The Martini Man

On an afternoon in 1862, in the then young city of San Francisco, a man stepped into the saloon of the Occidental Hotel on Montgomery Street. He told the barman, ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas, that he was embarking on a business trip to the northern California town of Martinez. Perhaps Martinez was considered propitious or, more likely, dangerous in those Gold Rush days, because the good prof said he would concoct a special drink to commemorate the occasion and wish the traveller a good journey.

Gin and vermouth followed ice into a shaker. Thomas shook the mixture so long that thousands of tiny ice crystals broke off the mother cubes and emulsified with the surrounding liquid. He poured the now milky looking result into a chilled glass. The atomised ice crystals rose to the surface and resolved themselves into a glacial pool, leaving below a drink of perfect icy clarity. A bit of lemon was the original garnish. Thomas dubbed it the Martinez Cocktail.

We don’t know what became of our travelling businessman. Martinez was an agricultural hub at the time. Maybe he bought wheat futures. But a few years later the drink found its way into Thomas’ book, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. But whether due to Thomas’ creativity or an editorial erratum, it was by then called the martini. And the rest is drinking history.

I’ve been a martini drinker for many years, although not so much in Saigon. You see, making this drink is a bit like piloting an airplane. In principal it’s quite simple. But it’s unforgiving of mistakes. So here in town I usually have it at home where I can make it to Thomas’ specifications. But when I want to go out for my favourite dram I can go, appropriately enough, to the Martini Bar in the venerable old Caravelle Hotel.

The Martini Bar is a rather low-lit cave that burrows back into Saigon history, lined with old black and white photos of the city’s colourful past. At the entrance sits a baby grand piano where a gentle ruffian in a Trillby hat coaxes out melodies to accompany a stylish songstress. At the far end is the bar, and a mobile martini cart where Mr Le Hoang Thao coaxes out perfect martinis to those who desire them, be they stylish or not. Mr Thao knows his gin and vermouth. And his olives and lemon peel as well. More to the point, he knows how best to combine them into perfect balance, to pilot his bibulous plane without error.

He wheels his cart to your table. Asks if it’s vodka or gin, olive or lemon, straight up or on the rocks, extra dry, or with a goodly splash of vermouth, as Thomas would have done. And then he shakes it till it hurts. This is no mere two- or three-shake motion that you might see in a too-hip joint done by a bored hipster who’s too hip to care. Mr Thao knows that proper martini service is part of the enjoyment of the drink. And it must be done with aplomb. And so he shakes with a combination of care and ferocity. Then he deftly strains it into your garnished glass, and quietly wheels his cart away.

Martini aficionados all agree that, unlike the first one made by Thomas, it is no longer one for the road. It is traditionally the first of two, each lasting about half an hour. Hence our term “the cocktail hour”. Yeah, that’s where that comes from. And the cocktail hour precedes the dinner hour. At the Martini Bar that’s just a step or two into the Reflections restaurant. No need to carry the remnants of your second martini to the table. The staff will see to that. And do let them do so, because the appetiser menu at Reflections is perfect martini food. Oysters Rockefeller or Killpatrick make love to vodka and gin. And Caesar salad sings a duet with vermouth. And so does much of the main menu as well. On my last expedition to the Caravelle I saved the last of my martini to savour with Reflections’ superb lamb shank. Lady C (you know her by now) paired her martini with the house’s signature lobster dish. And we wept for those who will never be able to try it.

Next time I go there I think I’ll try a martini as an after-dinner drink. I’ll let Mr Thao wheel his cart to the table and shake me a good one to go with the silky smooth crème caramel, or the sweet and piquant passionfruit sorbet. And just maybe, as an homage to Jerry Thomas and the wayfarer to Martinez, I’ll have just one for the road.

Martini Bar and Reflections Restaurant
3rd floor, Caravelle Hotel
Lam Son Square, D1 

Read more Sterling’s Saigon