Can you recall your first Martini?
Well I can.
Though it wasn’t my finest drinking moment.
I was out with some friends who were Army cadets who had graduated from Officer School.
We hadn’t been thirsty at all that evening and found ourselves in an upmarket (upscale for my North American readers) Chinese restaurant quite late and it was my time to order a round.
Somehow the occasion with uniforms, Shanghai bling and all that testerone called to mind James Bond.
So 6 x shaken Martinis duly appeared in a flash.
It would be fair to say that we didn’t appreciate the cocktail for what it was in our state at the time, but thinking back it was a fitting symbol of our young manly confidence in its cold, austere potency.
More than any cocktail the Martini is an icon which can be read on several levels: culturally, stylistically, historically, aesthetically, commercially, and its deceptive simplicity is almost Zen-like in the myriad of subtleties one can bring to it.
It is certainly just not any drink.
So when quite a few years later I had been working in fine restaurants for over a decade, and had come to appreciate them properly for more than just an 80’s power lunch kick-starter (boy, I miss those days though) along came a work that eloquently approached the Martini in all its facets. It revealed a history, its myths and ways to appreciate it: Martini- A memoir by the renewed author, Frank Moorhouse.
I recall going to the book launch in 2005 (Canberra locals will know the Paperchain bookstore in Manuka) where they served, alas, well-intentioned, but rather robust warmish Martinis, but the work was the main thing.
The timing in the zeitgeist was telling here: the US craft gin and vermouth scene was just emerging. Shows like Mad Men were just on the horizon and the modern age of the gin cocktail, post vodka binge, was just starting to happen. Hallelujah I say!
This was the book that inspired me to take a more conscious look at what was becoming my go-to cocktail, but revealed that to appreciate a Martini you had to take on the stance of a conversationalist.
I like to say that you don’t just drink a Martini, you have a conversation with the craft that’s gone into the spirits and cocktail.
You shouldn’t drink alone of course, but with a well-made Martini you are in the presence of something that’s greater than the sum of its’s parts.
I’ve written elsewhere about the facets that make for a great martini, one of them is the company you’re in.
Isn’t a Martini a launch pad for elevated conversation and inspiration?
In Frank’s book he’s created a lovely conceit where there is a wide ranging series of conversations with his (imaginary presumably) friend, Voltz on all sorts of things such as whether particular cities are Martini cities (New York obviously, but Tehran?) which inspired me to consider if Canberra is one (it is) and go on to create the Centenary Martini.
He also provides useful insights such as how the toothpick that holds the olive gives the martini an important visual axis.
Or how it is usual in restaurants for waiters to be wary of taking orders of Martinis, since its not always the case that the barman will make a good one (very true in my experience).
He says in the book that his secret agenda is to bring back the vermouth to the martini. It isn’t easy in an age of the super dry version and vermouth atomisers.
Mr Moorehouse is steeped in the cocktail’s history and knows its roots, such as the much larger proportion in the 20’s and 30’s of vermouth to gin. There is even a version that is 50/50- but not for the faint hearted…train first is my advice.
Of course the work wouldn’t be complete without the legends that make the Martini such a glamorous cocktail, such as Hemingway liberating the bar of the Paris Ritz in 1944 with a rag tag collection of soldiers, spies and resistance fighters.
Striding in with weapons and cigars drawn, the manager asked him politely if there was anything he needed, to which Hemingway replied “ How about seventy-three dry Martinis?”
Now, that’s my idea of a freedom fighter.
Frank’s work introduced to me whole new perspectives, and more importantly made my Martini drinking a conscious activity- something akin to art appreciation.
This isn’t some form of snobbery, but due respect to what the Martini aims to be, one of the pinnacles of Western civilisation.
Coming up next is a response from the author himself by special arrangement, stay tuned. Well, I offered him money, but he preferred gin, so you have to respect a man who lives his art
About Frank Moorhouse
Frank Moorhouse was born in the coastal town of Nowra, NSW. He worked as an editor of small-town newspapers and as an administrator and in the 1970s became a full-time writer. He has written fiction, non fiction, screenplays and essays and edited many collections of writing.
Forty Seventeen was given a laudatory full-page review by Angela Carter in the New York Times and was named Book of the Year by the Age and ‘moral winner’ of the Booker Prize by the London magazine Blitz. Grand Days, the first novel in The Edith Trilogy, won the SA Premier’s Award for Fiction. Dark Palace won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Age Book of the Year Award.
Frank has undertaken numerous fellowships and his work has been translated into several languages.
He was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to literature in 1985 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Griffith University in 1997.
Buy the WorK
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