The Martini Is Our Most Political Cocktail. Let's Drink a Lot of Them.
No cocktail is as tightly intertwined with politics as the martini.
It was the first drink of the day for Gerald Ford back when he was a member of the House. And it was Richard Nixon’s last before he stepped down as President. It’s the only proper order in DC’s most historic political haunt, Off the Record in the Hay-Adams Hotel. There it’s served with zero frills, because as longtime barman John Boswell once told the Times, ''John McCain doesn't want a razzle-dazzle martini.''
No matter how hard we try to avoid it, we will be talking about politics in bars until November 8th, and we should drink the cocktail best suited for the conversation (God knows, we all need it). Here’s why the martini’s so fitting:
It's a symbol of class warfare
During the Mad Men era the martini became emblematic of tax write-offs for wealthy businessmen. But there was backlash from the working class. The war against the “three-martini lunch” started with John F. Kennedy, but the first major battle was fought by George McGovern in ‘72 when he said:
“There is something fundamentally wrong with the tax system… when it allows a corporate executive to deduct his $20 martini lunch while a working man cannot deduct the price of his bologna sandwich.”
If there’s anything the 1970s were more notorious for than disco and herpes, it’s inflation. By 1976, Jimmy Carter was famously railing against the working class subsidizing the $50 martini lunch. Gerald Ford’s witty comeback -- “The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful, and a snootful at the same time?” -- might have won him the election, if he hadn’t waited until 1978 to deliver it, at a speech to the other NRA, the National Restaurant Association.
Carter failed to push through three-martini-lunch legislation, but Reagan pulled it off in ‘86, reducing the meals & entertainment write-off in exchange lowering the business tax rate. Clinton later finished the job with further deductions on deductions. By the time he was done, the three-martini lunch made as much business sense as businessmen after three martinis.
Sadly, at some point in the 1980s, pundits and pols started referring to the “three-martini lunch” as the “two-martini lunch,” stripping practitioners of legend status and recasting them as just a bunch of guys who drank a little too much at noon.
It can be used as a personal insult
In Across the River and Into the Trees, Hemingway has the character Colonel Richard Cantwell order “Montgomerys. Fifteen to one” (15 parts gin, one part vermouth). The teeny amount of fortified wine was meant to slight the courage of real-life Allied Commander Bernard Montgomery -- who reputedly wouldn’t commit to a battle without a 15:1 troop advantage. Not everyone was impressed by the literary libation’s heavy alcohol content though; spirits writer Troy Patterson dismissed it from Slate’s “Martini Madness” bracket due to “its close resemblance to a load of macho horse crap.”
It's a potent tool of diplomacy
Many notables have advocated doing away with vermouth altogether. Those same notables tended to enjoy ridiculing the countries that produce vermouth. Playwright Noël Coward believed in “filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy.” Despite not being quite as heavy a drinker as he’s portrayed, Churchill bowed to France.
Franklin Roosevelt hosted a daily “Martini Hour.” Sadly, the president’s enthusiasm was far greater than his bartending skills, according to Brian Abrams, author of Party Like a President. He used too much vermouth, which might be the reason White House Counsel Samuel Rosenman routinely dumped his drinks in a potted plant.
Or maybe FDR knew exactly what he was doing. At the 1943 Tehran conference, the president served Stalin his first martini; it was so strong Khrushchev later called the cocktail “America’s lethal weapon.” Roosevelt probably didn’t care if his own appointees thought his martinis were weak; but when it came to the negotiating table, he was fully prepared to go all in with gin.
There’s no disputing Hemingway’s love of the martini. The most storied account: In August, 1944, alongside David Bruce of the OSS (the forebear of the CIA), the then-war correspondent led dozens of French Resistance fighters into the Paris Ritz to “liberate” it. The hotel manager enthusiastically asked, “Is there anything we can do for you?” “How about 73 dry martinis?” Hemingway replied. To this day the OSS Society commemorates the historic Allied order at its annual dinner, where white tablecloths are graced with hundreds of stemmed glasses.
The cocktail’s most famous praise, the H.L. Mencken quote “The martini is the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet,” could be read as slyly nativist: It ignores the Dutch, Italian, and French origins of the ingredients. That might be reading too much into Mencken, but without overanalysis, is it even a martini?
It's the star of a generational family saga that could have been made into an epic TV mini-series
If you start with the cocktail’s least likely origin myth, the martini’s story can be told as a multi-generational political saga:
- Knickerbocker Hotel bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia makes a proto-martini for John D. Rockefeller (who by most accounts never had a drop in his life, but why spoil the fun).
- Rockefeller spread the martini’s popularity to his Wall Street pals, who must have been surprised when John’s son, John Jr., became a driving force behind the National Prohibition Act. John Jr. later admitted the Act’s failure, which was basically the equivalent of Ronald Reagan saying, “You know, this war on drugs, it’s not really working.”
- Junior’s crucial reversal helped seal Prohibition’s demise, after which Junior presided over the opening of the Rainbow Room. The restaurant served a hell of a lot of martinis in 1934, then a hell of a lot more when bartending legend Dale DeGroff used it as a launchpad for the 1980s' classic cocktail revival.
- Also in 1934: Offended that Diego Rivera depicted Lenin in a mural commissioned for the RCA Building, John D.’s grandson Nelson sandblasted the artist’s work into nothingness. Paid in full but not happy, Rivera reproduced the mural at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, this time adding Trotsky, Marx, Engels, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. -- a woman to his side, a martini in his hand, and a cloud of syphilis cells above his head.
It’s an argument for conservatism. And against conservatism.
Lionized originalist judge Robert Bork insisted that the martini was the only drink suitable for drowning Republican sorrows over the Bill Clinton presidency.
No, there is only one drink that conveys conservative correctness, spreads warmth and courage throughout one’s soul, and has the additional merit of being the most delicious cocktail ever invented. I refer, of course, to the dry martini, a distinctively American invention, which Bernard DeVoto called the “supreme American gift to world culture.”
Bork preached this gospel so persistently that, according to the judge, his clerks started ordering “Judge Bork martinis” at Washington bars.
The Judge Bork Martini wasn’t just any martini. It had to meet the standards of classics professor and martini expert Lowell Edmunds -- including a gin-to-vermouth ratio of between 4:1 and 8:1. The catch: As Slate’s Patterson points out, when Bork was born, a ratio of 2:1 would have been the norm. Bork’s originalism only extended back to his formative drinking years; he ignored the practices of the martini’s founding fathers.
Another flaw in the Judge’s argument: Harper’s columnist Bernard DeVoto, who Bork quotes, insisted that martinis should be served at a ratio of 3.7:1. He would’ve found 8:1 irredeemably excessive. Which just goes to show that when it comes to the martini, even the like-minded disagree.
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