “know better” count themselves among the serve’s occasional fans.

“No cocktail, not even the Martini, is sacrosanct,” said Rosie Schaap, the author of Drinking with Men. “Gin and vermouth taste good together, and, on a hot day, I’d just as soon add ice.”

As Seagram’s once quipped: Who said the Martini isn’t a summer drink?

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