Martini thoughts, literary and otherwise

5 minute read

When I was young, maybe 18, I visited my girlfriend (now wife)’s house. My father-in-law to be, a rather imposing and gruff former military officer, lets me in the house. At this time my now-wife and I had not been dating long, and I had hair down well-past my shoulders. So, you can imagine I was on thin ice (no pun intended!) with him. He led me into the kitchen, and I got “the question”. 

No, not that one. 

This question was, “Mark, do you want a Martini”? 

I was, as I say, 18, and I think I’d had gin once and decided it was the vilest thing on the planet. 

So of course, I said yes. 

He reached into the freezer, pulled out a bottle of gin, poured some in a glass, and handed it to me. 


Even at that early stage of my cocktail career, I was pretty sure there was supposed to be something else in the glass. Wanting to stay on his good side, I smiled and choked it down. Later, he explained that was what he called a “combat Martini” — when you couldn’t be bothered to fool around. The “in the freezer” part was optional, he explained. Now, who can forget “shaken, not stirred”? My father-in-law’s Martini was neither. 

It’s been a long while since then, and I’ve encountered a lot of Martinis in my books and in my life. 

Triggered by a friend’s text message (not the I’m-losing-it kind of triggered, just the it-reminds-me-of kind of triggered), I’m thinking of some of my favorite Martini stories, literary and otherwise. My quarantine drink of choice has become the Martini, very dry. I haven’t yet taken to calling it a Quarantini, but I might get there. By the way: there are a lot of Quarantine Book Clubs out there!

“Shaken, not stirred” made its first appearance in Ian Fleming’s 6th Bond novel, Dr. No. But of course, it was memorialized forever by Sean Connery. This advice is contrary to all textbook cocktail technique — Martinis, and any other cocktail with no fruit juice, is to be stirred, not shaken. 

I was reminded of all this by my friend’s text message, reminding me of the advice from Kingsman, the Secret Service:

Martini, gin. Not vodka. Obviously, stirred for 10 seconds while glancing at an unopened bottle of vermouth.

To my now-adjusted tastes, this is how a dry Martini should be made. Gin, not Vodka. Perhaps, after first rinsing the glass with Vermouth and discarding it (the vermouth, not the glass).  Reasonable people can differ about this, of course.

Speaking of Martini tricks, I must pass on a secret I learned from James Salter, the world’s best writer you never heard of. (I have not explained this to my father-in-law — I am afraid of what he will say). From Life is Meals, a non-fiction book Salter wrote with his wife:

“There is a final, unconventional secret. Shake a Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce bottle, then quickly remove the cap and with it, dash a faint smudge of the contents — far less than a drop — into the bottom of the shaker before beginning. It adds the faint, unidentifiable touch of greatness.”

Olives? I can take or leave them — if I have good ones, I like them. Dirty Martini? Heaven forbid. No, just, no. 

Gin? Bombay Sapphire is my ideal. If on the expensive side. The Botanist is quite good, but even more expensive. Hendricks I find too floral, and yet again more expensive. Gordon’s gin, which will re-appear shortly as part of a Vesper, is quite inexpensive, and when very cold and combined with that magic ingredient mentioned above, is quite good. 

Vermouth? Who are we kidding? We’re not going use it, except to rinse the glass. Any brand will do. My father-in-law’s Martini recipe, likely not original, requires no vermouth at all, it simply requires looking at the picture of the man who invented Vermouth, while you drink your gin. You really just want the idea of vermouth, not the reality. (As he’s aged, his Martini purity has relaxed just a bit — he is now taken to putting a few big cubes of ice in a glass and pouring his gin over….)

Salter wrote fiction, mostly (although his memoirs Burning the Days is one of my favorite books ever. The section where the young Salter learns about sex is priceless). His Light Years is a beautiful, heartbreaking work about the disintegration of a marriage, but contains this less-dark nugget about Martinis, and showcases the diamond-like prose Salter is known for:

“I think I’d like a martini,” Viri said.
He drank one, icy cold, in a gleaming glass. It was like a change in the weather.
The pitcher held another, potent, clear.
“How do you make them so cold?” he asked.
“Well, you happen to have commanded the drink which is, in my opinion, the one true test. You have to have the right ingredients — and also you keep the gin in the freezer.”

Made with care, the Martini might be the perfect cocktail. The author H. L. Mencken memorably described the Martini as ‘the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet’. He’s also the (possibly apocryphal) author of one of my favorite quotes about creative endeavors: “There are three rules for the writing of a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”. A good reminder that conformity to some imagined set of rules doesn’t lead to novel work. 

Of course, it’s easy to overindulge in Martinis. Salter quotes the writer James Thurber in Life is Meals: “One is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.” The satirist and writer Dorothy Parker’s famed quote also comes to mind:

I like to have a Martini, two at the very most; three, I’m under the table, four I’m under my host. 

Is there is any character in literature more associated with Martinis than James Bond? It’s hard to imagine. In Casino Royale (the book), he invents one of my favorite variations: the Vesper. 

”A Dry Martini”, he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.” 
”Oui, monsieur.” 
”Just a moment. Three measures of Gordons, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemonpeel. Got it?”

However you make your Martinis, I hope you have a great book on hand to read along with it. Books are a great comfort in times like these — especially if you’re reading with a friend! 

As for the proper Martini technique — here’s Bond’s latest take on “shaken, not stirred”. In Casino Royale (the movie), when faced with the inevitable question, he responds:

Do I look like I give a damn?

Happy Reading.