Wed 4 Apr 2007
I have in my hand a menu from The Grill Room, a chain of high-end bar-and-grill style restaurants — a filet mignon is $42.95 — that started in Los Angeles. In the upper left hand corner of the menu is a list titled “Martinis,” and on that list you will find the Negroni, the Sidecar and the Cosmopolitan as well as various concoctions made primarily from vodka.
Now, let’s get something straight here. The Negroni and the Sidecar, noble drinks in the 20th Century’s bright chronicle of alcoholic beverages, and the Cosmopolitan, that fey, starry-eyed newcomer, are not martinis. In fact only the Martini is a martini: four parts gin, one part dry vermouth, stir — please! — with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. Sorry, I’m not an olive man.
Notice that I wrote “cocktail glass.” That shallow, inverted cone-shaped vessel resting on a medium-length stem on a fairly wide base — don’t want the thing to tump over — is now almost universally and mistaken referred to as a “martini glass;” even bartenders commit this error, certainly because of the wide popularity of “martinis” and “martini bars” in the 1990s and early 2000s. By what linguists call “back-formation” — “the creation by analogy of a new word in the false assumption that the existing word is a derivation of the new word, i.e., ‘to burgle’ from ‘burglar’” — the glass once known as cocktail, because cocktails were served in it, became tagged by its ubiquitous and multiplying contents. And in a further eroding of authenticity and integrity, all the drinks served in a “martini” glass are now, at least in some quarters, called “martinis.”
Woe is me.
Kids, language counts. In the beginning was the word, and if we don’t take care of words they will get all rubbed together, and jumbled together, and what we use them to name — the most important function of language — will be lost in the mists of far-off last year, poured out like dregs by marketers and flacks whose sole employ is altering what we name and what we know for commercial purposes. (Governments do this too; have you noticed?)
Hark to the poor Patagonian toothfish, an ugly and humble but useful fish for the kitchens of a million North American restaurants. “We’ll never sell a creature called the Patagonian toothfish,” some marketer said back in the late 1980s, and lo and behold, a new fish was born, the Chilean sea bass, and if you’ve eaten one of them, you’ve eaten a thousand. Didn’t know that the Chilean sea bass was actually the Patagonian toothfish? Pretty soon no one will.
Or take the lordly Portobello mushroom. Compare it to the smaller and more common button or Cremini mushroom in the grocery store produce aisle. Did you know that a Portobello, so prized for its flavor and meatiness, is simply a button (or Cremini) mushroom allowed to grow bigger? Or, to reverse the order, a Cremini is an immature Portobello? And by the way, Portobello is the correct spelling, ever though on the packaging and on restaurant menus we see the name spelled “portobella,” “portabello” and “portabella.” Hence (and awfully) button mushrooms are now marketed (at your market) as — “Baby Bellas”!
Enough. Let’s return to cocktails.
Here’s what I want you to remember:
1. Cocktails are alcoholic drinks, best consumed before dinner and usually composed of a base, a modifier and an accent. (The terminology comes from my favorite cocktail book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. Viking, 1998)
2. Cocktails are served in cocktail glasses.
3. A Martini is a cocktail, as is a Cosmopolitan, a Sidecar, a Negroni and several hundred (or thousand) of examples, many invented only yesterday in the increasing drive for splashy signature drinks in bars and restaurants.
4. Cocktails should be served very cold, very very cold.
5. Generally speaking, cocktails with fruit juices should be shaken and all others should be stirred, but it’s really a question of the crystalline clarity of the result that matters. A Martini of course should be stirred, so it reveals no trace of cloudiness whatever. We’re talking about elegance.
And now, here are recipes for a Sidecar and a Negroni, also from Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century.
1 and a half ounces cognac
Three-quarters ounce Cointreau
Three-quarters ounce lemon juice
Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel.
1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel.
The image of the cocktail glass is from acemart.com.
The image of the Sidecar is from epicurious.com.
The image of the Negroni is from drinkalizer.com.