With the summer heat upon us, I regret the loss of my ability to enjoy a Martini. Time was that I could wend away an evening enjoying an ice-cold Martini or two while listening to music or reading or just staring out into space…just to wend away the evening and enjoy the Martini, not to lose myself in drunkenness. But several years ago, inexplicably, gin decided to mistreat me…a single ice-cold Martini and I had trouble speaking clearly. I realized that terrible evening that neither my speech nor my thinking was clear, after just one drink. Trying to ignore my misfortune, I tried another Martini a week later and suffered the same, cruel effect.
No more are my summers filled with early-evenings of gin-flavored relaxation. I had really enjoyed the spice-rich flavor of Bombay gin, although a friend always championed the crisp juniper of Beefeater’s. A Martini is made of four elements that must be expertly aligned: ice-coldness, gin, dry vermouth, and olives. Some sadly mistaken people drink Martinis with an onion or a twist, but those treatments miss so much of the essential. The martini must be icy—it must be drunk quickly or the coldness fades as a contributing factor; the vermouth must be a whisper that seduces the dryness of the gin to the surface—too much vermouth and the clarity of the gin is overwhelmed; the olives add a salty crunch just before the final swallow. Not the pretentious Martini of James Bond, served ice cold in a tall, conic, frosty, sweating glass, Martinis are a quintessential summer experience: the cleanliness of the gin, the hint of vermouth’s grape, the salt and crunch of the olives all crystal clear in the crystal. Simple. Perfect. Summer.
Fortunately, bourbon has not mistreated me…yet. I used to reserve Manhattans for wintertime, but without Martinis, I sometimes call a Manhattan into summer duty, too. But let me warn you: Beware the Manhattan! It can be a half-hour of heaven in a glass, or it can be a grand disappointment. I’ve had many a Manhattan poured for me at bars and restaurants, and often they are no better than a dump of whiskey in a glass. Often, bartenders mix a Manhattan as if it were a whiskeyed version of the Martini with just a hint of vermouth or they add some designer cherry or way too much bitters. But such a drink expresses the bartender’s ignorance much more than it provides the pleasure of the Manhattan. A real Manhattan offers a richness of flavor that is a delight. Really…a delight. Four elements: cherries with their juice, sweet vermouth, bourbon, and a splash of bitters. It must be cold, too, to be enjoyed, but it can be served “on the rocks.” I prefer my Manhattan served in a highball glass to funnel the scents to my nose as I sip. A Manhattan has a sweetness to it…a good bourbon—Knob Creek is my preference, but I’m not a bourbon snob—has the natural sweetness of corn, then mix it with two Maraschino cherries and a teaspoon of the juice, then add sweet vermouth (one part vermouth to three parts bourbon) to complete the sweetness, and finally just a splash—one or two drops—of bitters to add a real flavor fullness. The bitters—if added last right on top of the floating ice—grab your nose before you even taste the drink. It’s like eating chocolate-covered pretzels, or sweet and sour chicken from your favorite Chinese restaurant, or cheese-stuffed jalapenos… it’s the complexity of flavors dazzling your mouth that astounds you. The sweet vermouth accentuates the corn-sweetness of the bourbon, and the pure sweetness of the cherry adds to it all…except that the bitters smell like mincemeat pie and taste like a surprise. I hate getting a poorly made Manhattan—in the end it’s just a drink…it’s like kissing one’s Aunt Erma. But a well-made Manhattan is a delight of mixed flavors, accentuated one against the other, intertwined and inseparable…it’s like kissing the girl you’ve always wanted to kiss, and right in the middle of it, she pulls you closer. Shazam!