Over 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.