Happy Hour History: The Martini

Martini (Jim Sabataso / photo)

Martini (Jim Sabataso / photo)


Editor’s note: This part of a series exploring the history of various cocktails the author likes to make for happy hour. Enjoy responsibly.

For today’s lesson, we’ll be exploring the storied past of the Martini, a cocktail HL Mencken once called the “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” I couldn’t agree more. Aside from whiskey — which I don’t qualify as a cocktail since it requires no preparation as it’s perfect just the way it is — the martini is my favorite drink. When done right, it’s crisp, refreshing, smooth, easy to drink, and equally easy to spill.

It’s also a classic; a throwback to the first half of the 20th century that has deservedly enjoyed a modern renaissance. While said renaissance has included many colorful variations — appletinis, chocotinis, etc. — these drinks share little with the original aside from the glass so let’s just move on.

However, acceptable Maritni variations do exist: dirty (olive brine), dry (little or no vermouth), 50-50 (equal parts gin and vermouth), perfect (sweet and dry vermouth). Perhaps the most popular variation (and my preference) is substituting vodka for gin, known as a vodkatini or kangaroo cocktail (please, don’t call it that). Purists will say vodka does not qualify as a true martini, but who really cares what those conformist dickbags say when we’ve got this guy in our corner?


As expected, the history of the Martini is a cloudy one. Depending on the story, it originated in either Martinez or San Francisco, CA; New York; or — possibly, but not likely — Paris sometime between 1863 and 1946. Since none of the legends seem to have much in common, let’s look at them individually.

The Martini Cocktail, brought to you by Martini: In the early 1860s, an Italian vermouth maker started selling its product under the name Martini (today Martini & Rossi). Back then, people ordered drinks a bit differently than today. Robert Hess, secretary of the Museum of the American Cocktail explains to NPR:

A customer asks for a “Martini” cocktail because it utilized that product, much as they might ask for a “sherry” cocktail in those days if they wanted a cocktail which used sherry. During the 1800s, many drinks were named very simply (gin cocktail, fancy gin cocktail, gin cobbler, gin daisy, etc.).

Meet Me in Martinez: One version of this story starts at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the early 1860s. The hotel was a popular hangout for people waiting to take the ferry to the nearby town of Martinez. The drink was named after the town.

Another version, posits that the drink was first made in Martinez when a prospector asked the bartender for a celebratory cocktail. The bartender — doing what all bartenders do when faced with such a request — threw together whatever he had on hand.

Named in New York: And since New York has to lay claim to being the origin of everything always, of course there’s a legend that the Martini is named after a bartender here in 1911. No one seems to put much stock in this one though.

French Connection: This story is the only one that takes the Martini’s birthplace outside the US, but it also is the only one that gives a clue as to how olives got in the mix. Allegedly, a Syrian bar owner named Martini who moved to Paris following the French occupation of Syria, served the cocktail with an olive garnish as a nod to his homeland. None of this holds up, though, since the Martini has been documented in bartender’s guides dating back to the 19th century.


The Martini

  • 12 parts gin (or vodka)
  • 2 parts dry vermouth

Pour all ingredients into shaker with ice cubes. Shake well, until the shaker is frosted. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Squeeze oil from lemon peel onto the drink, or garnish with an olive.

Caveat potator: The Martini is a strong cocktail. A good rule to remember: Martinis are like boobs; one is too few, three are too many.

Pictured:  Too many.

Pictured: Too many.