Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Martini meditations

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The barrage of recent events in Wellington has taken up valuable drinking time and made it hard for me to maintain the initially blistering pace of my quest. At the time of my previous Martini review post at the end of January I'd already checked off 50 bars at a rate of 1.7 per day: since then this has dropped off to an unimpressive 0.7 per day. Not that this necessarily implies a drop in alcohol intake, since I'm now having to make repeat visits to regular haunts rather than always seeking fresh pastures. I've still managed to make it to 62 of Wellington's 157 bars, which is not doing too badly, but I've had a spanner thrown into the statistical works by the demise of Bouquet Garni before I had a chance to get to it this year. Hopefully I'll get a chance to make up for lost time this weekend, as the ongoing Festival of Duncan (don't ask) should provide a congenial excuse for a bar safari.

I'll post some more Martini reviews at the end of this post, but first a few meditations on the nature of the Martini itself. I'm flexible enough to allow vodka as a variation, but never as a default. Interesting variations can be had by using another clear dry spirit in place of gin (Akvavit could be interesting) or substituting for vermouth a kindred aromatic aperitif (Lillet of course, probably Dubonnet, and a good case could be made for a hint of Chartreuse or asbsinthe).

The soul of a Martini, in its broader sense, seems to lie in a complex blend of botanical elements, baptised in the pale fire of alcohol, then salved by the gentle embrace of pure ice. Thus Matterhorn's Convent Martini, for example, offers a radical yet essentially sympathetic addition to the Martini canon by taking gin, adding Italian fennel liqueur, then stirring and garnishing with a sprig of rosemary. The earthy aromas of the herbs engage in a powerful dialectic with the ethereal spirituality of gin to conceive a subtle sermon on mediaeval theology in vitro. And no, I'm not drinking one now: why do you ask?

But what do we find now ennobled by the rubric "Martini"? A ragtag and increasingly debased rabble of frivolous, malformed and venomous chimerae worthy of a bibulous Bosch. A case can be made for the Cosmopolitan as a cocktail of some distinction, but it is not, as some claim, a "Martini": the closest that a Martini should get to fruit juice is a twist of lemon. The term "Chocolate Martini" insults two of humanity's greatest discoveries, and the "Candy-cane Martini" just proves that candy is not always dandy. Mixological vulgarity reaches its apotheosis with attempts to claim "The world's most expensive Martini": Tantra's US$25 version not only wastes some damn fine Inniskillin ice wine, but looks laughable beside The Algonquin's $10,000 Martini, which should at least taste like the real thing if you don't choke on the diamond.

It's also possible to oversimplify. Even the usually reliable Keith Stewart wrote in The Listener recently: "Gin, chilled, never-mind-the-vermouth, twist of lemon zest, maybe an olive for the hungry." Never mind the vermouth? As The Sifter so rightly points out, "That's not a Martini. That's a glass of spirit waiting to be mixed with something else." It's true that there has evolved a "cult of dryness" that aims to add the most infinitesimal quantum of vermouth to the gin, and such Martini luminaries as Hemingway ("let a ray of sun pass through the vermouth and hit the gin") and Churchill ("turn towards France and nod in respect for the missing ingredient") are claimed to be adherents of this creed. These can be read as Zen koans, Zenoesque paradoxes of the asymptotic approach to nothingness, meditations on the ineffability of perfection; but not as recipes.

In any case, even with the right ingredients, it's possible to produce travesties, mediocrities and disasters. But just occasionally, it all comes together in a tantalising glimpse of genius. Here, then, is another chapter in a pilgrim's diary:

Good Luck: 8
South Gin & Noilly Prat delivered a distinctly citrusy aroma, a smooth but not oily mouthfeel, and a well balanced palate with mellow, integrated botanicals. Reasonably cold, and set off by 3 olives on a long bamboo stick.

Floating olive in a Dockside MartiniDockside: 6.5
With Bombay Sapphire & Martini, it was never going to be brilliant, and indeed it was smooth but bland. Barely cold, and as if that weren't bad enough, it featured a single, greyish, floating olive, like a bloated corpse bobbing to the surface of the East River. The horror!

Jet: 7.5
I asked for Tanqueray because I couldn't face a house pour of Bombay. I got Tanqueray stirred with ice and poured into an unchilled Noilly-rinsed glass, with four olives on a complicated two-stick arrangement. The pour was generous to a fault (verging on the ridiculous). Perhaps not quite cold enough, otherwise very pleasant.

Hummingbird: 9.5
Exquisite. Icy cold, crystal clear, delicate herbal & citrus notes set off with a peppery bite. They had no Tanqueray, but used Tanqueray Ten for a mere dollar extra! Impeccable decisions continued with the use of Noilly Prat and three olives with no mucking about. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Martini.

Monsoon Poon: 7
The trainee barman was under instructions from his manager, but still went for vodka by default: not a good sign. He poured Noilly into a chilled glass, stirred Plymouth (fairly roughly) with ice, dispensed with the excess vermouth, then strained in the gin and added three olives. The result: nice herbal aromas, good robust flavours to start with, nice and cold with an oily mouthfeel, but a rough, unbalanced, "hot" finish. Not a bad effort for a beginner, but with this chain getting a right bollocking from some quarters, it needs to do better then this.

Lumiere: 5
This was perhaps not a fair test, since they had no barman on duty and the chef had a go instead. Worryingly, he started by asking whether I wanted soda. Oh dear. I directed him towards the Tanqueray & vermouth, and asked for it stirred ("Really? I thought the whole James Bond idea was to shake?"). He stirred the mixture with ice in a tumbler, using the only implement he could find (a straw), and added a single olive. Surprisingly, it actually resembled a Martini to some degree, despite the use of sweet vermouth. It suffered from insufficient chilling, and got a bit sickly by the end, but I've had worse. And yes, this was Mystery Bar #21.

Rouge: 6
The barman started with cold glass, then rinsed it with Noilly Prat (at room temperature) and poured in South Gin (also at room temperature). A pleasant citrusy aroma, and a passable oily texture with hints of botanical flavours, were let down by a crude raw alcohol finish. Three olives on clear plastic stick with a blue knob & Absolut branding, which seemed a little tacky. Worse, the olives tasted rancid. At least no-one will have to suffer poor cocktails or service here again.

Seam: 7
South Gin & Noilly Prat. The bartender seemed far from confident, and this showed in the result. It was almost cold, but with fragments of ice floating on the top, and two loose olives. Too bland, and with a short pour that looked a bit mean in a large glass.

Hope Bros: 7
Pleasantly cold, with a smooth mouthfeel, and the flavours were nicely balanced to start with. However, they'd chosen a giant garlic-stuffed olive instead of the usual pimento, and the garlic flavour left a bitter taste at the end.

Tupelo: 8
Smooth, well balanced and reasonably cold: quaffable but far from transcendent, to coin a phrase. One of the three olives had escaped from the stick. It may sound picky to criticise this, but in a drink that is all about attention to detail, a small flaw like this detracts from the aura of perfection.


At 2:29 pm, February 17, 2006, Blogger the_sifter said...

Whatever it is you do during the day when you're recovering from your 'research' - you're in the wrong job.


At 2:42 pm, February 17, 2006, Blogger s. said...

I had the worst martini imaginable at Marche, years ago, before it was Lumiere, and never went back. It was sweet. I think they used Martini Rosso, and mixed it 3:5 measures. Or something equally revolting.

Very quaffable effort last night at Liquidate, by ex-Tupelo staffer J., but the only gins available were South and Plymouth. I plumped for the latter. I suspect the olives were past their best-by date, too.

Tom, your never far from the topic of conversation whenever Sifty and I convene. Just thought you'd want to know :)

At 2:45 pm, February 17, 2006, Blogger s. said...

Oh, and Sam at the Boulcott St. Bistro did an excellent job of a 1951 the other night, despite it being his first time. I coached him, of course. Thank you, thank you, you're very kind.

(And I got him with the Triple Sec trap, too.)

At 4:52 pm, February 17, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

The first 1951 Martini I had was at Capitol, and it was superb. What was the Triple Sec trap? Is it about some people not knowing that Cointreau is a brand of Triple Sec?

Incidentally, I once got into an argument with the quizmistress at Murphy's over an answer to the question "what else is in a Sidecar beside Brandy"? "Cointreau" was one of the options, so I chose that, but the official answer was "Bacardi"! Suffice to say, I'll never order a Sidecar at Murphy's. Not that one would, anyway.

At 1:02 pm, February 20, 2006, Blogger Kate Borrell said...

You prob noticed by now but Beau Monde has closed to!

At 1:06 pm, February 20, 2006, Blogger Kate Borrell said...

Oh - and looking at that list of bars... would you ever darken the doors of The Lab or The Lab Underground Bar? (cough)

At 2:02 pm, February 20, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Yes, I noticed on Saturday night (during my Bar Safari with Duncan) that Beau Monde had closed. And judging by the tone of the landlord's notice on the door, I suspect that they haven't just decided to retire after making a tidy profit. A pity (though Stephen would disagree).

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any excuses for excluding The Lab from my list. I don't think I'll be attempting a Martini there, though!

Oh, and when did Monkey become a gay bar?

At 4:02 pm, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever wondered why those "liquid fires" got called "Spirits"? Or who called them such?

At 10:03 am, February 21, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Probably something quasi-alchemical about the distillation process releasing the "spirit" of the substance. I could google it or look on Wikipedia, but I've got to get back to work and ... oh bugger it, I'll have a look! :-)

At 10:08 am, February 21, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Yep: "The terms "alembic" and "alcohol", and possibly the metaphors "spirit" and aqua vitæ ("life-water") for the distilled product, can be traced to Middle Eastern alchemy." See the Wikipedia article on Spirits.


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