The dining room at the Banker’s Club was large and ornate, its linens crisp, and there was enough geography between table to prevent eavesdropping. Although I arrived on the dot, Lambert S. Denton was already seated and tinkering with a dry Martini. So dry, I found when he ordered one for me, it seemed as if the vermouth had been applied with an atomizer.
Listen, the Martini isn’t consumed enough today. I mean, I don’t know every single person drinking one at this moment, but I feel (and, like a good cop, sometimes you have to trust your feelings, or instincts) that not enough are. I feel that there was a time when all other cocktails were subsumed in the Martini’s overwhelming overwhelmingness, and that wasn’t a good thing. But now, perhaps, if my feeling is right, things – boozy things – during our modern cocktail renaissance have swung so far the other way thanks to the endless array of new and rediscovered cocktails that maybe not enough classic Martinis are consumed? Well, I’m going to do my part to balance that out, by having one right now. I like mine with the Embury proportions, meaning 2-1/2 parts gin to 1/2 part dry vermouth, and with a twist (lemon, naturally). Today, the gin component is going to be Thinking Tree Spirits Gifted gin, made down (down from me, at least!) in Eugene, OR. I was gifted a bottle recently, and couldn’t be happier. Gins always make swell gifts, friends. This particular gin is even called “Gifted” so it’s doubly perfect. It has a non-GMO Willamette Valley wheat base and is made by soaking botanicals (including Turkish juniper, Spanish coriander, fresh orange and lemon rind, star anise, lemongrass, angelica, grains of paradise, and cassia bark) in said base spirit for forty-eight hours before it’s distilled in a copper pot still. Then, English cucumber is infused in post-distilling. Neat! As you might expect after reading the last few sentences, it’s a complex gin-y number, with a junipery, cucumber-y, smell trailing citrus and bitters, and then a taste that echoes that (juniper, fresh cucumber) with more lemon and lemongrass and spice, finishing with nods towards the angelica and cassia. It makes, when mingled with the vermouth, an intriguing Martini – the many individual gins out there are what makes the Martini even more special now, as it allows them to shine. This one is a treat. I may have two. Helping to address that Martini imbalance and all!
Sorry, after last week’s Kill and Tell Cocktail Talk (read that one for a little more information on the book by Howard Rigsby), I realized I had to have at least one more, while I could still type – before the Martini kicks in. It’s not actually as drinky a book as some from the era, and the PI star isn’t as hard-drinking as others (he turns down a number of drinks), but hey, it’s not like he isn’t gonna drink at all!
“What would you like to drink?” I asked. “I can make a fair Martini.”
She had begun to look worried again, but she seemed to shrug it off. She smiled. “A Martini sounds grand.”
I made it five to one, and when she had tasted it she rolled her eyes upward. “While I can still talk there’s something I’d like to tell you,” she said.
As a good reporter and editor (much like Rock Rockwell, the intrepid editor of The Record, and hero in this here mystery book from 1950), I’m going to start this Cocktail Talk by referring you to the reference point of the What Rhymes with Murder? Cocktail Talk Part I, where I dig into the idea of reporters/mystery heroes, and a little more about the book as a whole. Here, I wanna just dive into the Cocktail Talking, so the only background on the book I’m putting in this paragraph is the tagline from the back cover, cause it’s one the finest taglines ever: “When a lusty lothario sings his serenade, romance rhymes with death!” Oh, and in the below they talk about overly-bittered Old Fashioneds. Also, memorable. Read it!
A voice at my elbow said, “Cocktail, sir? Old-Fashioneds and dry Martinis.”
“Old-Fashioned,” I said, hardly noticing the neat figure in black and white who spoke.
“Okay, but there’s more bitters in them than whiskey.”
I started and looked around. From under a frilly cap, the face of Amy Race was peering at me impishly. “I’m sticking to straight whisky myself,” she said. “That’s the trend below stairs.”
The great Graham Greene hasn’t made an enormous amount of time Cocktail Talking here on the ol’ Spiked Punch (though do the read the past Graham Greene Cocktail Talks), which is a shame because A: I like his works lots, and B: he liked a good drink. Probably because we shade a little lower-brow (though he did write a fair amount of what he called “entertainments” which might lean into pulp pockets perfectly), or just because I forget to mark the pages of potential Cocktail Talks when reading his books. Or re-reading, I should specify, as I believe I’ve read them all at least once, re-reading being the case recently as I was re-reading his book The Comedians, which takes places mostly on Haiti during the tragic reign of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Circling around one main character and a few main satellites characters (who meet on a boat heading towards the country), it’s a sometimes chilling, always moving novel. Definitely one that one should be read, especially if you carry an interest in political history around like a traveling bar.
“What’s your poison?”
“Have you a whiskey?”
“I have next to everything, old man. You wouldn’t fancy a dry Martini?”
I would have preferred a whisky, but he seemed anxious to show off the riches of his store, so, “If it’s very dry,” I said.
“Ten to one, old man.”
He unlocked the cupboard and drew out a leather traveling-case – a half-bottle of gin, a half-bottle of vermouth, four metal beakers, a shaker. It was an elegant expensive set, and he laid it reverently on the tumbled table as though he were an auctioneer showing a prized antique. I couldn’t help commenting on it.
“Asprey’s ?” I asked.
“As good as,” he replied quickly and began to mix the cocktails.
Another (see The Unholy Trio Part I Cocktail Talk, if you missed it) quote from the Henry Kane political, blackmail, murder, money yarn called The Unholy Trio, starring private investigator Peter Chambers, who tears it up, romances it up, and drinks it up through the book. It’s a fun ride, folks, and one that even includes our manly hero getting (as it says on the book), “a gilt-edged invitation to trouble,” as well as getting married! Really. Well, sort-of. You’ll have to read the book to the get all the details, though the below covers the most important part, the marriage Martinis.
And so we went home to our bridal suite and there she said, “Martinis. And I’m making.” She opened the liquor cabinet. “Excellent ingredients here. And a jar of olives and a jar of pearl onions, but I don’t like either. No lemons.”
“I though you weren’t special for Martinis?”
“Except on special occasions. Do you think we ought to call down for lemons?”
I didn’t quite relish the idea of calling to Room Service from the bridal suite in the middle of the night for a couple of lemons.
“I’ll go down and get them,” I said, and when I returned, after my curious excursion to the kitchens below, there was a tall shaker with frosty Martinis sitting and waiting.
Are you ready to celebrate tomorrow? I certainly hope so! Wait, celebrate what I hear someone in the back asking? Well, The Thin Man release date day of course! That’s right friends, one of the drinky-est movies of all time (and a swell mystery, too, natch), where the Martinis and such flow like rain in a Seattle winter, was released on 5/25, 1934, if memory serves. Based on the Dashiell Hammett book of the same name (which you must read), and kicking off a series of movies, The Thin Man for those whose lives have been sad so far, features drinking-and-joking-and-quipping-and-drinking-and-just-having-a-swell-time private detectives Nick and Nora Charles. And, for my money (what there is of it), the scene where we meet them for the first time is one of the best scenes in any movie, where a camera swerves through a crowded dance floor before you hear Nick telling the bartender the below, right after which Nora shows and orders seven Martinis. Amazing, as is this quote:
The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.
Agatha (Christie, naturally — not to throw shade on other Agathas, but really, if just using the first name “Agatha” don’t most people’s minds head towards her? Just me?) is deservedly known best for her detective (whether Belgian, small town observer, or husband-wife team) books. But she wrote others, too! Some falling into what I’d call “international intrigue,” including They Came To Baghdad. She was a well-traveled writer, with a flair for description, and so writing more globe-trotting – as opposed to set in the UK – books makes sense. Though, I have to admit, there are lots of mysterious threads intertwining here, but hey, she knows her stuff. Basically, after some set-up and stage-setting and character introducing, and a lot of “what’s happening here”-ing, the story follows Victoria Jones, who loses her job, meets a nice chap in a park, decides she’s in love, follows him (by picking up a random job with free airline tickets) to Baghdad, and drops right into a worldwide conspiracy, nearly gets killed, gets kidnapped, goes on an archeology dig, and stays in a hotel run by a man named Marcus who likes to buy drinks, which are delivered by a waiter named Jesus. And a whole lot more! There are murders, twists, neat scenes, and more drinks. Well worth picking up!
“Come and have a drink with us Miss Jones. Martini – Sidecar? This is Mr. Dakin. Miss Jones from England. Now then, my dear, what will you have?”
Victoria said she would have a Sidecar “and some of those lovely nuts?” she suggested hopefully, remembering that nuts were nutritious.
“You like nuts? Jesus!” He gave the order in rapid Arabic. Mr. Dakin said in a sad voice that he would have a lemonade.
The Man Behind the Evening's PlansA.J. Rathbun is a freelance food and entertainment writer, poet and author, a frequent guest on the Everyday Food program (Martha Stewart Living/Sirius satellite radio), and is a contributor to culinary & entertainment magazines such as Every Day with Rachael Ray, The Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Wine Enthusiast, and many others. Of course, there's so much more to it than that...Read More