In one of the many scenes in “Mad Men” having to do with drinking, Roger Sterling, played to perfection by John Slattery, goes mano a mano with Don Draper over oysters and Martinis. Roger instructs the waiter, “And don’t let me see the bottom of this glass.”
At the end of this conspicuous consumption, they walk up the stairs and Roger casually vomits. Oh, for the early 1960s, when America ruled the world and its captains of industry drank three martinis for lunch. Now, in our decline, they drink fizzy water.
I was about 10 then, still virginal in matters alcoholic, but already well aware that the word “martini” had iconic—hic-onic?—resonance. Does not the very shape of the martini glass connote cocktail?
My parents did not drink them—bourbon for my mother, Scotch for my father—but it seemed that all the other grown-ups did. Once I tagged along to the Oak Room at the old Plaza Hotel. In my memory, everyone ordered them, which made the Oak Room seem not so much a bar as an altar upon which the martini was consecrated and served to the congregation.
At about this time the first James Bond movie appeared, in which Sean Connery memorably orders the barman: “Vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred.” “Shaken, not stirred” entered the language as the sine qua non of sophistication. (Or affectation.) Years later, reading one of the Ian Fleming novels, I came across Bond’s actual formula: “Medium vodka dry martini, shaken not stirred.” Of course, it was not only the method of preparation, but also the vodka by which Fleming was signaling us that Bond was exotic, a rebel, an iconoclast, apart from the herd. Most self-respecting Brits or Americans of the day considered a proper martini to be made from gin.
According to drink authority Barnaby Conrad III, its origins are obscure and much debated. He posits, however, that the probable first recipe for this holy grail is in an 1896 manual by Thomas Stuart titled “Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them.” It was called a “Marguerite Cocktail,” and into it went one dash of orange bitters, two thirds Plymouth gin, and one third French vermouth. “By 1900,” Conrad writes, “the word Martini was in common usage among bartenders on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The martini is to modern American literature and lore what mead wine was to Norse sagas or claret to 18th-century English literature. Dorothy Parker was perhaps its leading laureate, having given us the immortal quatrain:
I like to drink a Martini
But only two at the most.
Three I’m under the table,
Four I’m under the host.
A memorable scene in Evan Thomas’s fine biography of the legendary Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams: Williams is meeting with his prospective client Bobby Baker, the disgraceful D.C. lobbyist-operator of his day. The two alpha males could hardly resist the usual pecker-flexing as they sized each other up. One martini led to another. And another. Finally each had downed—10. Pause for a moment to consider that formidable tally: 10. They shook hands, Williams went to his car, parked in the basement, and drove it through the garage door.
A quintessential Martini moment. Don’t let them see the bottom of the glass.
Christopher Buckley’s novel “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?” will be published in May.