The Friday Symposium: Bach and The Martini

Leave it to academia to turn something wonderful into something dreadful. When most people hear the world “symposium” today, they think of a bunch of talking heads sitting on a podium massaging their own egos. In the Ancient World, however, a symposium was decidedly more fun–after all, the word symposium is derived from the Greek “symposio”, which means “drinking together.” A symposium, in Ancient Rome, was therefore a drinking party where wine and music flowed together. So when Our Friend from Boston requested a paring of music and drinks in this blog, my mind turned to the original meaning of symposium. I will also note that this idea was in part stolen from The Friday Belt, which was one of the best features of what was probably my favorite blog ever.

The first drink, of course, has to be the Martini. It is one of the first and one of the best, an icon that is bracingly refreshing in summer as it is the literal representation of winter in a glass. No drink brings as much history and atmospherics to the table. And once you know how to make one, the riffs on the formula are nearly endless.

Let’s start with what a Martini is not. It is not made with vodka. It is not simply chilled gin in a glass. It is a cocktail and thus made from a combination of ingredients, one of which is dry vermouth. I love vermouth and take my “dry Martinis” quite wet by modern standards. Julia Child was fond of the Reverse Martini (two parts vermouth to one part gin). Audrey Saunders brought back the Fifty-Fifty Martini. But the classic is and will always be three parts gin to one part vermouth, which is what I drink. Finally, a Martini, like every cocktail that is made solely from spirits, should stirred, not shaken. There is little more depressing in life than ordering a Martini and getting ice chips floating at the top of the glass. In this regard, this classic scene from The Thin Man (first scene in the montage), was complely wrong. Incidentally, the glass used by Nick Charles in these films is now known as the Nick and Nora glass, which is as an ideal vessel for a Martini and nearly any other variation of it.

A Martini, like most cocktails, should be small, no more than four ounces total. Bars love these swimming pool masquerading as cocktail glasses, but really that is just a vehicle for a warm drink. A Martini should be silky smooth in texture, bracing in flavor, and icy cold in temperature. A perfectly made Martini is a thing of beauty; a poorly made Martini is the cocktail served in hell.

Today’s Martini drinker is faced with an endless set of gin and vermouth combinations. The classic, Beefeater and Martini & Rossi, is a classic for a reason. A more upscale version, The Botanist and Channing Daughters VerVino Variation 1, amps up the flavor considerably. For those who do not like juniper-flavored gins, Plymouth and Perucchi Bianco make for a nice pairing. As for the other more popular premium gins, I do not like Tanqueray in a Martini (a G&T is an entirely different story) and I do not like Bombay, either in its original or sapphire versions, altogether. My favorite is decidely middle of the road: Broker’s and Dolin Dry. Three to one, stirred, with a dash of orange bitters and olives thank you very much. Both will make less of a dent in your wallet than any of the others mentioned here.

Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin are similarly bracing, brilliant when perfectly executed and unlistenable when they are not. Today’s recording is Nathan Milstein’s. His performance is cold perfection of technique, the heat of which only emerges after you’ve had a few.

The classic “Dry” Martini is not, however, the original version. It is, in fact, a riff on the original recipie–The Martinez. The Martinez is made with equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, to which a teaspon of maraschino liqueur and a few dashes of orange bitters are added before stirring into a coupe garnished with a twist of lemon. It is altogether a solid drink, even if the Dry version we know today was a clear improvement.

Just like the hipster bartenders who have resurrected the Martinez, period instrument performers have sought to improve on Milstein’s classic recording, bringing historically informed instruments, bows, and techniques to the table, all in an effort to get closer to Bach’s ideal. Like these recreated Old Tom gins, period instrument recordings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas are interesting but can’t really match Milstein’s peerless classic. But both the drink and these new recordings have their fans. Thomas Zehetmair, in his more recent recording of these works, gets closer to that ideal than most. Perhaps a Martinez for that one.

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