One might look with suspicion at the photos on my smartphone, especially if they didn’t know my backstory or my penchant for showing, rather than telling, what is happening in my life. As I was scrolling my photo roll the other day—looking for a random image of what, I don’t remember—I noticed that I frequently snapped images of mainly three things: bread dough, cats and martinis. Alrighty, then.
Cats have been part of my world for as long as I can remember, and apparently even longer, as I even have a photograph of myself as an infant, with a black and white cat right next to me—a guardian angel, no doubt. Many cats have graced me with their presence and their trust over my lifetime, and I am fascinated by their expressions, their agility and their overall adorableness. I try in vain to capture their essence.
Bread dough has played a major role in my recent life as well, especially after the “birth” of my sourdough starter in 2016. I am fascinated by the development of dough, and humbled that I can be part of the magic that happens in it. I make a lot of bread and I take a lot of pictures of that process.
So what about martinis, and where do they fit in as a most-photographed item? I realized, upon closer inspection, that most of my martini pictures were taken right around 4:30 p.m., the time of day I would regularly wish my Aunt Joy a happy “Happy Hour” across the miles that separate us. However did we manage before texting?
In previous years, my happy hour libation would have been a simple glass of wine, and occasionally enjoyed at a wine bar with a girlfriend. But COVID changed everything, and with so much time on my hands for experimenting, the cocktail has had a real renaissance moment at my house. I have dabbled in mixology, trying out different spirits and techniques—even investing in the correct glassware—and my new favorite is definitely the martini. It is simple, but refined. It goes down easy, but not too easy.
I suppose my grandmother had a little something to do with martinis being my chosen cocktail, though I do not remember her ever making them as I do today—gin, shaken with ice and vermouth, sprinkled with bitters and poured into a chilled coupe glass with a skewered, lemon peel-stuffed olive. For her happy hour, Gram simply poured her martini ingredients over ice in a short glass. She made hers with vodka, and always “dirty” with a little bit of briny olive juice, and I don’t remember whether she added vermouth. Maybe if she found it on sale.
The first time I remember sharing a martini with Gram was in Spring 1992 in central Florida, where she and my grandpa retreated each year to escape the brutal upstate New York winters. My week there marked the first time I felt like an adult in my relationship with Gram, but that had nothing to do with the cocktail.
My grandpa had just passed away after a lengthy stay in the hospital, and though my mother had been there to say goodbye, and one of her sisters had stayed a bit longer to spend precious final moments and offer support to Gram, neither was able to stay indefinitely, and Gram was alone when her husband died. Even their snowbird “cronies,” as she called them, had already migrated back to their homes up north. I was living in North Carolina at the time, and I felt compelled, as the geographically nearest relative, to make the 10-hour drive (which is practically nothing, when you’re in your 20s) to be with her. She appreciated my presence, but for most of my visit it seemed clear she did not need it.
We traipsed around town for a few days as if all was normal, visiting the farmers’ market, where we bought fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for all the salads we ate. She taught me how to use the flat edge of a paring knife to loosen the tomato skin for easier peeling, and I still do it that way today. We chatted about my blossoming relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and she beamed with pride as I told stories about my job on the radio. We shared afternoon martinis, including on the day the funeral director dropped by the house to deliver my grandfather’s ashes, and I was astonished that she did not collapse in grief. Then, on the day before I was scheduled to drive home, Gram pulled off the main drag into a gas station lot and I realized the reason for my visit.
“Oops, you’ve stopped on the full-service side, Gram,” I told her, recalling how careful she had always been—and urged me to be—to pinch pennies by clipping coupons, canning her own pickles, stretching out leftovers and stitching handmade clothes. There was no way, I figured, that she intended to pay extra for an attendant to fill her tank. And then she shocked me by explaining that Grandpa had always taken care of gassing up the car and she supposed she’d have to get used to paying more now that he was gone. That’s when I realized that there was an important reason for me to be there. Finally, after so many years of the being the student, I had a chance to teach something new to the best teacher I ever had.
“OK, pull to the other side and step out of the car with me. Today I am going to teach you how to pump gas, Gram.” She was a grateful student.
Would she have appreciated this lesson in martini making? Of course! She’d remark with a lilted voice at how fancy and elegant my version of a martini is, as if I were making a cocktail for the Queen of England (also a martini maven). She would even pretend to hold the stem of a coupe glass very gingerly, with her pinky finger extended.
And then she’d grab a juice glass and pour her own favorite martini, the vodka version, straight over ice.
- 2 oz. Fords gin
- 0.5 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
- 2 quick shakes Regan’s orange bitters
- A lemon peel-stuffed olive to garnish
- Optional strip of organic lemon peel, if you’re feeling extra fancy (or if they’re on sale)
First things first, chill down your cocktail glass. Some people like to keep them in the freezer, but I prefer to chill only the bowl of the glass by filling it with ice cubes and a splash of water. Give it a spin with your cocktail pick. Why? It is a law of physics that the ice-in-motion will chill the glass faster than the ice just sitting there.
Next, measure the gin and vermouth into a cocktail shaker, and give it two quick shakes of orange bitters. This may seem unusual, but the bitters play very nicely with my preferred gin and makes the drink feel complete.
Now, cap the shaker and give it a good shaking. Some people prefer to stir a martini to prevent over-diluting it, but I generally prefer to shake it and I have found that using a generous scoop of ice chills it down very quickly, also preventing over-dilution. Don’t shake it violently, just enough to mix the ingredients completely. 20 seconds should do it.
Dump the ice that has been chilling your glass (be sure to let all the water fall out), and strain your beautiful martini right into it. Skewer the olive and drop it into the glass.
Repeat as desired.