Have Vermouth… Will Travel

Strictly speaking, or as strict as your friendly bartender can get when it comes to ordering a cocktail with specifications, I’m not sure there exists a more discerning palate than that of the real martini drinker. And by “real” I mean not this recent crop of sippers who blithely drown the solution in olive or cranberry juice. Or chocolate syrup or coffee for crying out loud! For the real martini is all about vermouth… how much or how little… and anything else in the mix is downright heresy.

Now can this real martini drinker at times be a pain? Of course he can, there’s a clown in every cast. Like the guy who orders loudly more for show than what he knows, using this tired, old phrase for my listening enjoyment. “Just pass the vermouth bottle over the glass but don’t pour anything out if you get my drift, bartender.” Which is usually followed by a knowing wink and a Linda Blair three sixty to see who’s watching. Or the guy who wants to direct me through it as if I’m a student in a lab class and he’s the science professor. But these types are rare. The martini being a civilized drink, it usually spawns (dare I say?) civilized behavior.

Which brings me to one of the coolest martini drinkers ever…

This woman came into the bar one day (just picture Elaine Stritch about twenty five years younger with the same kind of spunk), who slid onto a stool and set down her purse. It was a tiny bag that didn’t take up very much space. “I’ll have a Beefeater martini,” she said, “straight up with a twist of lemon and no vermouth.”

“So you just want a chilled Beefeater,” I said to make sure.

“That’s what I said, darlin’,” she added with a smile. “And a twist of lemon.”

So I chilled the gin in a tumbler of ice making it nice and cold, then I poured it out and twisted a lemon on the surface. Then I set the drink in front of her returning her smile. “There you go,” I said, “enjoy your martini!”

“Thank you,” she said, “I will, that looks yummy.” But when I walked away from her spot and happened to look back over my shoulder, I saw something I’d never seen in a bar before. Something amazing. This woman extracted a bottle of perfume from that tiny purse I just mentioned, and proceeded to spray its contents over her drink. In one quick spritz. I mean, I understand wanting to smell nice but this is ridiculous.

“Excuse me there, ma’am,” I asked, as curious as ten cats, “but did I just see you spray perfume on your drink?”

“Good heavens, no, dear boy,” she said with a laugh as she spoke, in a husky voice that was cured by a lifetime of cigarettes, “do you think I’d spoil a ‘tini’ with fucking Chanel?”

“Er-ah, well no,” I stumbled, still not getting the gist of this. “So what were you doing?”

Holding up the bottle she said, “This is filled with dry vermouth and I like to add my own if you don’t mind.”

“Well of course I don’t mind but you’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Give me your wrist and I’ll show you how much I’m kidding,” she said. Which I did and she promptly sprayed it with a clear mist.

“That’s vermouth all right,” I said, lightly licking my wrist of what she had sprayed. “But why?”

“Look, here’s the thing,” she began, as she took a sip of her perfectly balanced concoction, “I know how customers can be pains in the ass with this dry, extra dry stuff, and bartenders can be even bigger pains by not doing what you ask and what they damn please, so I decided one day to do the job myself. With this baby.” She held up the bottle again. “I only like a hint of vermouth so with one tiny spritz I’ve got my perfect martini. Make sense?”

“It not only makes sense,” I said, “but it’s got to be one of the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a bar.”

And I meant it. And what I really liked about this whole damn business is the fact that she did on the sly without a lot of fanfare. It wasn’t one of those, “Hey, look at me, look how clever I am.” She just did it. This was simply a broad (if you’ll excuse the term, which I’m sure she would as well) who knew what the hell she wanted and made sure she got it. Or, as the saying goes, “If you want the job done right you do it yourself.”

We chatted for quite a while after that, during which time she filled me in on how the neighborhood had changed, along with everything else in the New York she had known. Apparently very well. For the names she dropped and the places she mentioned told me this woman had raised some hell in her time. A whole damn lot of it. In this city that time and change had taken away from her. But she wasn’t the least bit morose about it, just pissed and colorful as hell, telling her tale with the flair of a real New Yorker. The kind you see in movies.

Then a little while later, after polishing off her second martini (and none the worse for wear), she packed away her magical bottle, paid her bill and bid me a fond adieu! Just like that. And as I watched her make her exit, this woman with one foot here and one in the past, two things came to mind that I couldn’t help thinking. One was that when she sprayed her drink did she see in that liquid the world she had once known? Like the seer who looks through the haze in a crystal ball? And the other was that, without a doubt, they sure as hell don’t make ’em like her anymore.

See you next week-end, dear reader, here’s to ya’!

23 Responses to “Have Vermouth… Will Travel”


  1. 1 Comrade PhysioProf July 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    There’s nothing like a perfectly chilled gin martini up! I prefer mine just like your customer, with just the slightest hint of vermouth. I order them “very dry”, and usually they are fine.

  2. 2 Ken July 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Scrib: Only an occasional martini drinker myself. I like them dry, but I’m not fussy. I do have to say this is one of your best! A well drawn study, this lady leaps off the page. The story of a woman who knew what she wanted and knew how to get it. On top of that a great bit of oral history–the best kind. Would have loved to have been a fly on your bar (but not a barfly!) for that encounter.

  3. 3 scribbler50 July 16, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Physioprof: On the rare occasion I have one, I like mine exactly as you’ve described it.

    Ken: Thanks, pal, and yes this lady was something. Maybe you can wander in one day and see for yourself our little corner of history.

  4. 4 Pharm Sci Grad July 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I love it! She sounds like a woman with a good head on her shoulders. Plus a few good stories to tell, which is always entertaining… Personally, I’ve had issues in the past with well-tipped bartenders pouring heavy handed drinks or shots, that, like a real martini, require a precise ratio of liquor to the rest for optimal enjoyment. It’s a strange kind of disappointment, a “thank you, but…” if you will. I would also hate to be that annoying patron asking for neat shots in my beverages, but sometimes, you just want what you want.
    Another wonderful pour, Scrib. Have a good week!

  5. 5 Michael Qualtiere July 16, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Wonderful writing, Scrib . . . nice and dry, with just a hint of bartender blase (don’t know how to get that funny “accent” mark over the “e”). My favorite line . . . “It was a tiny bag (purse) that didn’t take up very much space” . . . which forces the reader to pause and look at the scene you’ve painted, and thus heightens the anticipation. (My friend Ric Monaco likes his Bombay Sapphire martinis with TWO DROPS of blue curacao (no vermouth) giving the drink the same blue tint as the Sapphire bottle. You don’t taste the curacao; it just pleasantly rounds off the bite of the gin. I like mine more traditionally “in and out.”)

  6. 6 scribbler50 July 16, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Sci Grad: I know what you mean, my friend, you hate to be ungrateful but a heavy pour just ain’t what you’re looking for sometimes. Especially if you want to be out for more than an hour! You have a good week too, and thanks as always.

    Michael Q.: Thanks for all of that, Mike, I really appreciate it. And an interesting tip on the blue martini, I never heard that before, but definitely one tailored to a certain customer. Me I’ll stick to the clear whether pouring or drinking. Have yourself a great week behind the stick, pal!

  7. 7 Anonymoustache July 18, 2011 at 9:35 am

    A martini story that leaves us stirred, not shaken….nice one, bro!

  8. 8 scribbler50 July 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Anonymoustache: And thank YOU, Bro, better to leave things “neat” than “on the rocks”!

  9. 9 Irishirritant July 19, 2011 at 11:33 am

    What a service for all of mankind, clearly defining the perfect drink and the perfect patron.
    When I visit it will be “A Plymouth Martini please”.
    You’ve done it again, I leave a delighted customer with a smile on my face, Thanks

  10. 10 scribbler50 July 19, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Irish: You got it, pal, and thank YOU!

  11. 11 Patsy July 19, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Great tale! As mentioned above, you brought her to life, set the scene & knocked it outta the park. I want to be this broad when I grow up!

    As a Bombay Sapphire tini tippler myself I’ve just one question to you the pro: Do I remove the “paaainfully dry” from my order in the future, wouldn’t want to be showy πŸ™‚

    I wonder where she got her mini mister?

  12. 12 scribbler50 July 19, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Patsy: I’m not gonna say remove it, depends on how you say it, but a simple, “extra dry” usually does it.

    Thanks for your comment and I have no idea where you get those misters. (Empty out a perfume bottle???)

  13. 13 Patsy July 20, 2011 at 9:01 am

    In my mind’s ear it was said ala Marlene Dietrich but in reality it may have sounded like Lili Von Shtupp…so long as I never came across like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? it’s all good.
    I found the misters! Apparently called Atomizers by the industry. I’ll email you the link so as not to promote or advertise a product on your site πŸ™‚

  14. 14 physiobabe July 21, 2011 at 6:59 am

    I would love to have met her!! Ciao, Scrib, how ya’ doin’?

  15. 15 Toaster July 21, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    I need to start remembering to come by here more often, Scribbler. You are one hell of a writer.

  16. 16 Your Friend Ken July 21, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Hey Scrib, If I had read this sooner, I would have dropped one off to you last night. I have two at home. Kim use to carry one in her purse.

  17. 17 d-a-p July 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    …in the past i loved martini’s more than almost anything…and a friend of mine gave me a large jar of green olives soaked in vermouth…so all i added to the gin was the olive…and that was just right..i really would like to have met the “tini” drinker you describe..sounds like a terrific lady…thanks as always for a really good story…
    d-a-p

  18. 18 scribbler50 July 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Patsy: Thank you again. (Love the Lili Von Shtupp reference!)

    physiobabe: I wish you could’ve met her too, you would’ve loved her. (Doing fine, by the way, and thanks for asking.)

    Toaster: And you are one hell of a nice guy for saying that. Thank you, pal, and try to stop by more often.

    Ken: Geez, it seems like everyone in the world knows about atomizers but me… very funny, no? Now the next time I see some woman spritzing her throat with what I assume to be Binaca, I’m gonna think “Hmmmm, could that be…..”. πŸ™‚

    d-a-p: Now THAT is a clever way of drinking it “dry”. Man’s ingenuity (in dealing with the things that really matter in life) is endless. Thanks, old friend.

  19. 19 JSaw August 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Wow… just wow! Like Toaster, I haven’t been by the “bar” as much, but it’s stories like this that makes me kick myself for being away so long.

    I have found that I like a little more vermouth than the “wave the bottle over it” crowd. Something about taking a bit more of the edge off the alcohol…

  20. 20 scribbler50 August 3, 2011 at 12:13 am

    JSaw: Thanks and welcome back.

  21. 21 bone disease August 11, 2011 at 7:41 pm

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  22. 22 venividirisi September 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Back in the day, I had a regular guest do something very similar with a repurposed old travel bottle of gin filled with vermouth. Using the cap for measuring, she polished every martini with a single capfull.

  23. 23 scribbler50 September 2, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    venividirisi: So you know whereof I speak, but I wouldn’t put up with bringing one’s own gin. That’s a new one.

    Thanks for checking in.


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