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In Praise of the Dirty Dry Vodka Martini

The dying words of Humphrey Bogart – that embodiment of cool noire – were: I never should have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”  Age?…fifty-seven. W.C.Fields liked to start his day with a couple of double Martinis in the morning – one before breakfast and one after. He died of cirrhosis of the liver age sixty-six.

I realise I’m not selling this very well, but here’s the thing: Bogie and William Claude drank gin Martinis. I’m a vodka Martini man. To be accurate, dirty dry vodka Martini (we’ll come to the ‘dirty’ bit by-and-by.)  I shudder at those made with gin – the result of a near-death encounter. I still suffer PTGD, Post Traumatic Gin Disorder, with flashbacks to a night of the ceaseless chucking horrors into a bathtub at an art school party in London’s Sussex Gardens. 

But, what’s your point I hear you say? Simply this: I have discovered the cocktail that, when made correctly, with knowledge, understanding, and in a timely fashion, is unsurpassable as a restorative against the troubles of the mind and spirit; what the Pulitzer Prize-winning author E.B.White called the “the elixir of quietude”. Indeed. The taut surface of a dry Martini is an ocean of calm; that first exquisite sip when time seems to stand still, a morphine-like fuzzy warmth spreads through the body; first the tongue, then the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure centre, then every fibre. 

Pic 1 Humphrey Bogart
Pic 4 Denis thatcher

‘Hawkeye’ Pierce from M*A*S*H* described the process thus: “I’m going to tie myself to huge olive and sink to the bottom of a Martini.” He survived 255 episodes by having his own still to hand where most of us keep a bedside table. That other American icon and acute observer of the human condition, Homer Simpson, was a kindred spirit. He mused “Mmm…just how I like my Martini. Full of alcohol.

Back to the bathtub-versus-vodka debate. Surely no man was in more need of finding a way of maintaining some sort of equilibrium than Denis Thatcher, consort to our late lamentable (or would you prefer ‘lamented’) P.M.. His solution on long distance flights was recorded as follows: ‘An opener, a brightener, a lifter, a tincture, a large gin-and-tonic without the tonic, a snifter, a snort, a snorter.’ During my days as a journalist, I recall seeing Denis exit a Mansion House dinner in a state of some bewilderment, stagger into the back of a waiting limousine, and immediately exit through the opposite door.

Gin can evoke craziness or weeping, life-long revulsion…and the hangover. P.G. Wodehouse lists varieties in his Wooster/Jeeves novel The Mating Season:…there are six varieties of hangover — the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie“. I’ll add my Bathtub to that.

Vodka is altogether different. From the Slavic ‘Voda’ meaning water; a spirit made from potatoes, molasses and grain; though maize, barley, beets, onions and grapes can also be used. Your five-a-day. Six if you add an olive. Water with a kick. No hangovers in dirty dry vodka Martini land.

Way before Fleming wrote Bond’s immortal phrase “Shaken, not stirred” more than a whiff of snobbism had affected the whole process of Martini-making. Noel Coward said that “The perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy”. Contrariwise, Churchill believed that “The only way to make a Martini is with ice-cold gin, and a bow in the direction of France” (some confusion over French Vermouth and Italian Martini here). 

Pic 5 James Bond
Pic 6 MaeWest

Howsoever you make yours, or in my case, have them made, the effect can be startling: I like to have a Martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four, I’m under my host” quoth Dorothy Parker: or consider Mae West’s immortal line in the ’37 film Every Day’s a Holiday: “I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini”. Woody Allen jested: “I’m not a drinker; my body won’t tolerate spirits really. I had two Martinis New Year’s Eve and I tried to hi-jack an elevator and fly it to Cuba”; while Tallulah Bankhead remarked: “All my life I’ve been terrible at remembering people’s names. I once introduced a friend of mine as Martini. Her name was actually Olive”.

Whilst I am a dedicated drinker of the DDVM I have never made one, I don’t mix them myself but put my trust in those who know what they’re doing – one a very close friend and expert amateur mixologist; the other a professional – the barman in Le Blizzard, Val d’Isère, David Rivet. He is a tall, tanned, elegant Français, immaculately clad in tartan trousers, blue waistcoat, sharp shirt and tie. “A Dirty Dry Vodka Martini? Of course. How do you like it? Please, sit down and leave things to me”.

There follows that delicious pause, best described by Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye: ‘I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar – that’s wonderful.

Now, I’m extremely fussy. OCD. Stolichnaya Premium vodka, Dolin de Chambery dry vermouth, a single green Queen Andalusian olive. David does not disappoint. We talked. “I make cocktails by instinct; 20% connaissance, 80% psychologie”. His trousers? “I go to   Scotland to buy the cloth. It is Hamilton Red Modern tartan. I have it made up in Paris”. Here is a man of style, a Zen barman.

His directions:

1) Fill stirring beaker with chipped ice
2) Add 10ml of Dolin Vermouth and stir, coating the ice
3) Drain excess Vermouth
4) Add 5ml of olive brine
5) Add 75ml of Stolichnaya Premium vodka, stir until desired temperature and dilution is achieved
6) Double strain into Martini glass
7) Add Queen Andalusian olive
8) Drink

Two things to note…Stirred not shaken. Firstly, Bond only got it half-right – shaking creates slivers of ice diluting the alcohol. Stirring allows the molecules to lie sensuously one on top of the other. Secondly, the explanation for the ‘Dirty’ designation – the brine that the olive has been steeped in. This adds a unique salty tang that lingers on the tip of the tongue, which is why the perfect accompaniment to my DDVM is half-a-dozen oysters. Add music – ‘Time After Time’ by Miles Davis – and the company of a very close friend, then I’m content.

Pic 7 David Rivet

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