Design: Straight up, without a twist

The martini has never had an unfashionable moment. But don't stir things up by drinking it out of the wrong glass. By Geoff Nicholson
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The Independent Culture
HL Mencken said the martini was the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet. I suspect he may have had a martini or two inside him at the time, but I know what he meant. The martini is classical, formal, severe, it has strict rules; and it has to be served in the right glass. You know the one, the perfect cone on a long, straight stem. The martini glass.

A New York barman once said to me: "If it ain't in a martini glass, it ain't a martini." And I tend to agree, but this isn't literally true. It's reckoned the martini was invented in the last quarter of the 19th century, whereas the classical form of the glass only became firmly associated with the drink at the end of the 1920s. Until then, martini had often been drunk out of glasses with much rounder, fuller bowls. The conical form had certainly existed before that, and Lowell Edmunds, the world's prime martini scholar and author of Martini Straight Up (John Hopkins) describes a 16th- century Italian goblet from Murano that would fit into any modern cocktail bar.

But I think the martini only attained critical mass, only became an icon, when glass and drink were mated, a little like Coke and the Coke bottle, only about a million times more interesting and sophisticated. There are those who think the martini glass is a Bauhaus version of the champagne glass, but I think this may be over-ingenious. That it owes something to Art Deco seems, however, undeniable.

Any sort of civilised drinking has its visual element. We want to see the colour and clarity of wine or whisky, but with a martini it's even more important because there's almost nothing to see. It's sometimes called the silver bullet, but a martini isn't silver exactly, it's transparent, ethereal, pure shimmering liquid, and you need a glass that doesn't get in the way.

That's why you absolutely don't want a martini glass to have a coloured bowl, it hides the drink; and besides, somebody might think you're drinking something girly with curacao or cranberry juice. I suppose a coloured stem is all right, and a simple gold line round the rim doesn't detract too much, but it doesn't add anything either. I have to confess I find myself rather amused by those glasses with zig-zag stems, but if you push me I'll admit they're probably a bit too frivolous for the purist martini drinker.

The martini glass has become a symbol. You'll find it in international airports as a sign for the bar. You'll find it outlined in neon above some of the sleaziest drinking joints in America. Children's playgrounds in New York have signs showing a martini glass with a red line through it to indicate "no alcohol".

That symbolism has been taken up by the knowing, easy-listening, lounge- and-bachelor-pad crowd, and you'll see the martini glass plastered all over current album covers and movie posters. It's synonymous with cool.

But although it's retro, it isn't narrowly nostalgic. And although some of the adherents of cocktail culture may be ironists, there's certainly nothing ironic about the drink itself.

A really good martini glass isn't entirely easy to drink from. If the glass is full and you lift it up carelessly, then the weight of liquid at the rim will form a wave and slop all over the place. This difficulty is no bad thing. It means you have to pick it up gently, carefully, treat it with respect, and this is entirely appropriate. The martini is not to be taken lightly.

And size is really important. A martini glass can be too big, and it can hold too much liquid. This isn't a matter of "units", it's a question of temperature. A martini has to be as cold as Valley Forge, and if it sits in a huge glass for too long it gets warm, and loses its character. Two good little 'uns will always beat one big 'un.

Like all the best designs, you toy with the martini glass at your peril. Maybe you've seen those Bombay Sapphire gin advertisements in which designers have re-invented, or simply deconstructed, the martini glass.

One, by Eliav Nissan, involves two bowls and two intertwined stems, so you can drink and spill simultaneously. Another, by Hilton McConnico, has a glass spike on which the olive is impaled, so you can also poke your eye out. This is called trying too hard. There's no need to re- invent something that's already perfect.

Now, having got hold of your perfect martini glass, all you need is someone to shake or stir your perfect martini - and that's where the arguments really start.

Geoff Nicholson's new novel, `Female Ruins', is published by Gollancz (pounds 9.99)

A perfect martini? Certainly...

OPINIONS ON how to mix the perfect martini vary widely, and discussions between purists can become heated enough to melt the ice in the coolest of cocktail shakers. Don't even mention vodka in certain circles. According to Michael Jackson's Bar and Cocktail Book (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 9.99), the drink is made with "one whisper dry vermouth, one avalanche London Dry Gin, a touch of orange bitters (optional), and lemon zest. Stir the vermouth, gin and orange bitters in a mixing glass amid a mountain of ice-cubes, for a maximum of 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Add the lemon zest. Ask any drinking guests whether decorations are to be worn."

Intriguing bastardisations to offend martini mavens include the pounds 7.25 Fresh Fruit Martini, served in London's Met Bar. The favourite variety, watermelon, is made by squeezing a piece of the fresh fruit into a cocktail shaker with a large shot of chilled vodka, two teaspoons of sugar-syrup and just a dash of orange bitters, and shaking hard before straining into a chilled martini glass. Head bartender Guillaume would use nothing but the classic martini glass, such as the one pictured, made by Dartington Crystal (pounds 19.95 from Harrods). For an exemplary cocktail shaker to turn an amateur mixologist into a suave, smooth-talking bar steward, try the Bullet cocktail shaker, pounds 49.95 large, pounds 34.95 small, from Optimum (01332 720449/ 365808). Fans of the funkier, fruity martini may like Harrods' range of shakers, from pounds 49.95 (Alessi) to pounds 119.00 (Westhof). The gin should be of a very good variety - Bombay Sapphire for choice. More importantly, make sure there is lots of it. And don't forget the olive, which should be large, juicy and green.

And if you are plagued by friends who are simply too busy to enjoy one with you, you can always e-mail them a virtual drink by visiting the martini site at www.modbooks.com.

Katy Guest

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