New Mexico is held in the popular imagination for its pueblos and green Hatch chiles and scorching deserts, for Georgia O’Keeffe and Breaking Bad. But journey to the Land of Enchantment’s northernmost region and you’ll find the ski world’s most famous cocktail, the Tree Martini.
Ernst Hermann Bloch, a German who worked for U.S. intelligence during World War II interrogating captured Nazi brass, was an avid skier while growing up in St. Moritz. After the war, he moved to New Mexico with new wife, Rhoda, taking the Americanized name “Ernie Blake” (his military code name). In 1953, Blake purchased 80 acres of land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 20 miles north of Taos, and started his resort, Ski Valley, setting up shop in a trailer at the base of the mountain and building lifts with a mule named Lightning.
“[He] hand hewed the ski area and its precipitous terrain,” explained the Denver Post, “crafting a premiere ski school and adding flourishes like tucking beakers of martinis behind trees on the mountain.”
By the 1958-59 season, Ski Valley’s third official winter as a resort, the slopes were still too treacherous for the typical jet-setting snow bunny. As the story goes, that season, a non-expert found herself stuck in the middle of the Snakedance run blinded by the late-afternoon light and too frozen in fear to continue down its steep slope. That’s when her instructor for the day, Blake, came up with an idea: He sent his 15-year-old son Mickey down to Rhoda to retrieve something for a little “medical experiment.” Mickey returned with a glass porron filled with a dry gin Martini.
“You will drink, or you will die,” Ernie stated in his thick Bavarian accent to the teetotaling Baptist woman, according to Snow Report, an industry website. She eventually did, taking the classic Spanish wine pitcher with its long spout and pouring a thin stream of Martini directly into her mouth. As the story goes, her fear was immediately alleviated and she soon skied down the mountain “like an ace,” according to Blake. Recognizing his stroke of genius, Blake acquired several more hand-blown porrons from Juarez, Mexico, and started burying them, full of gin and vermouth, in the snow beside four spruce trees marked with yellow engineer’s tape.
Why Martinis? Because, as Blake once explained to the New York Times, “White wine is dangerous. It makes the knees buckle.”
The Tree Martini became a sensation; by the early-1960s, Blake had started an elite ski club know as HAMS—High Altitude Martini Skiers. According to the January 1980 issue of Ski, membership was available to “anyone who has downed a martini mixed at least 10 to 1 [gin to dry vermouth] at an altitude of 11,000 feet or higher.” The article noted that the one catch was the drink needed to be consumed in an unpressurized atmosphere with at least one foot on earth.
Mostly a local, ski-industry secret for the next two decades, it was first nationally reported on by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Donal Henehan in November 8, 1981’s New York Times: “…since that time Taos skiers have come to know that on certain days, if they look diligently, they might find martini-filled bottles hanging from trees along their way,” wrote Henehan. “Ernie insists that the spraying of martini into the mouth is not only therapeutic but entirely safe. ‘It is aerated and very relaxing.’” By 1985, Blake had changed his reasoning somewhat, telling the Chicago Tribune the Martinis were meant “to refurbish the aggressiveness and courage of even the weariest winter warrior.”
If this oddball exercise spread to other mountains and other ski resorts, it didn’t gain any real traction outside of Taos. Likewise, no Ski Valley resident I spoke to knew of any other mountains with Martini trees. “[I] have not heard about any other resorts adapting the concept,” claims Claire Mylott, senior director of communications for the Ski Valley resort, “and since this is a tradition rooted in the original owner and founder, it’s unique to Taos.” (In many ski resorts, however, bra trees are a popular sideshow, something that Grand Marnier once used in an ad.)
In a way, it’s not surprising that the ritual remained unique to Taos. If the mere existence of bars mid-mountain is ipso facto proof that people are skiing while sauced, most resorts still try to push that under the rug. In fact, at many European resorts it has become a crime to ski while drunk. Which makes it all the more remarkable that for a such a subversive practice, the Tree Martini continued to casually exist at Taos Ski Valley well into this century. Perhaps that’s because it was the rare family-owned resort—at least until 2013, when Blake’s family finally sold the resort to billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Bacon.
“Other resorts—those more concerned with liability than culture—would have shut this practice down long ago,” claimed Denver’s 5280 Magazine.
Today, the Tree Martini ritual mostly lives on under the supervision of the Ernie Blake Snowsports School. Despite being one of the most highly-regarded instructional schools in the nation, for the last 60 years they’ve routinely lead skiers to designated Tree Martinis if they need a little liquid courage. (As Blake once noted: “It is especially valuable for older people like myself. I need [a martini] all the time when the light is bad.”) No longer permitted to be buried in the snow, Tree Martinis are now hidden in birdhouse-like lockboxes mounted to tree trunks.
“The times [the Martini tree is visited] are irregular and not publicized, but word of mouth can spread on the mountain,” explains Mylott, who notes that the resort now keeps a staffer nearby to check everyone’s IDs.
Nevertheless, rumors abound that scofflaws are still burying Tree Martinis in the snow. “Has anybody ever found [one]?,” asked one curious poster on a skiing message board. To which another poster smugly replied: “Yes. But helps to know the person who hides it.”