Evolution and Extinction 

Evolution and Extinction

Are purists who believe the martini is not a glass being left behind?

If you look at the ape evolutionary tree, there are many branches resulting in a variety of primates, including humans. Some are extinct, such as the Neanderthal, while some are rapidly approaching extermination, like the orangutan. As the martini evolved along its evolutionary tree, an entire branch broke off from the trunk and became the contemporary martini. The differences were subtle at first-change the garnish, play with proportions of flavorings, but today what is called a martini has evolved into a multi-branched bush.

I have given much thought over many a long-stemmed chalice regarding the edible garnish vs. the non-edible garnish-lemon twist vs. olives. What purpose does a garnish serve? Is it to flavor? Is it for looks? Is it to eat? These thoughts cross my mind as I nibble on an olive. Should you eat the coffee beans in your Sambuca? Should you chew up the cranberries in a properly made Cosmopolitan? It's something to think about.

For years, garnishes in martinis always varied between the olive and the lemon twist. And for years, this was a happy disagreement among martini purists, one they could agree to disagree over. So it is no wonder that one of the first major evolutionary changes that occurred in the martini with the garnish-and the biggest lasting change-was the Gibson. The Gibson creation myth goes like this: In the 1920s, a State Department officer named Gibson found he had a low tolerance for alcohol, so he devised a plan when he was out socially to have the bartender make his drink with water, not gin. To differentiate the drink from others when serving, the bartenders put in a cocktail onion instead of an olive. Gibson's tolerance to alcohol had miraculously increased and astonished his friends. He attributed his newfound stamina to the magical qualities of the onion. Hence, the Gibson was invented.

As with other cocktails, there is not just one creation myth. There are other stories about the Gibson. Purists know that Gibsons should be served with two cocktail onions. This is because twin sisters in Chicago hated olives but loved martinis. When they went out on the town, they would ask bartenders to substitute cocktail onions for the olives. The twins' last name? Gibson, of course. The most likely story, according to Barnaby Conrad III in his all-encompassing tome, The Martini, is of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson's request to the bartender at The Players, a New York club, for a "better martini." The bartender, Charley Connolly, substituted a cocktail onion for an olive and presto.

Further evolutionary changes came mostly as a result of marketing and martini competitions. A black olive substituted for a green olive has been called a Midnight Martini or Buckeye Martini, among other things. Seagram's suggested a drop of Sake for an Asian-themed martini in the 1970s. Restaurants such as Morton's in Chicago put forth a martini-only menu, with drinks divided into the classics, the contemporaries and the new contemporaries, further dividing the newer martini concoctions from the older evolutionary descendents. Marketing of flavored vodkas and ever-improved distilling techniques such as "distilled five times" or "filtered through quartz crystals, not charcoal" are common ways to entice drinkers to order not just a martini, but a Stoli martini, Absolut martini, Sapphire martini or any of the new boutique spirits. Dessert martinis, aperitif martinis, sweet, sour, bitter-today anything served in a martini glass is labeled as a martini on bar menus worldwide.

The Martini Mix-Off Rages On

One of last year's big winners at the May Martini Mix-Off was Bardenay's bartender Michael Rowe with his specialty martini, the Desert Rose. This Thursday the judges (Boise Art Museum Executive Director Tim Close, The Idaho Statesman's Jeanne Huff, Doug Allen of the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary, Cassis owner Molly Griffin and myself, Bingo Barnes) start out at Bardenay at seven. Mr. Rowe will serve up the Bardenay Bond, the Ginger Rum Cocktail and the Absolut S'mores, which is expected to taste just like a, well ... you guessed it.

At eight o'clock, the judges ride in their stretch limo to Lock Stock & Barrel, a new competitor this year. Bartender Melissa Ellenberger will woo the judges palettes with the Dirty Tanquerey, the Lock-Hoppin-tini (a grasshopper-ish concoction) and the Blueberry-tini for the Absolut entry. From my recollection, the dirty martini is not one served up over the last two years by bartenders for the contest. It's a nice departure from the tried and true.

At nine o'clock, the judges stagger in to their final bar for the night, Ha'Penny. There mixologist Anthony Catalano will prepare the Poor Man's Pub Martini (a Vesper-like concoction with a Neopolitan array of olives), the Buena Vista (a definite departure from the other modern martini entries, using Jameson Irish whiskey. (Irish and American whiskey is spelled with an "E". Scotch, Japanese and Canadian whisky does not have an "E". However, Maker's Mark prefers to spell their brand without an "E". It can be confusing, especially after a few whiskies/whiskeys.) The ninth cocktail of the evening will be the Tarragon Citrus Cooler, using Absolut Mandarin.

Martini Mix-Off tickets are available for $60 at any participating restaurant. A ticket entitles you to one martini of your choice at all 12 bars and restaurants. Not only that, it gets you into the gala event on June 4 and a final 13th drink at the Boise Art Museum Martini Gala. Enjoy your martinis at each participating restaurant during the entire month of May or join the judges this Thursday night. Proceeds go to benefit the Boise Art Museum.

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