Golden State Plate: The Story of the Martini, Straight Up, With a Twist

6 min
Gabriel Clothes is the Lead Bar at Salt House in San Francisco. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

The martini is iconic. Not just because of James Bond, but the glass it’s served in, those neon signs in front of old school bars ... it even has its own emoji.

The martini is also the first cocktail Tamir Ben-Shalom learned how to make.

Ben-Shalom is bar manager at the Bull Valley Roadhouse in the tiny East Bay town of Port Costa. He makes a mean martini: two parts of Old Tom Gin, one part Turino vermouth blend, and orange bitters.

Tamir Ben-Shalom is the Bar Manager at Bull Valley Road House in Port Costa, a tiny town in the East Bay. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)
Lemon, gin and vermouth go into the martini at the Bull Valley Roadhouse. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

But he tells me that if I want to get to the bottom of the martini mystery, I really need to drive 20 minutes to Martinez. So, I get in my car until I hit the intersection of Masonic and Alhambra Streets. It's an unassuming parking lot, except for a plaque on a giant boulder that claims this is the site of the martini's invention.

In the middle of a parking lot in Martinez, there is a plaque that claims it is the site of the invention of the martini.
In the middle of a parking lot in Martinez, there is a plaque that claims it is the site of the invention of the martini. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

The plaque reads: "On this site in 1874, Julio Richelieu, bartender, served up the first martini when a miner came into his saloon with a fistful of nuggets and asked for something special. He was served a Martinez Special. After three or four drinks, however, the Z would get very much in the way. The drink consisted of two thirds gin, one third vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, poured over crushed ice and served with an olive."

Not only does Martinez lay claim to the drink with a plaque, it throws an annual Martini's on the Plaza Gaza, and the drink’s origin story is on the city’s official website.

But Gabriel Clothes, a San Francisco bartender who collects and studies old cocktail recipes, says there’s actually a lot of controversy about where — and who — invented the martini.

"These origins are so murky. Especially a drink, it's not entered into the public record," he says.

An 1862 engraving of Jerry Thomas. His 'Bartenders Guide' is a seminal cocktail recipe book. (Wikimedia Commons: Museum of the American Cocktail)

But Clothes tells me a really similar origin story — it also takes place during the 1870s, but this time it happens in San Francisco.

It starts with a miner with a sack of gold who went into the bar at the Occidental Hotel hoping to trade it for a bottle of whiskey.

Bartender Jerry Thomas gave him the whiskey AND a special drink he invented off the cuff — the Martinez.

In 1887, the recipe for the Martinez was documented for the first time, in Jerry Thomas’ Bartender's Guide.

And his recipe looks a lot like the classic martini : one part Old Tom gin, and two parts vermouth.

Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide (first published in 1862) was reprinted in 1887 with a recipe for the Martinez. (Courtesy of Jennifer Colliau)

To try to clarify the Martinez-Martini confusion, I consult with Jennifer Colliau, an an award-winning bartender and self-proclaimed cocktail nerd.

"I love that there's this air of mystery to it," she says of the cocktail. "[American writer] H.L. Mencken called the martini 'the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.'"

She loves the martini so much, she’s created a spreadsheet of all the different variations she’s found over the years. It has whopping 469 entries.

Some of the drinks she's documented are made with exact same recipe but different names: the Chris Racquet Club, the Duey, the Dry Martini, the Marguerite and the Nutting.

Jennifer Colliau is founder of Small Hand Foods, and an award-winning bartender. (Courtesy of Jennifer Colliau)

All of those drinks are made with the same ingredients: 1 to 1 gin and dry vermouth with orange bitters. So which one is one?

Colliau says I'm asking the wrong question: "There is nothing empirical here. There are people writing other people's recipes. There are people naming drinks after themselves or after the bars they work in."

This explains why it’s so hard to nail down the difference between a Martinez and a martini, let alone where it was invented. But regardless of what it was called...it’s obvious that a martini-type gin drink was very popular at the turn of the century.

Sponsored

"People always drank whatever they had around and you know when America was being settled, there was a lot of gin here," says Colliau.

And that wasn’t an accident. Gin’s popularity can really be traced back to Prohibition.

When the manufacturing and selling of alcohol became illegal in 1920, people got...creative. Ever heard of bathtub gin? That was literally gin made in a bathtub. It was cheap and easy, and there was a lot of it.

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol. (Wikimedia Commons: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society.)

And the martini profile got a boost when President Roosevelt repealed Prohibition thirteen years later. According to Gabriel Clothes, Roosevelt even toasted the end of Prohibition with — a martini.

Colliau considers the martini the "granddaddy of cocktails".

And this granddaddy came from here — the San Francisco Bay Area. Well it PROBABLY came from here…

According to the San Jose Mercury News, in 1983, the San Francisco Court of Historical Review — a group with no actual legal authority — held a mock trial over the origin of the martini, determining that their city was the cocktail’s rightful birthplace.

A martini with a twist. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

But not to be outdone, a mock court in Martinez overturned the ruling shortly after.

When I press Jennifer Colliau, Tamir Ben-Shalom, and Gabriel Clothes on the martini was invented, no one is willing to say anything definitively.

Finally, when I ask Colliau if she thinks it's important that people know where the martini comes from, she gives it to me straight:

"Oh god no no no. No one needs to know any of this," she says laughing. Then she adds, "I mean if you're enjoying yourself at my bar that's really all that I care about."

Cheers to that!

Sponsored

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
Log In ToPledge-Free Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.