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Shaken & Stirred

Why is the world so mad about martini glasses and mockatinis? A frustrated cocktail aficionado spills the secret.

Darwin was dead by the time the martini glass conquered the world. Otherwise he would have had to rethink his theory of natural selection. He would have had to explain how a species that's so spectacularly flawed in its design has come to rule the earth.

Like all cocktail glasses, the martini glass was created for two reasons: to make a snug home for a drink, and to facilitate a brief escape from life's hassles. It does neither of these things. And yet, not only has the martini glass survived, it's flourishing.

The martini itself is a flawless invention. The smooth, salty, ice-cold blend of gin, vermouth and olives is as close to genius as cocktails get. But after years spent in a rocky rapprochement with the martini glass, I've had to sever our relationship. I've soaked way too many clothes—my own, my friends', strangers'—trying to navigate the glass off a bar and onto my lower lip. It doesn't take a mechanical engineer to figure out that a shallow vessel with a narrow base and a wide, gaping mouth, balanced on a skinny stem, is not an effective container for liquid. Though the glass's tall, angular shape is kind of sexy (that must be why it has spawned so successfully), it seems designed not so much to hold liquid as to spill it.

The problem is, when you're lifting a full martini glass to take a sip—or, God forbid, trying to carry the drink across a room—the tiniest miscalculation will send the cocktail crashing over the rim. The only sure way to avoid disaster is to (a) never walk with a full glass and (b) never raise a full glass to your mouth. When the bartender sets the glass down, don't touch it. Slowly bend your neck, hunch over, bring your lips down to the rim and slurp quietly. Repeat for the next four or five sips and you should be out of the woods. But who wants to work that hard? Who wants to work that hard at a bar?

Apparently, everyone does. The martini craze is unstoppable. The cultural iconography of the glass—its link to every pop-culture pinup from Sinatra to Dorothy Parker to 007—has defeated all reason. The fad wouldn't be so annoying if it was limited to martinis and other drinks traditionally served in inverted glass pyramids: Manhattans, gimlets, sidecars and such. But thanks to the birth of the Cosmopolitan in the late '80s—and its endless cameos on Sex and the City—there's now an insatiable demand for candy-colored martini spin-offs. Approximately every five seconds, somewhere in America, a bartender is hard at work inventing a new drink to serve in a martini glass.

Most of these drinks, it's safe to say, won't make it into the cocktail canon. Some of the most optimistic combinations I've seen—melon liqueur, blue Curaçao and crème de cacao; ginger puree, cranberry juice and citrus vodka; pineapple juice, apple liqueur and white cranberry juice—are destined for a swift, unmourned death. And cocktail historians of the future will take special delight in mocking the garnishes: everything from pickled brussels sprouts to toy whales. As if the standard 5- or 6-ounce portions weren't punishment enough, bartenders have been serving their chemistry experiments in bigger and bigger glasses—some as big as 11 ounces.

Martini glasses, big or small, present a special problem for men: Balancing a fragile, stiletto-stemmed glass—especially one filled with sugary neon liquid—just isn't a macho look. On a recent night at Manhattan's Paramount Bar, management consultant and fellow skeptic Adam Gerstein flinched at the cocktail list: "Talk about a challenging menu for a guy." Bartender Dusan Zaric of Pravda, a New York City bar that specializes in martini variations, told me that, every now and then, "a guy will ask to have his drink served in a different glass."

I have another theory about America's martini-glass fixation: They're the cigarettes of the 21st century. Smoking is quickly turning into a crime in the United States—with the most hedonistic cities, New York and San Francisco, ironically leading the charge. But so far it's still legal to squeeze your fingers around a skinny glass stem.

In all fairness, the V-shaped glass—which made its debut at a 1925 Art Deco exhibition in Paris—is meant to serve a purpose. Cocktail historian Dale DeGroff explains that the narrow bottom was designed to focus the eye on the olive. I'd just as soon give up that aesthetic privilege for a smaller dry-cleaning bill. As for the stem, it's meant to keep the hand away from the bowl so the drink stays cold longer. But goblets, snifters and old-fashioned, rounded cocktail glasses have stems too; why can't we use them instead? And because their mouths are smaller, exposing less liquid to the air, wouldn't they keep drinks cold longer?

Since I can't seem to beat the martini trend and I'm too clumsy to join it, here's a compromise. If bartenders insist on inventing new drinks to serve in martini glasses, can those cocktails at least not look and taste like booze-spiked Kool-Aid? Michael Ciccoricco, owner and mixologist at the new Ocean's 21 in Manhattan's West Village, has come up with some subtle twists on retro drinks that are actually improvements on the original versions. He makes a smooth, sturdy gimlet with a bright basil infusion; a Gibson with a tart, Campari-soaked cocktail onion; and a surprisingly drinkable Cosmo with fresh blood-orange juice. Even the martini glasses he uses are an improvement: Their thicker stems, deeper cups and relative heft make them tip-resistant (if not quite tip-proof).

F&W's own spirits buff, William Loob, has created a few of his own classic-cocktail variations designed to make the martini-glass struggle more rewarding. For the best results, fill the glass only halfway, wear dark colors from head to toe, and stand at least six feet away from me.

Published September 2003
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