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Martinis Galore, But Where’s the Gin?

A Faux-tini TrioOver the past few weeks, I have been working on a story for a Chicago publication about newly-opened bars and lounges. I am not usually the kind of person who frequents these establishments because I prefer to spend my money on better food and drink in an atmosphere where I can actually hear the person across from me. Still, it has been interesting to visit these places and take note of some of the major trends. From the prevalence of sliders (mini-burgers) to the new trend of deep-fried mac and cheese cubes, the menus at many of these places have a lot in common. But there is another, more irksome, drink-related trend that has been all but constant through the numerous bars and lounges I’ve visited: the devolution of the martini.

According to Merriam-Webster, a martini is: “a cocktail made of gin and dry vermouth.” In the past few weeks I’ve read bar lists offering: a chocolate peanut butter martini, an oatmeal cookie martini, a key lime pie martini and appletini, among many others. Not only do these sound uniformly repulsive, but none of them, I mean not one, shared the menu with even a drop of gin. Granted, the Merriam-Webster entry does contain a reference to a vodka martini, which the dictionary calls: “a martini made with vodka instead of gin.” While the gin martini is undoubtedly the original version, I will grudgingly grant legitimacy to the vodka version. But the fact remains that these drinks are really mixed drinks made with vodka— not martinis.

Why does this bother me? I’ve come up with two main reasons. The first is that I really like martinis— the kind with gin and vermouth (and maybe a little olive juice). The martini earned its classic status; it’s got kick, complexity and sophistication. And it’s a shame that generations to come may grow up never having tasted the real thing. Maybe gin and vermouth is a little harder to swallow than vodka and chocolate, but Shakespeare is harder to swallow than Seventeen magazine.

The second reason that the glut of faux-tinis gets on my nerves is the lack of creativity and laziness on the part of bartenders that they demonstrate. Just because chocolate, Baileys and vodka shouldn’t be called a martini doesn’t mean the drink shouldn’t exist. But the bartenders who create these concoctions should show enough pride in their work to come up with a creative name. Many of the well-known cocktails of history have lasted in part because they had memorable names, such as Manhattan, Bellini and Gimlet. And many of those that have been forgotten are being revived by places like Chicago’s The Violet Hour and The Drawing Room thanks in part to enticing names like the “Gloom Lifter” and “Between the Sheets.” If the faux-tinis get their own names, the worthy ones will be more likely to linger beyond their current status as a passing fad.

Perhaps I am too sensitive about this trend. Maybe I should be less of a stickler about rules and definitions when it comes to something that’s supposed to be pleasurable. But if we have rules about classifying our food, we should expect no less of our drinks. Call it what it is: if it doesn’t have gin (or vodka) and dry vermouth, then it’s not a martini. And if you don’t know what to call it, make up a new name.

Violet Hour in Chicago

The Drawing Room & Le Passage in Chicago

12 thoughts on “Martinis Galore, But Where’s the Gin?

  1. Bagel with Lox says:

    Great post. Aside from the -tini mess, a second common and frustrating trend is the prevalence of the ‘Churchill’ theory of gin:vermoth ratio (i.e. look in the general direction of the vermouth bottle whilst pouring the gin) and the 007 effect – I find stirring superior to shaking.

    Finally the ingredients (other than the ice!) should be kept at room temperature, so as to allow some melt water to the final cocktail, a crucial ingredient in the mix.

    If you are REALLY conservative (circa 1930) you can add a dash of orange bitters.

  2. Flava Flav says:

    I guess all of those bartenders who can’t come up with original names for their drinks aren’t skilled wordsmiths like the Mango Lassie!

  3. Empanada Boy says:

    Call me old fashioned, but I like to keep my oatmeal cookies and my cocktails separate…

  4. Mango Mama says:

    As you know, I am not much of a cocktail drinker, but “oatmeal cookie martini” sounds like what you might see in your bathroom bowl after a long, hard night of drinking real martinis.

    Great post!

  5. daddio in NH says:

    3 cheers for the classic gin martini.
    My favorite mix is with a slight amount of Vermouth, say 8:1.
    Other than that, variations of the martini for me involve different garnishes only.

  6. Popover says:

    I’m with you, Lassie. A gin martini is the real thing; the others are imposters. My father, Popover’s Pop, used to come home from work and make himself a martini – very dry, straight up with a twist. As the gin and vermouth became familiar with each other in a fine glass pitcher filled with ice, Pop would spin an ice cube in his martini glass until it fogged with frost. Then, with great fanfare, he poured the blend into the glass, added the curly lemon twist, toasted our health, and delicately took a sip. When I came of age, I became a martini devotee. For me, it remains a drink for special occasions and reminiscences. Neither chocolate nor oatmeal has a place in a martini glass.

  7. Mr. McCurds and Whey says:

    I hadn’t noticed the faux-martini trend, but now that think about it is everywhere. I recently had one, it tasted like a girl scout cookie thin mint and was quite delicious. So, for people like me who aren’t as down with the gin martinis, these are a nice alternative.

  8. Mango Lassie says:

    You’re right that it’s nice to have options, McCurds, but my point is that the Girl Scout cookie drink shouldn’t be called a martini. That drink and drinks like it have their place as long as people want them, but they are not martinis. The person who created that drink could also have thought of a great new name like “the Grown-up Girl Scout.”

  9. Ms. Potato Head says:

    I have long pondered this point, Mango Lassie, as everything has been turned into a __tini in the past few years. It seems these lazy bartenders think anything that goes into a martini glass becomes a __tini. I recently saw the “banana bread martini” (how gross does that sound) on a menu at a bar and inquired of the bartender what exactly qualified the cocktail as a martini. He replied, as I had guessed, that it was the glass. And yet, to further prove your point, other cocktails traditionally put into martini glasses but with their own non martini name (lemon drops, cosmopolitans, etc.) have stood the test of time. Lets hope this ___tini trend becomes a passing fad, before real martinis are replaced with “fish n’ chips-tinis,” or something equally unappealing.

  10. Sprout says:

    Believing quite strongly in the preservation of the classic, elegant gin martini, my favorite critic Mellon and I think the mint Girl Scout cookie faux-tini should be called the ‘Naughty Girl Scout’.

  11. Croque Monsieur says:

    Be careful Mango Lassie, you may incite an uprising in Chitown if your story gets the attention of my Polish brethren of the Midwest. Vodka and chocolate! As any Pole will tell you, there is only one way to drink that tipple – cold.

  12. Elizabeth @ Capital Spice says:

    Drinks like chocolate martini, appletinis and the like are best left to the bars at TGI Fridays where they can access the audience they are meant for: suburban moms trying emulate Carrie Bradshaw and 19 year old girls with fake IDs.

    I’m pleased to see the reemergence of “real” cocktail lounges that profer drinks beyond a cosmo and other bevy of sweet, fruity drinks in a martini glass. When last in Chicago, I thoroughly enjoyed the Violet Hour and reminisced on it when reviewing PX outside Washington, DC. PX, by the way, is a must visit for anyone who appreciates sophisticated cocktails.

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