"It's not a recipe, it's a ritual," he intones in the gloom of early-afternoon Bern's Steak House, a legend temporarily devoid of customers, of moody lighting, of bustle. He continues, his audience sitting rapt. • There are 259 New Yorker cartoons devoted to them. James Bond famously drank them (shaken, of course), and Nick Charles, in the Thin Man, had this to say about them:
"Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time."
Thus, Angus Winchester, global brand ambassador for Tanqueray Gin, came to Tampa last week to teach us how to waltz. A group of Bern's employees and Tampa bartenders assembled to listen to Winchester, at the end of a 15-city tour, discuss the history and evolution of the martini and to watch him demonstrate his mad mixology skills.
Winchester's affection for gin is clear. Vodka, for example, is described by the nattily attired Brit as "Viagra for limp mixers," a blank canvas, as opposed to gin, "which is a piece of art in the bottle: The bartender's job to frame it."
"Gin has come roaring back into fashion," he says, citing dozens of new brands, boutique tonic waters and other mixers and accessories. It's been a long road back: According to Winchester, Prohibition killed gin, the lion's share of quality brands going belly-up and leaving only bad bathtub versions. In an era when hiding the alcohol was of paramount importance, the junipery gin was too assertive to keep secret.
Gin's definition is vague: It's a neutral spirit in which the dominant flavor is juniper, with its piney smack and citrus tingle. But "dominant" is open to interpretation, leaving space for licorice root, citrus peel, coriander, angelica root, anise and a host of other botanicals to bask in the limelight, each finished gin adding its own distinctive signature to a martini.
But even as the iconic gin martini has re-emerged as king, people's tastes have changed. While originally a sweet drink with sweet vermouth, dry vermouth is now the more common choice, and even then, the trend is toward drier and drier versions of the cocktail, meaning less and less vermouth. Which has consequences: greater alcohol content in the finished drink (vermouth has less alcohol than gin). So, while Winchester says writer Christopher Hitchens' line about martinis (like "women's breasts, one is far too few and three is one too many") may not reflect the high-proof finished drink these days, he still feels martini education is essential.
Lecturing 4,000 bartenders a year about "drinks, drinkers and those who serve them," Winchester insists a bartender should make customers feel four emotions (comfortable, welcome, important and understood), just as customers should be able to answer four questions about the martini they have ordered:
1. Ingredients: What type of gin would you like? (According to Winchester, vodka martinis are something else entirely.) And which brand of vermouth?
2. The James Bond Question: Shaken or stirred? Mixing cocktail does four things: chilling, mixing, aerating and diluting the drink. Whether you stir, shake, roll or "throw" the drink does these things to different degrees.
3. How dry do you want it? Meaning, how much vermouth (either sweet or dry).
4. The Charles Dickens Question: Olive 'r Twist? (Of his own preferences, Winchester will say "olives are the testicles of the devil," and that a lemon twist shouldn't be aggressively spritzed or the top of the finished drink will "look like a redneck's driveway.")
Demonstrating a variety of martinis and techniques, Winchester finishes his lecture discussing the martini's mutability. With an onion? It's a Gibson. A black olive? You've got yourself a Buckeye.
"I once had a customer," says Winchester, "who had me stir his martini while standing on one leg. We called it the Flamingo."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.