In October I had the pleasure of travelling through the land from where the Martini came from: The United States of America.
Naturally, I was in my happy place. A cocktail doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it needs an ecosystem of bars, spirits, cocktail culture and of course, mixologists to bring them to life. So during my month long sojourn through California, New Mexico and Arizona and I was able to sample several Martinis every day in a wide variety of settings.
I also packed an emergency kit of a bottle of gin/vermouth/olives, just in case, you know.
If you’d followed me on Instagram you would have seen some of my cocktail (mis)adventures along the way, including some Martini improvisation on my part in the New Mexico town of Alamogordo!
Some of my Martini experiences were surprising and unexpectedly good in places I least expected (like the bar in Union Station in LA), others a major let down from bars who I expected would have nailed it.
But was common though were four things:
- no one ever baulked at taking a Martini order
- they came filled up to the brim (none of the measly 60mls pour you get so often in Australia)
- the desire to shake, and not stir, was very strong!
- Finally, they were great value: US$10-12 plus tip on average, less on occassion.
Naturally, American gins were well represented, with a range of dry Vermouths on hand, happily not Cinzano very often. Bombay Dry was a frequent appearance, and the most common US craft gin I saw was the excellent St. George from California.
So here’s my top 7 memorable Martinis during my trip.
Secreto Bar, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Straight up, you have to know that I was going against the grain order Gin Martini’s in New Mexico. Appropriately, it’s a Tequila State to go with its superb cuisine. My wife got the taste all right for Margaritas, and although I tried, I know my own poison and stayed true to my course.
So each night during a few weeks we stayed in wonderful Santa Fe, I tried all the bars, or tried to! There are loads of friendly, cosy bars to drop into, a really wonderful city.
But by far the most accomplished is the Secreto bar in the St Francis Hotel presided over by New Mexico’s leading cocktail light Chris Milligan I recall seeing him in this short New York Times video of the city when planning my trip and made sure I swung past. So what’s not to love about a relaxed vibe that welcomes a diverse and appreciative crowd that seats about 30 or so, with expertly crafted and original cocktails.
For me it was a perfect Plymouth Gin with a twist- perfect for some excellent people watching time.
Santa Fe Spirits Tasting Room, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Naturally, I made sure I was able to spend some time with the local distillers at Santa Fe spirits, who were very generous of their time and showed me their set up and sampled their locally inspired and sourced spirits (subject of an in-depth review soon). Being located a ways out of downtown, they sensibly have a cute little bar where you can sample their spirits.
So we had a brilliant evening with the locals, with one eye on the third Presidential debate and I had the opportunity to invent a new recipe for them for their menu using their lovely herbaceous Weaver’s Gin.
You can’t beat a night of conversation, laughs and great spirits and fantastic hospitality. Here’s the recipe by the way
The Santa Fe Whisperer Martini
- 2 Parts Weaver’s Gin
- 1 Part Dry Vermouth
- Stirred with some brine from the Green Chile garnish
- Served into chilled glass with a generous dash of Peychaud’s Bitters
- Garnished with a slice of green chile.
W Hotel, Scottsdale, Arizona
The candidate for the worst of my trip alas. I’d driven 14 hours across New Mexico to Scottsdale in one hit and was in need of a decent drink. Staying nearby I walked into the very glamour bar and settled in expectedly.
Next to us was a young socialite taking selfies with her poodle and champagne.
Ordering a straight dry Tanquerary Gin Martini, stirred not shaken, from an equally glamourous server, I received one full of ice like a margarita without even an olive.
I decided it was a lost cause and moved on. Also the most expensive Martini coming in at about $18. Win some, lose some.
Bandera’s, Scottsdale, Arizona
The next night Scottsdale redeemed itself. Wandering into Bandera’s for a drink before dinner I was very happy to experience the joys of an exemplary American happy hour.
Low lighting, unobtrusive music, polished wood and brass, staff who know what they’re doing in a friendly and switched on way, locals sharing comments on the baseball game (sans sound note) digging into great steaks and beers etc with newly met pals.
Noting the mixing glasses behind the bar I was emboldened to try again, and was served some of the best Martini’s of the trip (featuring the excellent Greenhook Gin), perfectly executed.
Now get this, halfway through my cocktail, they presented a fresh chilled glass and decanted my Martini into to ensure it stayed chilled. One classy joint.
Melvyn’s Restaurant, Palm Springs California
I had booked months in advance and was so looking forward to experiencing it- one of the great Martini habitats. I nearly cried with happiness at the old school authenticity of this institution at the Inglewood Inn.
Having been a fine dining Maitre’d back in the day I revelled in the table side cooking and staff who’d been there for an average 40 years doing their thing to some of the great celebrities and personalities over the years with aplomb.
Of course EVERYONE in the dining room drank Martinis. I was in heaven.
In the bar before dinner I asked for my usual, noting he was serving vodka shaken Martinis for all an sundry. So its ‘gin, stirred please sir’. ‘Of course sir coming right up!’ So he then shook it up in front of me and it was the quickest Martini served ever, at about 10 seconds!
But somehow it didn’t matter, I went with the flow and drank perfect Gibson’s all night and so become part of the theatre that is Melvyn’s.
Seymours Bar, Palm Springs California
Another place I’d spotted when researching my trip on Instagram was this new place that is part of a new wave of sophistication adding depth to the glamour of Palm Springs.
The small bar is tucked away discretely in the swanky Mr Lyons Steakhouse. I was given a very warm welcome by Kevin, one of the partners who works behind the bar.
They doing things right, bringing modern hospitality and big city bar craft to the desert resort town. One the night he worked the bar solo (due to one of the team being unwell) and even as it filled up he kept each customer engaged, kept the cocktails on track and my Martinis were on the money every time.
The first was his own creation using Golden Moon Distillery Port Cask Reserve Gin from Colorado, complex and delicious, than a classic dry Tanqueray number to set me up for dinner in the restaurant.
One World Airport Lounge, LAX
Now this was most unexpected. But it goes to show there is such a thing as Martini gods looking out for me. Having driven into LAX from Palm Springs and avoided being crushed by all the craxies nd trucks on the Interstate and LA’s famous freeways, got through customs and security, I was about ready to drink the nearest warm bottle of Gordon’s neat.
But there they were, manna from heaven, bottomless, chilled, stirred, free, Beefeater 24 Gin Martinis.
I couldn’t think of a better way to end my vacation, thank you USA and all the wonderful bar staff I met along the way, you did your country, and the Martini proud.