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’!