Imagine yourself walking into a bar for the first time ever. Let’s call it your 21st birthday. You grab the first empty stool you see, sandwiched between a middle-aged, married couple sipping red wine and a very old man probably on his sixth or seventh whiskey sour. The bartender comes over to you and asks for your drink of choice; you proceed to ask for the one cocktail you have heard of: the martini. You expect, as you have seen in the movies, the bartender to turn away and masterfully create a beautiful concoction in no time, but instead of immediately grabbing the ingredients and getting started, the bartender asks if you want vodka or gin. Was this always a decision that the customer had to make when ordering cocktails at a bar? Is there not one traditional recipe that bars follow to make one of the most renowned drinks in cocktail history?
Odds are, you are not alone if you have been asked by a bartender to be more specific regarding your drink preferences. This can be a disconcerting experience-- while customers may be accustomed to specifying between red or white wine or a lager versus an IPA, it’s less common to provide direction in terms of what ingredients a seemingly standard cocktail should include. The martini is one of few classic cocktails that has maintained its popular status through the years, perhaps partly due to the diverse range of ways it can be prepared. Further, there exists an intense love affair with the sophistication attributed to someone drinking a martini (even if it doesn’t resemble a martini at times). The different variations of the martini have allowed the cocktail to move through different centuries as a common menu item at most bars. The numerous shapes and styles the martini comes in may keep it relevant, but it also begs the question of whether the cocktail we are drinking is really even a martini anymore. Everyone knows the term “martini,” even if they can’t name its ingredients. Only drink connoisseurs and historians would understand “kangaroo” as a drink rather than just an animal.
The common day martini serves more as an idea and a description for other cocktails rather than a traditional drink that people still order. Newer drinks include the word martini or the “-tini” suffix if they are simply served in a martini cocktail glass. As these drinks generally contain vodka, they share little in common with the original gin-based martini.
Is the classification of a martini simply semantics? One of the greatest challenges in the bartending industry is communication. The communication back and forth between a customer and the bartender is extremely important to not only ensure the customer’s satisfaction, but to also make sure the bar does not waste ingredients. If someone is ordering a martini, the resulting drink should be the original recipe, only including gin and vermouth. If adding the word martini to the end of a drink’s name will ensure that the bartender knows that you want your drink served in a V-shaped glass, this serves as a fine, indirect communication tactic. Even though the drink could consist of nothing remotely similar to vermouth or gin, the addition of the suffix “-tini” can serve as an excellent signaling device. The experience the customer has when they taste the cocktail is far more important than the name of the cocktail they are drinking.
Most “martinis” differ wildly in taste, character, and essence. Today, each martini may have different ingredients, some without any ingredients from the original recipe. However, one thing that has remained consistent about the martini is the image associated with the cocktail. The stylish, telltale glass practically screams sophistication. Martinis give people an inflated sense of importance and oftentimes create the impression that the person who is drinking it may be wealthy. People love to talk about martinis; they are a mark of status.
The martini gives the average social drinker a name that sounds sophisticated. The Generation Z crowd likes the idea of drinking an alcoholic beverage from a martini glass even if what they are drinking is nowhere close to the original martini. The major idea today for successful bar owners focuses more on a customer’s preference rather than the words they use to describe the drink they want. Even though communication is one of the most important aspects of success in a bar setting, I still believe the present-day collection of “martinis” should have other names. The sophistication of ordering a martini comes from the preparation, the way in which it is ordered, and the glass that it is served in, yet has zero standardization of ingredients. Unless the concoction is made at least with gin and vermouth, there is no situation where that drink resembles a classic martini. And that’s that.