The classic Martini—V-shaped glass, long stem, served up, olives on a pick—was the universal sign of swank in the middle decades of the 20th century. When you brought a Martini to your lips you told the world you were someone to be reckoned with. As Lowell Edmunds wrote, in his masterful 1981 book, Martini: Straight Up, it was “a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant drink, and, as such…a drink of the highest status.”
But the Martini—a cocktail with roots in the 19th century, created by an anonymous someone who bravely mixed together spirits and wine—grew to project more than just stature. “The Martini said, ‘I know what I like and I’m confident about it,’” says Andrew Volk, founder of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in Maine. It was (and still is, among a certain age group), “an order of confidence with jargon attached. ‘Straight up, lemon twist, dry’ means something solid. In a way, it was a show-off drink: This guest is confident and can handle himself or herself at the finest of bars.”
Then—suddenly, spectacularly—came the fall. Sometime during the reign of Reagan, the Martini was kidnapped by barbarians. They incarcerated it in garish “Martini bars” and served it in vessels the size of drinking bowls for large breeds of dogs. The simplicity of gin and vermouth was abandoned, overthrown by novelty ingredients rendered in every color known by Pantone.
“Its return in the 1990s is the return of the image,” Edmunds wrote of the Martini bar era. But the image had changed. In a violent coup de grace, the –tini was guillotined from its classic roots and sloppily stitched onto frightful Frankenstein drinks—the Appletini, the Chocotini and the S’mores Martini, among many others. It went from cosmopolitan to comic book, from swank to swill. Finally, it settled at the bottom of the drink tank as the cocktail of the masses.
So what, one might ask, do the cocktail cognoscenti order today when they want to capture the old magic of the Martini and telegraph their sophistication along the bar?
“I don’t think it’s one particular drink anymore,” argues Kimberly Patton-Bragg, head bartender at Three Muses in New Orleans. “The new status symbol is always trying something new, usually involving obscure ingredients.” In her opinion, the ever-changing order has replaced the specific, steady call drink as a way to demonstrate knowledge.
In truth, the return and recent revival of the Old-Fashioned is less a coup d’état to overthrow the Martini, and more a long-term cycle of classics. Celebrity reporters who say they have only three stories to write: The Rise. The Fall. The Return. And so it is with classic cocktails. The Martini, the Daiquiri, the Whiskey Sour, the Old-Fashioned—they each take their turn in the spotlight, fade and then come back again, re-adopted so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget they ever left.
Patton-Bragg talks of a reversal in bar dynamics. At the start of the craft cocktail renaissance, bartenders were proselytizers, preaching to a captive congregation about the merits of little known liquors and house-made bitters. “Now it’s their turn,” says Patton-Bragg of her customers who research obscurity all on their own now.
Volk at Hunt & Alpine echoes this: “With the boom of craft bars, that status drink has evolved into a ‘I know more than you’ show-off kind of drink,” he says. “[It’s] the guy who walks in with a handful of friends, orders a Brown Derby or a Hoffman House or De La Louisiane, and then turns to his friends and explains the history of the drink.”
So is knowledge the new Martini? Maybe. But drinkers are unlikely to abandon key cocktails as signifiers, and other bartenders have witnessed a steady, slow migration toward a few select drinks.
Brad Farran, formerly at Death & Co. and Clover Club in New York, and now a partner at forthcoming Bar Virgil in Durham, North Carolina, notes that the Daiquiri has emerged as a sort of Martini replacement. The Daiquiri, “more than any other cocktail, is the status marker of the savvy drinker,” he says. A drink that seems easy to produce, it’s anything but, requiring a deft hand to balance sweet and sour, and an understanding of which rum plays best with lime, a fruit whose flavor changes depending upon the season.
Another classic, the Old-Fashioned (the no fruit, no seltzer version) was cited several times in my informal survey of craft bartenders. Like the classic Martini, it’s an order that makes a confident statement.
“It has become increasingly common to get an order to the tune of, ‘I’ll have something like an Old-Fashioned,'” says Charles Joly, who recently left Chicago’s Aviary to pursue other cocktail interests. Joaquín Simó, a partner at Pouring Ribbons in New York, cites their seasonal Old-Fashioned as customers’ call drink, specifying brand or spirit category, “just as guests used to specify their Martini preferences,” he says. Chris Hannah, at Arnaud’s French 75 in New Orleans nominates the “called Old-Fashioned” as the haute drink of the moment, in tandem with its high-proof Southern cousin, the Sazerac.
The Old-Fashioned, by very definition, is un-modern. It’s the proto-cocktail—something to anchor drinkers in cocktail antiquity with every swallow. Today, it provides ballast in a world awash with alarming new liquor options and garnishing opportunities. The Old-Fashioned was subjected to indignities not unlike the Martini; it went through a period of being too sweet, too bubbly, too fruity, and fell out of favor. Rediscovered, it’s been restored to its most stripped-down elements. “There’s a lot of America in it,” writes Robert Simonson in his 2014 book, The Old-Fashioned.
In truth, the return and recent revival of the Old-Fashioned is less a coup d’état to overthrow the Martini, and more a long-term cycle of classics. Celebrity reporters say they have only three stories to write: The Rise. The Fall. The Return. And so it is with classic cocktails. The Martini, the Daiquiri, the Whiskey Sour, the Old-Fashioned—they each take their turn in the spotlight, fade and then come back again, re-adopted so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget they ever left.
Each of these classics shares a sort of guilelessness alongside their noble pedigree. They provide the foundation on which to rebuild after the barbarians have sacked and plundered. The Martini may live a sorrowful double life in chain restaurants (the phrase “best chocolate martini” returns 11,000 Google hits), but as a classic, it will survive without its costume of sour apple or watermelon. Respectful contemporary interpretations have carried the torch including Audrey Saunders’ Fitty-Fitty and Julie Reiner’s Gin Blossom.
The Martini is dead. Long live the Martini.
“At the end of the day, it’s all posturing,” Farran says. “A good drink is a good drink, and it’s a shame one can’t just order without someone forming some sort of judgment.” Of course, he adds, “I’m just as guilty as the next party. I’m white, Anglo-Saxon and was raised Protestant. So, I’ll take a dry Martini.”