The Greek hero Theseus was, according to myth, a great warrior and a founder of the city of Athens. Amongst his exploits were the slaying of several beasts who represent the antitheses of the values of liberalism traditionally ascribed to classical Athens. Imagine that one of the ships he sailed on was anchored in a harbor during his life and remained there permanently after his death as a memorial. This is the Ship of Theseus.
Over many years, the boards and planks that make up the Ship of Theseus, being exposed to the elements, begin slowly to rot. The City of Athens carefully monitors the structural integrity of the Ship, and as components rot, they are removed and replaced with new wood. The removed pieces are kept in a warehouse. Eventually, after a century or two, all the components of the Ship of Theseus have been removed and replaced with new wood. Around this time, new technology has been invented that allows the City of Athens to restore the rotted wood that has been removed. All of the original components that have been kept in the warehouse are restored, and these components are reassembled to form an exact structural copy of the Ship of Theseus.
Now, the Chief Shipbuilder of Athens steps back from the last nail hammered and sees the Ship of Theseus before him, the exact wooden boards and planks that Theseus himself stood on. As he turns, he then sees through a window, the Ship of Theseus anchored in the harbor, where it has been for hundreds of years since Theseus himself stepped off-board for the last time. Two ships. Which of these ships is the Ship of Theseus?
It is a classic thought experiment that has served to illustrate for philosophers the question of identity. But the problem of identity isn’t merely for ivory tower academics to consider; in fact most people in most walks of life have occasion to debate what gives something identity. Take it from the late, great Mitch Hedberg:
You know how they call corn on the cob "corn on the cob", right? But that's how it comes out of the ground, man. They should call that "corn". They should call every other version "corn off the cob". It's not like if you cut off my arm, you would call my arm "Mitch"; but then reattach it and call it "Mitch all together".
Indeed Mitch. If you lost all your limbs, you would still be you, and no one would dispute this. That brings us to today’s topic: what is, and what isn’t a Martini cocktail? In other words, what “limbs” could you cut off the recipe for a Martini, and still have a drink that is a Martini? To answer this question, let’s start with the IBA recipe for a Martini:
6 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
Straight: Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain in chilled martini cocktail glass. Squeeze oil from lemon peel onto the drink, or garnish with olive.
If a drink is made according to this recipe and place in front of you immediately, we can all agree that the drink is a Martini. So let’s start rotting out some wood (or hacking off some limbs) and see what happens.
If you remove the gin, you basically have a glass of vermouth, which is NOT a Martini. We also can certainly agree that substituting rum, or whiskey, or tequila for the gin does not a Martini make. But here is where we tackle the screaming question of vodka. In 1992, if you went into a steakhouse and ordered a Martini, you might have gotten something like this:
Straight: Shake with ice cubes. Strain in chilled martini cocktail glass. Garnish with three olives.
That’s pretty different from the IBA recipe. But is it a Martini?
My answer is, that while an argument might have been made in 1992, or whenever we were at “peak banality” in the cocktail world, that this was a Martini, it would have been a difficult argument to make, and today, it is a losing one. I would venture to say that the above recipe should not even be allowed to use the qualified name “Vodka Martini” because of the absence of vermouth. But the base spirit for a Martini cocktail is gin. In a sense, you could say that gin is Mitch Hedberg’s brain; that is to say, it is the one part of the human body that most people agree, if removed, what’s left is no longer you, and conversely if everything else is removed (and provided that your brain can still survive and think), that thing doing the thinking is still you.
Vermouth is essential, as I’ve just indicated, but we can all agree that it is somewhat less essential, insofar as we are probably willing to allow a bit more play with the ingredient. First, the quantity. No vermouth means no Martini, I don’t care what direction you wave the glass in. The minimum amount of vermouth needed to make a Martini cocktail is a glass-wash. If you wash a glass with dry vermouth and fill it with chilled gin, and a permitted garnish, to me, that is a Martini cocktail, in fact, the driest possible one. But “Dry Martini” is not a different cocktail, it is a preference that the cocktail’s identity allows to be accommodated.
What’s the maximum amount of vermouth you can use in a Martini cocktail? Up to 50% of liquid volume. That is the wettest possible Martini, but it is still a Martini. The second the drink becomes more vermouth than gin, you’ve stepped over the line and into a completely different cocktail.
Vermouth should not be interpreted to include quinquinas, americanos, or any other type of aromatized wine. However, what does it mean to use sweet vermouth in some proportion? Well, if you use only sweet vermouth, that is not a Martini. It certainly will not pass the eye or taste test. But is a “Perfect Martini” an accommodated preference within Martininess, or is it a different cocktail altogether? Though I will confess the possibility of bias, as the Perfect Martini is my personal Martini order of choice, I will also posit that provided the proportion of sweet to dry vermouth does not exceed 1:1, you have still got a Martini. The adjustment of color and taste in a Perfect Martini is not sufficient to fail either the eye or the taste test, as there are gins out there that might create similar color or flavor even if only dry vermouth is used.
First, the manner of chilling. My argument against stirring ever being absolutely essential is that two cocktails, identical in all ways except that one is stirred, and the other is diluted with the same water that was used to make the cubes for the other, and then chilled in a fridge to the exact temperature as the stirred one, are for all intents and purposes, identical. So there, stirring is not ever absolutely essential. But can a Martini be shaken? I say certainly, and in fact, I welcome it. In a capable bartender’s hands, a stirred Martini will be velvety and rich, while a shaken Martini will be light and ethereal. This is certainly an allowable preference! It should be pointed out, that all of these methods must a) chill, and b) dilute the drink to appropriate levels, or else you haven’t made a Martini or anything else for that matter, just some half-baked recipe.
If I make you a Martini cocktail as prescribed by the IBA recipe and serve it to you on the rocks, you still have a Martini. Also, if I strain it up into a wine glass, or any type of glass suitable for holding a cocktail, you still have a Martini, though it may feel somewhat clumsy or out-of-context. You may not serve a Martini in a shoe, a Julep cup, or a pilsner glass, however. Also, small cubes is fine, but anything smaller (shaved, crushed, et al.) is a non-starter. We must draw the line somewhere or else risk devolving into anarchy, as a society.
At last, the garnish. One might be tempted to say that the garnish, like dryness/wetness or up/on-the-rocks is a preference that can be accommodated. However, historical precedent clearly provides us guidelines to the contrary: as we all can agree, a Martini cocktail garnished with a cocktail onion is not a Martini at all, but a Gibson. So let’s start naming some garnishes and issuing verdicts:
Olives: Yes, by definition
Multiple olives: Yes, if you must
Olives stuffed with things: Yes, if you can fit it in there and it suits your fancy, knock yourself out
Tomolives: I swear to God a bartender can survive off of Tomolives only for days, this is from personal experience, but NO sorry this is unacceptable
Lemon oil: Yes, by definition
Lemon peel: The Sazerac question I believe is precedent to include the peel
Lemon flesh: Certainly not
Orange oil or peel: Fine by me
Grapefruit oil or peel: you’re pushing your luck, little man
Lime: No, not of any kind
Cucumber: If you work for William Grant & Sons or any of their distributors worldwide, certainly, otherwise nah
Anything else not mentioned here is a hard no.
Now, go and enjoy an appropriately constituted and constructed Martini cocktail as you ponder the true identity of the Ship of Theseus. Cheers.