Slippery definition of martini still reigns

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The martini I was served earlier this month at Bern’s Steakhouse, a Tampa institution that’s one of the nation’s great restaurants, looked exactly right: Clear as a polished windowpane and garnished with a speared trio of taut green olives, the cocktail appeared ready to clink and drink. But there was an additional step for which I wasn’t prepared: “Would you like any vermouth?,” our server asked.

She was holding an eyedropper so tiny she might have swiped it from Stuart Little’s Dopp kit. Having just read that savvy bartenders are starting to embrace outside-the-glass theatrics, I briefly wondered if the 59-year old restaurant was hipper than I thought. Then I settled on the more plausible explanation: When you ask for a martini at Bern’s, you’re served a tall glass of gin.

Bewildered by my insistence on vermouth, the server kindly offered to pump her eyedropper until the drink reached my desired proportions. Futile, I told her: That’s like trying to cut your grass with embroidery scissors. So I asked as nicely as I could whether the bartender would remake the drink, preferably at a three-to-one ratio.

The server was shocked. It had been years since anyone wanted vermouth in a martini. Later, another Bern’s server told me the very same thing: “Nobody orders that,” said Jamal Hussamy, who joined the restaurant’s staff in 1972. “Nobody.”

My dining companion suggested the vermouth-free martini, while admittedly sacrilegious in a steakhouse, was a Florida eccentricity. But I’d had a weirdly similar experience a few weeks earlier in Virginia, suggesting that the craft cocktail revolution isn’t quite complete. Bartenders may like to mock requests for a “vodka martini,” but at least customers placing those orders are aware of vermouth. A vast group of drinkers hasn’t reached that point yet.

At The Jefferson, a stately beaux arts hotel that’s loomed over Richmond, Va. for more than a century, my martini didn’t taste right. I asked the bartender how she made it: “I measured it,” she told me proudly. “Three ounces of gin.” Anything else? Nope.

To be fair, there isn’t any consensus on how much vermouth belongs in a martini. Most professionals agree the old “wave a bottle of vermouth over the glass” trick is inadequate. Yet a six-to-one ratio is well within the reasonable range (Drinks and Drinking, a San Diego-based cocktail blog, has helpfully compiled a list of ratios provided by trusted cocktail books: Jim Meehan is among the experts I can cite the next time I drag out the three-to-one request.)

Dean Hurst, Bern’s director of spirits, says he always asks customers what ratio they prefer when they ask for a martini, although he knows all they want is gin. “People think anything in a tall glass is a martini,” he explains. Plus, they like getting extra liquor without having to ask for a double, which makes it sound like they’re looking to get soused.

“It’s an education,” he says, defending his strategy with a sigh. “If they ask for vodka, I don’t even ask.”