Thursday, November 26, 2015

Drunk Martini Trials, Test #1:
The Esquire “Perfect Martini”

I remember exactly where I was when this all began: in a Thai restaurant in Palo Alto a few years back, having dinner with friends. Feeling adventurous, I ordered a drink from a little cocktail menu on the table, a house special called the “Bombay Sapphire Martini.” I’d only had maybe two martinis in my life, and I’d never heard of Bombay Sapphire gin. The drink came, I took a sip, and pow—that was it. Best. Drink. Ever.

For the next few years, martinis were my cocktail of choice. (How could they not be, after that perfect drink?) But, funny thing—I never found that perfect martini again. I found good ones, okay ones, dreadful ones that reeked of rubbing alcohol, but never that original martini’s piquant balance of tart and sweet, cold and tingly. Finally I decided the only way to get back to that perfect martini was to try making it at home—I’d try out different gins and vermouths, fiddle with the proportions, and stick with it until I figured out the right recipe.

One Friday night this past summer, I conducted the first Martini Trial. To avoid too much floundering around, I Googled “perfect martini” and found the recipe below on Esquire magazine’s site. And to make it more interesting, I decided to write down my impressions as I drank the martini. This is how I discovered one hazard of writing real-time drink reviews: You get…well…drunk, and you have to write at the same time. So if you don’t like reading drunk posts, avert your eyes. For the rest of you, join me while I take one for the team and try to make—and drink—the perfect martini.

Esquire Martini

                  4 ounces gin (I used Bombay Sapphire*)
                  1 ounce dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat extra dry)
            cocktail glass
            cracked ice

Per EsquireFill a metal shaker with cracked ice. Pour in the vermouth, stir briefly, and strain out (this may be discarded). Add 4 ounces gin—you want it around 94-proof. Stir briskly for about 10 seconds, strain into chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an olive.”

I used 4 shot glasses of gin (I have a small shot glass), and 1 shot glass of vermouth. Sadly, I had no olives. (How could I forget to buy olives?) I chilled a martini glass** in the freezer for 15 minutes beforehand. I can’t really say I used “cracked ice”; that would have involved a hammer, a Ziploc bag, and way too much noise for my cat. I opted for “fresh ice cubes,” which are rare enough in this house.

Real-time review
Right off the bat, from the first sip, I can say that this is too much. The drink is too big. And I do not find it “perfect.” It just tastes like a big, fancy glass o’gin. Straining out and discarding the vermouth seemed an awful waste.

More sips. Yes, it is a very big drink. And it tastes so…alcoholic. I’m immediately thinking a) I should not drink the whole thing, and b) this will kick my ass no matter how much I drink. It’s tasty, chilly, and very pretty. (Is it really silver, or is my imagination embellishing what essentially looks like a glass of water***?) But it needs something to temper the strong alcohol taste. This reminds me of a terrible martini I had at a holiday party in a restaurant a while back. It was so strong and crappy-tasting that after I finished it, I ordered a second martini, with better gin, to wash the terrible taste out of my mouth. Mistake. After the two martinis, I was too drunk to drive home and a co-worker had to sit with me and drink coffee for two hours****. Yeah, I was that lady at the Christmas party.

I already want to add a dash of vermouth to see if that’s what it’s missing. Can’t believe they tell you to pour the vermouth down the drain. I just cannot let go of that. 

OK, I just added 1/2 oz of vermouth (to my 1/3-consumed martini), and it’s much better. That’s what it needed—a hint of sweet, the warmth of grapes. It cuts the harshness of the gin and makes the drink complex. Actually, this may be a little too much vermouth now.

Next time, try 3 oz gin and 1/2 oz vermouth. Screw the “discard vermouth” part. Keep it. Mi amore.

Yes, yes, yes—kicking my ass. But a few more sips into it, it’s still not that good. Now it’s too sweet or something. Proportions? Brands? Oh boy, but it’s kicking my ass. Too much, too fast. Like a drug you take too much of, and then—too late! How do people drink these on a regular basis? Even my handwriting is drunk.

Hahahahaha…I had a terrible day at work. Actually thought of quitting. Hence the “alcoholic test trials.” Stairway to oblivion. Or elevator.

Oh my goodness. My whole face feels numb. I can’t even say “inebriated.” That’s a good test for inebriation. Oh my GOD, I’m so drunk. This martini is evil. Cut all the measurements in half.

Still laughing.

* One of the reasons I decided to try these martini trials was because I had a lot of Bombay Sapphire gin on hand. Earlier this year I took a day trip to Mount Shasta and decided to treat myself to a visit to All Star Liquors, a locally famous liquor warehouse just over the state line in California, where booze is significantly cheaper than in Oregon. I was walking to the cash register with a quart of Bombay Sapphire when a store salesman said I should really buy the bigger size, a much better deal at only $10 more. “But,” I protested, “I’ll never drink than much gin in my life!” “You could have a party,” he said, “with gin and tonics for everybody.” I must be impressionable; I could actually picture myself throwing that party. Only $10 more—what the hey, party on. The bottle I ended up with, 1.75 liters, is so big that whenever I hoist it out of the kitchen cabinet, I’m afraid I’ll drop it on my foot and break a toe.

** I’m embarrassed to say that I got my martini glasses at the dollar store. I had mixed feelings about that; while other shoppers were trawling the store for laundry detergent and school supplies, I was looking at cocktail glasses. They were much better martini glasses than I’d seen anywhere else, but I felt like I must have looked like either a really pathetic drunk or a wealthy housewife out slumming it between manicures and poodle-grooming appointments. 

*** Full disclosure: I didn’t think of taking pictures when I did this first trial, so the photo at the top is in fact a chilled martini glass filled with water.

**** Which was very nice of him. If he ever embarrasses himself in public, I will be the first to help him out.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: Tara Road

Tara Road
by Maeve Binchy
648 pages (1998)

Fun factor: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Trash factor: ★ ★ ★ ★
Feminist factor: [-★] [minus one star]

Oh, Maeve Binchy. How do you suck me in with these soap operas of modern women who inexplicably have their heads stuck in the 1950s?

I read another Binchy novel, Evening Class, about 15 years ago and remembered it as being sweet and surprisingly poignant. And a few weeks back, that was just what I needed. My brain was tired after having worked through a couple of National Book Award finalists, an award-winning sci-fi novel that was very tough sledding, and a couple other deadly serious books. I was ready for the literary equivalent of mac & cheese, comfort reading I could belly up to and binge on. So I sorted through the thrift-store books I keep hoarded for emergencies and came up with this Binchy book about two women, one in Ireland and one in Connecticut, who decide to swap houses for a few weeks.* Perfect, I thought—a romantic fantasy that won’t make me work too hard.

But it’s impossible to shut off my critical brain. Maybe I’m just 15 years more cynical now, but right away, Tara Road’s sweetness felt contrived. I mean, you know the hard-hearted woman will soften by the end, the smart-mouthed kids will turn into cherubs, at least briefly, and the bad guys will pay for their sleazeball ways. And the subplots are right out of a Peyton Place–era potboiler**—women striving to find husbands and have babies; men who turn out to be unworthy of those women; other women who pursue careers—the “slutty” route, in this book’s universe—and have animal sex with men who are not their own. When the book begins, the main character, Ria, leads a life so rosy that you know she’s about to get smacked down. For the first few chapters, I kept reading just to see how her life would blow apart, which it so obviously was going to do.

Then a strange thing happened: One night I found myself up way, way past my bedtime, turning and turning those pages. The damned thing had hooked me. I’m not sure how it happened, but now I needed to know when the shady businessman’s house of cards would fall in. Would Ria’s friend escape her (stereotypical) battering husband? Would her snarky, saucy friend—the only woman in the book who supports herself financially—find happiness, or would she just steal somebody’s husband? I felt keenly aware of the soap-opera manipulations, but man, that Binchy knew her plotting tricks: She’d introduce a question in the reader’s mind, then introduce another before answering the first, and so on, giving us a little more information than the characters had so we’d think we knew what would happen. Then she’d throw in a curve ball so it didn’t quite happen that way. All this sounds easy to do, but it’s not; keeping that tension up while not frustrating the reader is a fine balance to keep up for a whole book.

My hat’s off to Maeve Binchy. Ultimately, Tara Road did just what I wanted it to do: It entertained me for a couple of weeks. I don’t feel any better for it; all those women living their lives entirely in relation to the men around them doesn’t make me happy inside. But the book is eminently readable. I just feel a little guilty for liking it so much.

* One reason I figured this would be a lightweight read was because I thought it was the basis for the Kate Winslet/Cameron Diaz movie The Holiday. But it isn’t, really; the basic premise of the house-swapping is the same, but the two stories are very different. Sadly, Jude Law never shows up drunk on the doorstep in Dublin.

** Twice while reading this book, I checked the copyright page to see if it was actually written in the 1950s. I just could not believe it was a modern novel. Had I missed something? Was this a re-issue of a really old book? Nope—1998. Maybe Dublin was just way behind the times. Or Binchy was. Or the whole genre.