Drink: Shaken and stirred

Gerard Gilbert celebrates the mighty martini. Illustration by Frazer Hudson; Let it be made clear that a proper martini bears scant relationship to what is served in most British pubs - a vermouth of that trademark chased around a glass by fizzy lemonade
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I can't remember my first martini. Quite literally. I know when I first consumed it - a summer evening in 1995 - and where I first consumed it - on a croquet lawn in Northern France. And if that sounds ludicrously Proustian, let it be said that I can't even begin to "recherche" these particular "temps perdus".

I've since learned that these attacks are known as "martini madness" - the onrush of what WH Auden called "the silver bullet". So there I was, languidly pursuing a croquet ball around the garden, when my host came bearing a tray of those Y-shaped glasses. A few sips of chilly, resinous tincture later, and I am, by all accounts, attacking an elder bush with my croquet mallet, shouting something about it being an invasive garden pest. As indeed it is.

The onset of martini madness is usually less spectacular, marked by a predictable burst of alcohol loquaciousness - but to the power of 10. My brother, a teetotal for most of his adult life, was tempted back to the booze by the expansive effect martinis had on the minimalist bent of my conversation. A friend, much given to visiting toilets with wrappers of white powder, had an almost Pauline conversion after his first martini. I believe his exact words were: "Who needs Class A drugs when you can have one of these?"

Let it be made clear at this point that a proper martini bears scant relationship to what you would be served if you asked for a "Martini" in most British pubs. That would be a Martini - ie a vermouth of that trademark - perhaps chased around a glass by fizzy lemonade. I can't recall if Alison Steadman drank the stuff in Abigail's Party, but you get the picture.

A martini, on the other hand, is a cocktail made up primarily of gin (leave the vodkatinis to the spy fiction of Ian Fleming), and a dash, according to taste, of dry vermouth. Mix the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of crushed ice, shake (or stir, as you prefer; opinions are divided) and then pour, adding a twist of lemon zest. The citric essence becomes more intense the further you drain the drink.

If you prefer to add an olive, make sure it is a green one or you are going to look pretty silly in sophisticated company. Add a pickled onion instead of the lemon or olive and, strictly speaking, you have a Gibson - named after the 1940s New York artist, Charles Dana Gibson, who used a pearl onion because his club ran out of olives one night.

A few words about proportionality. For many people, the addition of vermouth is simply a nicety. Winston Churchill was said to do no more than show the vermouth bottle to the cocktail shaker. Some are content to let the shadow of the vermouth bottle fall upon the gin bottle, while others have been known to go so far as to bow in the direction of France. My no-longer- teetotal brother rinses the ice cubes in Noilly Prat before draining. Purists will choke on their Ritz crackers (an ideal companion), but I actually like the taste of the vermouth - and add it in two parts to three parts gin. Otherwise, it seems you might as well drink straight from the gin bottle. However, I recently decreased the amount of vermouth, so it might simply be a gradualist thing.

Of equal importance is the temperature of the drink. In short, the colder the better. I leave the glasses in the fridge for an hour before serving. The gin should be kept in the freezer, at which point it takes on a wonderful viscous quality, without actually freezing. At least, I have never frozen a bottle of gin.

With the current boom in cocktail bars, the time looks ripe for something of a martini revival. The two previous great epochs of martini drinking were the Jazz Age and the 1950s - interestingly enough, both post-war periods. Prohibition fuelled the first craze in America, gin being easier to make in the basement than whisky. It was often sold with vermouth and a lemon twist mixed in to disguise the home-made taste.

The 1950s saw the birth of the "three martini lunch". Job-for-life executives napped through the afternoon on it, as did their wives back home, and Cold War diplomacy was reported to have been almost run on the cocktail ever since Roosevelt served Stalin one at the Tehran Conference in 1943 (a Roosevelt aide apparently described these years as "the four martinis and lets have an agreement" era). When tighter, as it were, drink-driving laws were introduced in the 1960s, that was the end of that.

I don't suggest a return to those gin-swilling days. One largish, ice cold martini makes the perfect aperitif, and anyway, in my experience, they can only be drunk between about seven and 8.30 in the evening. A martini taken as a digestif at midnight is almost undrinkable. One at noon would hammer you to the floorboards and leave you there. In moderation, anyhow, and you can keep drinking martinis until your doctor tells you it's time to stop. And he will.