The Happiest Hours: The Martini

In 1953, James Bond introduced the world to the Vesper Martini in Ian Fleming’s novel, Casino Royale. The cocktail consists of three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken until it’s ice-cold, and garnished with a large thin slice of lemon peel.

“I never have more than one drink before dinner,” explains Bond. “But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.”

You don’t have to be in Her Majesty’s Secret Service to drink to that. But the fact remains that with the Vesper Martini, the most famous spy on the planet might as well have committed an act of cocktail treason. To this day, the vodka martini is considered heresy by many. According to our go-to cocktail expert, David Wondrich, the vodka martini isn’t even actually a martini at all – it’s a kangeroo. Yup, that’s what they used to call  the vodka martini when the clear spirit first started to become popular in the U.S. after World War II. See our previous post on the Moscow Mule for that entertaining tale of marketing genius.

Leaving the gin vs. vodka debate for just a moment (and overlooking the fact that Bond deigns to order a Heineken in Skyfall, which makes its U.S. debut this week), let’s look at some moments during which the martini—and we can assume it was the gin variety—was poured in Boston’s history.

It seems martinis were regular fixtures at Boston’s poshest clubs. Take this little ditty composed by Winthrop Ames, for Tavern Club’s “Lawyer’s Night” on February 3, 1902:

Every worthy club in Boston
Has its proper point of pride:
At the Botolph Sunday Concerts,
At the Somerset ’t is “side.”
And the graveyard gives the Union
Its distinctive clammy calm,
But the Dry Martini Cocktail
Is the Tavern’s special charm!

Surviving drink menus from the Latin Quarter during the 1940s reflect the era’s drinking trends: daiquiri, Bronx, Orange Blossom, Clover Club, Jack Rose, martini…. If a customer was undecided, a waiter might suggest a whiskey sour, Old Fashioned, or dry martini, as the club made more of a profit on these drinks.

By the late 1950s, the neon outline of a martini glass, usually with an olive and toothpick, became the very symbol of drink (and it’s still the only sign outside one of our favorite bars in Boston, Franklin Cafe.) Strong, cold, and clear, the martini was possibly a reflection of how America perceived itself, speculates Drink’s John Gertsen, who studied biology and chemistry before he turned to bartending. In the 1950s, drinking was not about creativity and exotic ingredients; Americans were thinking about being a strong country that had gone through war and now led the world, he says. Clear spirits reflected certain purpose, a kind of “better living through chemistry” approach. As Jim Meehan, author of The PDT Cocktail Book writes, “the preparation and choice of garnish of this protean cocktail has been one of the most accurate methods to measure the palate of an era.”  Which says very little about the craze of flavored martinis that overtook cocktail menus in the 1980s.

Back to Bond and the whole gin vs. vodka debate.  So Bond preferred a vodka martini, and probably played a huge role in popularizing the use of vodka instead of gin in this classic drink. But who are we to judge? And more explicitly, who are we to tell you where to get the very best martini in the city? The variables go far beyond the base liquor: wet, dry, dirty… and then there are the garnishes. Thus, in absence of a real recommendation, we steer you in the direction of atmosphere: the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons, the newly reinvented Oak Long Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, or Clio at The Eliot Hotel. Places one could imagine James Bond would feel at home, ordering, god bless him, a Heineken.

For more about the history of Boston’s nightclubs and classic cocktails like the martini, pick up a copy of Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits, by Stephanie Schorow. To help you explore the Hub’s best bars (both historic and contemporary) download our free smartphone app. Cheers!

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