On Saturday I relearned how to make a dry martini.
I had thought a dry martini the simplest drink imaginable: big splash gin, small splash vermouth. Swirl it around with ice (or shake it, if you swing that way) and dump it into a martini glass.
But such simplicity is unforgiving, at least according to the Japanese. With only two ingredients even small mistakes are obvious, so the balance must be perfect. On Saturday a Japanese bartender showed me how the simplest drink in the book might just be the hardest.
Dry Martini, Japanese-style:
0.) Skewer an olive, cut a shallow slice of lemon peel and put them both aside.
1.) Take a chilled martini pitcher (about 24 oz.) out of the fridge.
2.) Take the chilled gin, vermouth and cocktail glass from the fridge and place them on the bar.
3.) Put a large piece of ice in the bottom of the cocktail glass.
4.) Fill the martini pitcher with cube ice.
5.) Pour well-chilled water into the pitcher until it's about half full.
6.) Stir quickly with a long-handled bar spoon twenty or thirty times. This will dissolve the corners of the ice cubes which, having the most surface area, melt very easily. Doing this will ensure that the corners don't melt into the gin later.
7.) Strain the water out of the pitcher. Like flicking a switch, bathing the ice in water has set the ice-meltage in motion so speed and efficiency is crucial in the next few steps. This is why everything else is already prepared.
8.) Measure 80 ml. of gin into the pitcher.
9.) Measure 10 ml. of vermouth into the pitcher.
10.) Stir quickly with a bar spoon perhaps thirty times.
11.) Throw out the ice cube in the cocktail glass and strain the martini into it.
12.) Drop the olive in and squeeze a piece of lemon peel over the top of it for the tiniest hint of zest. (Don't drop it into the drink, though.)
13.) Consume quickly, "while it's still laughing at you," as someone once said.
Earlier I wrote that I admired the Japanese cocktail process but not the product. I now see that was misguided. Learning how to make a dry martini showed me that the process is the product. They are indistinguishable. The product is not possible without the process. It is the final, inevitable step.
I may take issue with some recipes (I still don't think that a gin and tonic should be five parts tonic, sorry) but the execution is quietly dazzling. To watch the care with which a Japanese bartender simply stirs a cocktail is inspiring. Each step is performed with a reverence that approaches worship of classic cocktail culture. The Japanese never really got past the sensibilities of the Fifties and every detail pays homage to the old ways, down to their retro glass martini pitchers. They order Gin Rickeys, White Ladies, and Brandy Alexanders. Garnishes are minimal. Martinis are always gin, always contain vermouth, and are always stirred. Always.
According to the old manuals a delicious cocktail is, above all, cold and pure. These two traits are somewhat mutually exclusive. It's easy to chill liquor by adding ice and shaking it, but the ice melts and dilutes the martini. One could just keep the liquor on ice but a small amount of water is actually desirous to develop the flavors and cut the bite of the liquor. (Plus it's cheating.) The proper ratio of gin:vermouth:water is sacred to some. A badly-made martini can ruin an evening; a well-made one can save lives. So the Japanese make martinis as cold and pure as they damn well can.
Enter the Japanese martini process. What I took for an excessive emphasis on methodology is actually the dedicated pursuit of a technique that produces what they believe to be the best martini possible. Each step is important and must be done perfectly; carelessness is not worth doing. The goal is perfection, and perfection doesn't happen by accident. To think you can accidentally make a perfectly pure, cold martini is as ridiculous as thinking that Tokyo Tower was built by holding a bunch of girders in a circle and letting them fall against each other.
Perfect products are possible only through perfect processes and a hell of a lot of effort. In the Japanese dry martini process every step exists for a reason and each one is important. It reminds me of yoga, properly locking each joint into the pose, step by step, to create a mind-boggling union of geometry and kinesthetics. One cannot look at a picture and recreate a pose; yoga poses are only possible through a rigorous and difficult process. If done wrong the pose will be shaky and awkward, and if the yogi is me he will fall over.
Or maybe it reminds me of tying knots, firmly securing each loop before moving on to the next. If tied correctly, the knot will be solid and tight. If tied carelessly or ineptly the knot will be loose and maybe fall apart. In any process, each step must be executed well or the process is pointless and so, by extension, is the product. And why do something you don't care about?
Each detail is important. It may seem unimportant to cut a lime perfectly, but it's not. How else to ensure a consistent amount of lime juice goes in each drink? The Japanese take the time needed to do a thing well, favoring precision over speed. I understand why: I spent five years at a drum kit with Floyd Thompson grumbling, "Do it slow until it's perfect--then go faster." Speed comes by practicing until smooth. Smoothly executing a complicated process is as fast as blundering through a simple one.
Sloppiness is not worth practicing at any speed. It is tempting to move quickly at the expense of precision, but handle things roughly and they will break. Move too fast and cause spills. Build drinks hastily and they must be remade. Sloppiness sacrifices quality for the illusion of speed because it creates more messes to clean and more errors to fix. It is better to do one thing perfectly than two things sloppily. I wish I could compare, in my life, the amount of time I have spent actually doing things against the time I have spent cleaning up sloppiness or redoing mistakes. Actually, I take that back: it would be too depressing.
To achieve perfection it is important to get things right the first time. This is illustrated by the dry martini method. If, for instance, I have don't have the gin, vermouth and cocktail glass ready beforehand then I will waste precious time scrambling to get these items from the fridge as the ice rapidly melts. The difference might be so subtle the drinker does not realize it, but I know that the martini is not as cold and pure as it could have been. My mental sloppiness has tarnished the drink.
A product is only as good as the maker's mental and physical abilities, so the proper state of mind is essential. The mind must not wander from the task at hand. The body must move as smoothly as possible, for every unnecessary movement, every dropped olive, every slammed bottle distracts the mind and slows the process. If I follow the process then I can serve the drink with confidence that it is the best I can possibly make. This is as good a definition of "perfection" as I can think of.
* All this is not to say that Japanese bars don't have their flaws. They do, and there are many cocktails I would prefer to drink in Minneapolis over Tokyo. But for their faults, I am beginning to understand why they are so particular about the minutiae. I hope the above explained why.