Last week I ordered a martini after work – breaking news this is not. But for me, the simple act of enjoying an ordinary martini has been impossible for quite a long time. While sipping the icy cold cocktail with a colleague in a near-empty restaurant bar, I took a moment to reminisce about my drinking preferences: what led to my martini hiatus; my past attempts at reintroduction; and my current station, based on my new-found love affair with gin.
The story begins on a cold, winter afternoon over six years ago. Low-hanging gray clouds blended with Washington’s stubby granite and marble skyline, which itself blended with dirty, soot-crusted patches of melting snow. I was to meet several co-workers, as well as my girlfriend, for a Friday happy hour at a martini lounge that had recently opened in the lower level of a Capitol Hill row house.
Down the steps and into the darkly painted and dimly lit space, I wasted no time tying one on, as they say. Only a short while later – say, about an hour – I was well into my third vodka martini and feeling tight. Being a young man at the time, I had not yet mastered the delicate art of managing one’s buzz, manipulating time and drink to create the perfect combination. Especially when consuming spirits, I would go from sober-as-a-priest to falling-down drunk. Unfortunate yes, but nonetheless part of knowing your body’s chemistry, tastes, and faculties. Thankfully my girlfriend was there in my hour of need, rescuing me from myself and along the way, witnessing things no young woman should ever have to see.
Weeks and months passed, then years, but I could not enjoy another martini following that experience. Any time I so much as smelled vodka and vermouth together, my stomach would turn; the Garcia Effect had indeed taken firm hold. Try as I might to reconstitute my taste for martinis, I was never able.
Years later, I found myself sitting at another bar with that same woman – now my wife – this time aboard a cruise liner touring the Caribbean Sea. It was a special occasion and another attempt was in order; certainly it had been long enough for my body to forget the agony I have inflicted upon it. But success was not to be. Even the bar’s specialty martini – an Iceberg Martini, consisting of vodka, vermouth, and crème de menthe – could not fool my physiology’s memory.
Shortly after that trip I gave up trying to reacquire the taste: martinis would forever be crossed off my list of cocktail options. I decided instead on whisky, the Manhattan being my cocktail of choice. This was the routine until earlier this year, when I discovered the herbal wonders of gin. This past February, I wrote about the Parisian Cocktail, an ordinary gin martini with crème de cassis. It marked the beginning of my slow and cautious return to the classic martini.
Although as of late, the Negroni has been my cocktail du jour, it didn’t suit the hot weather last week and felt less than refreshing that afternoon with my colleague. Why not try a gin martini? This is, after all, as martini aficionados will inform you, the proper spirit with which to make the cocktail. And the cold, crisp gin certainly sounded delicious on such a warm day. Yet without a third ingredient to mask the taste and smell – menthe or cassis as in past attempts – I was afraid of embarrassing myself by viscerally reacting to the drink. But after contemplating my choices for a few minutes, I thought what the hell?
So, a gin martini it was. And although it wasn’t an exact replica of the martini that so thoroughly entrenched my conditioned taste aversion, to me it represented progress. Apparently, simply substituting one spirit for another was the key to appreciating this classic cocktail again. Perhaps I’m closer than ever to a time when I can order a vodka martini without feeling immediately nauseous. But let’s not push our luck. No one wants to see that again.