The Heirloom Martini

About 15 years ago, my dad retired. He hung up his neckties. He got back into tying flies, at a ratio of several dozen to each actual fishing trip he took. He attacked the flamenco guitar with renewed energy, often in nothing more than a t-shirt and boxers. (“Why I stopped wearing boxers in the 60’s I cannot remember,” he wrote to me during my junior year in college, having just splurged on a half-dozen new pairs.)

Another thing Dad did in his retirement was introduce a daily routine into the house in which I’d grown up, a hundred-year-old fixer-upper in rural Maine that he’d bought with Mum and from which their two boys had, in quick succession, headed outside the state to college. That routine was the five o’clock martini.

I’ve spent some time reflecting on this lifestyle choice of Dad’s, and I believe that it appealed to him for a few reasons. For a man who’d long practiced moderation in his roles as both a parent and a civil servant, it was a foray into hedonism. It was a means of structuring days that threatened, in his post-work life, to sag alarmingly into formlessness.  And, odd as it sounds, I think the martini whisked Dad back to the porches and artfully decorated parlors of his youth, where his mother entertained her Washington and Boston friends in simultaneously refined and rambunctious fashion. To these lively occasions the Martini—made with gin, Dad stressed, never vodka—was indispensable.

For these were east-coast crowds. “Episcopalians,” my Uncle Woodie would say, as though no further explanation were needed.  Loosening up did not come naturally; alcohol was cherished, albeit guiltily, as a social lubricant. To gatherings of Anglophiles, gin had the distinct advantage of being English. And never was gin more right, its praises sung more heartily, than when it was fueling a well-made martini.

Dad, like Woody and like their mother before them, has mixed feelings about his background. It was a milieu limited by kneejerk moralizing and narrow tastes. It championed athletics—which Dad took to just fine—but thought little of the French authors he came to love or of, say, the stormy theatrics of flamenco.

And so while Dad cut his own path in many ways, he eventually returned to the main line when it came to devising a drinking ritual. He inherited the martini protocol from his predecessors as he had my grandmother’s antiques.  And unlike the furniture, he hadn’t needed to sell it off in order to pay her end-of-life bills. (She suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I remember little about her as vividly as I remember the ample stocks of tonic I’d always find in her fridge after coming in from playing catch.)

As one often does with inherited things, Dad handed the martini ritual down another generation. And here we rejoin the present, or at least somewhere near it.

“‘EPISCOPALIANS,’ MY UNCLE WOODIE WOULD SAY, AS THOUGH NO FURTHER EXPLANATION WERE NEEDED.”

“The first rule, boys,” Dad is saying, “is that it be very cold.” My brother and I have returned to Maine for the holidays from our respective colleges, where we drink without discernment or ceremony. Dad’s martini ritual is a revelation.

To ensure the frigidity of the final product, he explains, he keeps both the aluminum shaker and the gin in the freezer. The vermouth he stores in the fridge; only a small amount is required anyway. As cocktail aficionados know, the exact amount is a matter of amusing debate. Dad relates—confabulation, surely—that some purists merely pass the vermouth bottle’s cork beneath their nose.  Churchill apparently found it sufficient to bow towards France. Much as he loves the mouth-feel of the anecdotes, Dad insists that the best policy is slightly less than one-third vermouth.

The vermouth must be Noilly Prat, and pronounced to rhyme with “oily vat.” The gin should be Beefeater, for tradition’s sake and also because it’s available at the Augusta supermarkets. Dad pours three jiggers of it into the shaker, with the ice and vermouth; he jerks the shaker around in the air for about ten seconds, an effort that—as I sometimes feel myself, when performing it—makes one just the slightest bit more entitled to the potion that results as some kind of earned reward.

Invisibly, the coldness of the ingredients seems to compound. The shaker’s surface stings the fingertips. Through an ice strainer, Dad pours the contents into the thin-stemmed vessels designed for this cocktail alone. The martini flows with a hint of heaviness, and is lightly perturbed with froth.

There is only one garnish option: a sliver of lemon peel. Mum prefers olives, and sometimes even a dirty Martini—that is, with a splash of olive juice. To Dad, these variations are as déclassé as making a martini with vodka. But Mum couldn’t care less, and has made these concessions a condition of her taking part. Dad has no choice but to concede—who wants to drink a martini alone?

“THE MARTINI FLOWS WITH A HINT OF HEAVINESS, AND IS LIGHTLY PERTURBED WITH FROTH.”

It is a misleadingly pure-looking drink at first glance, clear as the trout waters of angling legend. And yet the elements of juniper and lemon render it slightly fragrant—it is a perfumed blade, and cuts sharpest on the first sip. Yes, those subsequent drafts might feel better, as the loosening effect sets in, but none have the brisk, bracing intimacy of the original.

What to do, as the martini’s ice-cold edge goes soft? You can opt for slow, waning enjoyment, or say to hell with it and race the clock. Dad favors the latter, and giddily urges others to do the same. After all, this is a man who scoured my homework with a red pen and quaked with anxiety at the prospect of being late. “I’ll be in the car,” he’d bark, as my brother and I were still making final preparations for a day at school or a weekend hockey game. We’d glance out the kitchen window and see him out there, planted in the driver’s seat.

When I picture him sitting now, it’s in the lounger in the living room. If it’s a late afternoon in summer, the season I’m most often home visiting, he might have just mown the lawn. (Only later will I wish I’d offered.) He’ll be in his Crocs and old running shorts, sneaking looks at his watch.

Darrell Hartman’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guernica, and elsewhere. He is also co-founder of the travel website Jungles in Paris.