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Perfection in Simplicity

Jan 15, 2013


In Medieval Japan, brewing and serving a cup of tea became as serious and as carefully scripted as a baptism or the Latin Mass. The preparation of the room, the placement of the utensils, mixing and heating the tea, and the exchanges between the host and the guests are all so choreographed that it is said to take about ten years to learn it properly. You would be missing the point if you think that the process is complicated. It is really all about simplicity and grace. The tea ceremony transforms effort and care into effortless perfection. It looks for the sacred in simple things and graceful gestures. 

If you can sense the preciousness of simplicity inherent in the tea ceremony, then you should be able to appreciate that nothing with apple cider and ginger in it deserves to be called a martini. I have nothing against cocktails in principle, though the vast majority of them seem to be acts of war against the makers of good liquors. The point seems to be to make sure that you can’t taste the original product. 

A good martini is not something that ought to be toyed with. Its perfection lies in its simplicity. Begin with a metal shaker. Fill it with ice cubes and add gin and vermouth. The proportions are subject to theological misinterpretations. To some, the virtue of the martini is in its dryness, which is to say, more gin and less vermouth. The standard dry martini joke goes like this: pour the gin over the ice and shake it in the general direction of Italy. Winston Churchill just whispered “vermouth.” 

I hold that the proper proportion is about four parts gin to one part vermouth. Give the mix a good shake in whatever direction, take off the cap, and pour it into the funnel-shaped cocktail glass over a couple of olives skewered with a tooth pick. If the ingredients as well as the glass are properly chilled, a thin veneer of ice will appear on the surface. That is the transparent simplicity of the thing. Both in execution and on the tongue, it is graced with nature’s grace. 

I am tempted toward orthodoxy. The essential spirit of gin is in the flavor of the juniper berries and perhaps that is also the spirit of the martini. However, my brother is allergic to juniper and even James Bond preferred vodka. In a spirit of reformation, I would allow the vodka martini to be admitted to the canon. I also confess that I have found sake martinis, where rice wine replaces vermouth, to be very acceptable, especially over a plate of good sushi. 

If you are wondering where to buy a good martini, I can recommend Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London and the Coral Princess Cruise ship. If it’s not your thirtieth wedding anniversary and you aren’t lucky enough to be delivering a paper in Europe (the last two summers have been very good to me) then you might try Fuji Ya, a sushi bar in St. Paul or the Ward Hotel in Aberdeen. I invite some other suggestions from readers who are not prone to heresy. 

Unfortunately, the non-martini martini is now standard at some of the finest bars, so take the advice of this theologian. Beyond the two simple ingredients, call it what you want so long as you don’t call it a martini. H. L. Mencken called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” If it has not quite the elegance of the tea ceremony, at least it doesn’t take ten years to learn. 


Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.


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