The Martini Reigns Supreme
By John Bobey
photography by william brinson
Crescendo martini glass, Luigi Bormiolo ($46, set of four). Bloomingdale’s
|Joan Crawford partied her way through Our Dancing Daughters in 1928|
Today, the Los Angeles cocktail culture is being shaken up and stirred by the resurgent popularity of the martini. As with all the best things in life, it comes down to timing. “Whenever I’m out and order a martini, if someone else at the bar is drinking one, there is always an exchange of a knowing look,” says screenwriter and author Rick Copp. “It’s almost like a secret club we don’t want too many people to belong to, because if everyone around the bar was drinking a martini, we wouldn’t look as cool.”
And the martini’s comeback timing couldn’t be better, as cool and quality are not only mingling at the bar, but also at the finest restaurants. Los Angeles’s most elite eateries have been upping their liquor programs as demand for the very best now applies to the bar as well as the kitchen. When it comes to expertly handcrafted cocktails, this is the “magic hour.”
Gaston Martinez, a William Grant & Sons brand ambassador who has created cocktail programs at Public Kitchen & Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, suggests that when seeking an expertly made martini, “I would put my bet on a good restaurant. If the food is great, chances are the bar is good as well. The martini is supposed to be a cocktail, and to me a cocktail is a mixture of two or three different spirits or flavors to create a new flavor.” Simplicity is key: The best spirits and freshest garnishes excite martini lovers and keep them coming back.
“The martini is our No. 1 seller, far and away,” says Robert Rouleau, beverage manager for The Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows, home to the iconic Polo Lounge. “The numbers don’t lie—a good half of the cocktails we serve are martinis. The martini is king here.” To him, the martini still reigns supreme because, “Our guests are discerning drinkers. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Martini's Beginning
Like so many tales passed down in this city, the martini’s birth is likely based “somewhat” on a true story. As we learned from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Official drinkers’ history—an unofficial history if there ever was one—suggests the martini was first created at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, where people would stop on their way to catch the train to Martinez, 35 miles east of the city. Either over time or due to slurred speech, “Martinez” supposedly became “martini.” Add to this the fact The Bar-Tender’s Guide (the 1887 “bible” by Jerry Thomas, who is often called the “father of American mixology”) includes a recipe for just such a thirst quencher. “The Martinez is two parts sweet vermouth, one part gin, a spoonful of maraschino liquor, and bitters stirred up,” says Martinez. “My last name is Martinez—I wish I held the patent!”
The martini has been celebrated onscreen since the first flickers illuminated Hollywood—and with good reason. “The martini has been enjoyed and endorsed by a lot of celebrities. It became the embodiment of a generation,” says Francesco Lafranconi, spirits expert, educator, and developer of cocktail programs for restaurateurs including Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller. “It became part of a lifestyle, which is why the martini is synonymous with sophistication, good living, and luxury. It represents a state of being.”
Never did a libation epitomize a way of life more than the martini in the Roaring ’20s in Hollywood. In speakeasies, “It” girls such as Clara Bow were known for tipping them back. In film, with the help of this sophisticated tipple, Harold Lloyd took a tipsy walk on a ledge in 1920’s High and Dizzy; W.C. Fields played a bootlegging pharmacist in 1926’s It’s the Old Army Game; and Joan Crawford partied her way through 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. On a film set, the martini shot is typically the last of the day, preceding the first actual martini.
In the 1930s, The Thin Man series was as well known for its characters’ affinity for martinis as for their witty sleuthing. To put it mildly, Nick and Nora Charles—and likely the real-life William Powell and Myrna Loy—enjoyed a martini or two.
Nora: Say, how many drinks have you had?
Nick: This will make six martinis.
Nora (to waiter): All right, will you bring me five more martinis, Leo? And line them up right here.
photograph by everett collection (the thin man, our dancing daughters, swingers); doctormacro.com (high and dizzy );
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.