Martinis 101 in Palm Desert
by Linda Milks
Where did gin originate and how was it first used? Who made the first martini? What does it mean to “bruise the alcohol”? When did vodka start being used in martinis? Do all gins contain the same ingredients?
Thanks to Joe Cuccio, “Joe, the Bartender” at The Westin Desert Willow Villas in Palm Desert, we were about to get some answers to these intriguing questions in his Martini Mixer Class, which he holds every Tuesday in the resort’s Agave Grill & Bar.
Much to our surprise, we learned that gin originally came from Holland in the 1550s. A Dutch professor of medicine took the juniper berry and infused it with grain alcohol to make a medicinal tonic. The term, “Dutch Courage,” came from Dutch soldiers drinking a little gin before battle, which made them crazy and bold. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Dutch shared their “Dutch Courage” with English soldiers. The spirit was transported back to England where William of Orange, while occupying the English throne, declared gin the drink of England.
Our next question was, “Who invented that most glamorous of drinks, the martini?” There are many theories such as a Gold Rush prospector in Martinas, California, creating a drink called the Martinas Special (made with Sweet Vermouth, orange bitters, and maraschino cherry juice) to the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York having a bartender named Martini de la Taglia who changed the Sweet Vermouth to Dry Vermouth and eliminated the maraschino cherry. No one is quite sure who invented the martini.
Joe shared with us that a classic martini has six drops of vermouth mixed with a jigger of gin (1 ½ oz.). For an extra dry martini, he pours some vermouth in a mixer and then pours it out. This vermouth just lines the mixer so that only a breath of it remains in the mixed drink.
We were asked how vodka became an accepted spirit for a martini? The answer is that Smirnoff paid to have their vodka displayed in the famous 1962 James Bond movie, Dr. No. Thus, product placement in movies started to become a popular promotional technique and the possibility of making a martini with vodka was introduced.
James Bond movies also coined the phrase, “shaken, not stirred.” This made us all wonder which is a better way to make a martini and why. Bartender Joe’s preference is to shake a martini, too.
Some bartenders believe you “bruise the liquor” by shaking it. How can you “bruise” liquor and what could that possibly mean? The term “bruise” means that as the ice is firmly shaken, small shards break off and dilute the liquor. Joe demonstrated why he thinks that theory is an old wives’ tale. He stirred one martini and poured it into a glass and then shook another and poured it into a glass of the same size. The glass with the shaken drink contained less liquid—proof that shaking dilutes the martini less than stirring.
We were told there are many types of gin. We were able to detect a whiff of roses and saffron when smelling the Nolet’s Gin made in Holland by Ketel One. This prestigious bottle has a cap akin to the gear shift knob of a Bentley.
Hendrick’s Gin, a spirit from Scotland, gathers its distinctive flavor from an infusion of rose petals and cucumbers and is made in very small batches.
Another popular gin is Bombay, originally from England, which is available as Bombay Original Dry and the popular Bombay Sapphire. The Sapphire is triple distilled and infused with ten exotic botanicals.
After all this history and education, we were getting mighty thirsty. So Joe mixed us a classic gin martini to sample and then a vodka martini. They were both perfection. He also explained that anything else, such as a Lemon Drop or a Cosmopolitan, was simply a cocktail served in a martini glass. However, during the next part of our class we had the opportunity to step behind the bar and create our own versions of these cocktails, served up in a martini glass.
As each one of us stepped behind the bar, Joe guided us in making such luscious concoctions as a Chocolate Covered Raspberry Martini and The Rootin’ Tootin’ Tini (root beer flavored). My selection was to make one of his signature cocktails called “The Best of the Best," which included Bombay Sapphire, Grey Goose Citron, Hypnotiq, Amaretto, Agave Nectar, and freshly squeezed lime juice.” How could I go wrong with a drink named that? As the name suggests, it was exquisite.
At the end of our class, all of us decided we had learned much about martinis, and we promised to “walk” safely to our hotel rooms. We were also thrilled to receive a certificate showing we had passed the course (perhaps something to show to our grandchildren someday.)
You can sign up for Joe’s entertaining and informative Martini Mixer Class by calling The Westin Desert Willow Villas at 760-636-7000. The Villas are located at 75 Willow Ridge in Palm Desert.
Linda MIlks is a special correspondent for Life-Uncorked.
Photos by Linda Milks and Todd Montgomery.