It's now officially recognised that Martini anarchy has been loosed upon the world. A drink that, in theory, contains just gin or vodka plus vermouth and an optional gar-nish, may now be made with whisky rather than white spirits; it may contain Chambord, sherry, candied flowers, lemon grass, ginger, pineapple, sake.
The idea of slinging in a mollusc was news to me, but Mr Shaffer (rhymes with safer) has been making them for seven months at the Shaffer City Oyster Bar and Grill, 5 West 21st Street, New York, New York (00 1 212 255 9827). He has a daily-changing list of oysters, both Atlantic and Pacific, and when someone wants one in a Martini he uses whatever strikes his fancy. Mine was a bluepoint, one of the several noble varieties of Atlantic oyster commonly sold on the eastern seaboard of the USA.
But why put these delectable creatures in a drink? Mr Shaffer's rationale was that Martinis often have a bit of brine in them anyway, from an olive, and the salty taste goes well with the cocktail. So why not get the very quintessence of brine, a perfect, plump oyster? You make your Martini in the usual way (vodka rather than gin), then slip in the bivalve. As you begin to sip, the drink tastes like a Martini. Around halfway through, the marine essence begins to announce itself. At this point, counsels Mr Shaffer, you eat the oyster, which has been partly "cooked" by the alcohol in the drink. Regard it as a turbo-charged glass of ceviche.
I followed his advice on the proper procedure, and was completely won over. The oyster tasted entirely of itself, with just a hint of strong alcohol on the finish. In lifting it out (not a pretty sight), I left behind a slightly cloudy residue of oyster particulates which flavoured the remainder of the glass's contents. And the rest of the drink was sheer bliss, like a distillation of oyster in pure Martini-ness. If you like Martinis, and you like oysters, I can more or less guarantee that you'll enjoy drinking one of these guys.
Possibly not more than one, however. I admit that I will not rush to drink oyster Martinis every time I feel like expanding my consciousness with a dose of the world's greatest cocktail. Indeed, the second I ordered chez Shaffer was garnished with lemon rather than a living creature. But it is worth having once. And incidentally, it disproves an old chestnut of fake dietary wisdom: the idea that you shouldn't drink spirits when you eat oysters. I had them in the same vessel and suffered no ill effects. If someone can explain to me the rationale for this bit of pseudo-science, I will be forever in their debt.
Martinis have long been the high-fash drink in Manhattan, but they are not the only one any more. New Yorkers are always restless to find the next cool consumable, and the bandwagon has been rolling at increasing speed for Manhattan's eponymous cocktail. The origins of the Manhattan are now enshrouded in myth as dense as early-morning fog, but the drink itself is simple: four parts rye or Bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters. Stir with cracked ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a maraschino cherry. If you use sweet and dry vermouth in equal quantities, you will have a Perfect Manhattan; use dry alone and it's a Dry Manhattan; add a splash of lemon juice and it's an Uptown Manhattan; use Scotch instead of American whiskey and it's a Rob Roy.
Whatever the details, the Manhattan calls to mind the drinking habits of an earlier era - the time, as Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead put it in their excellent and enjoyable new book Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (Viking, $19.95), when "a joint was still your local bar". And it's a perfect cocktail for the colder months. To quote Harrington and Moorhead again: "During the fall, you'll find us at a certain zinc-capped bar, sipping this aesthetic creation from a cocktail glass, getting our ass kicked (in the most genteel fashion) by dose after dose of true Kentucky sour mash."
If it seems as if I'm conducting the Beverage Report Philharmonic in a performance of the Ode to Harrington and Moorhead, I make no apologies. This is a really good new book, even though it labours under two noteworthy burdens. One, it's available only in the USA; two, it betrays some errors of taste, in my opinion, in the manufacture of certain drinks. Apart from that I can go weak at the knees over it even without the benefit of an Oyster Martini (a drink of which the authors would probably disapprove).