Thursday, May 30, 2024

A Martini Tour of New York City

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By this point, there was no other choice but to try the Dukes Martini with Ketel One vodka. Purists insist on gin, of course, but given my national background growing up in a famous autocracy high up by the Gulf of Finland, my constitution prefers vodka for the recovery process the morning after. Nevertheless, this was a hell of a lot of vodka. Here, I plopped an olive into the oversized glass for a hint of brininess. Although my thumbs were ceasing to work, I managed to type “This is friendship juice” into my phone as Amor and I chattered away on topics both alcoholic and literary. We ordered a very decent shrimp cocktail and split a B.L.T. sandwich to fortify ourselves for our third drink, the so-called 1884 Martini. This beast is premade with two types of gin—Boatyard Double Gin, from Northern Ireland, and the New York Distilling Company’s Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin—which clocks in at a ridiculous 114 proof. This dangerous concoction is then fat-washed with Spanish Arbequina olive oil, after which it is frozen and the olive oil’s fat removed, while vermouth, lemon liqueur, a house-made vetiver tincture, and a few dashes of lemon-pepper bitters are added. A lemon peel is then showily expressed over the glass tableside and a very briny Gordal olive and a cocktail-onion skewer are plopped in. Although more sizable quantities of vermouth and other pollutants are at play than in the classic Dukes Martini, the over-proofed gin does a lot of the talking and one is soon very convincingly drunk.

Three Martinis in, spirits high, voices loud, we stormed down Broadway to our native Gramercy, where, in the pursuit of further bar eating and to descend from our Martini highs, we split a duo of frankfurters at the Old Town Bar & Restaurant, along with a pair of Negronis. That night, my stomach padded with beef and bun, I descended into the sleep of the righteous, dreaming of further drunken friendship still.

My research continued. I conscripted my friend the actor J. Smith-Cameron, known lately for her role as Gerri on “Succession,” into taking me to one of her favorite Martini joints, Gotham Restaurant, in the Village. One can love a bar for the drinks, or one can love a bar for the bartender. For J., it is the latter, and the Gotham bartender’s name is Billy. Gotham, which opened in 1984, has been a fixture of the downtown dining scene for decades, and Billy is a lifer in that world, having worked at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill for twenty years, before spending ten years at Gotham. (The restaurant closed during COVID and reëmerged under new ownership.) J. and I are besotted by the man, by the excellent floral skinny tie, by the black vest, by the rolled-up bartender’s sleeves. There is a bookshelf to the left of the bar and the corporatized but still-interesting urban ballet of Twelfth Street beyond the restaurant’s tall windows, and then there is the potent drink before us.

When it comes to Martinis, Billy is a rebel against the general anti-vermouth vibe that pervades our city, but he knows his patrons prefer their libations dry. “ ’Cause most people,” he told us, “if you put vermouth in nowadays, they send it back.” He mixed us a Vesper, a drink that de-Balkanizes the conflict between vodka and gin by combining both, with a splash of Lillet Blanc serving as the Holy Spirit. “I use more Lillet to make it sweeter, to add more body,” Billy told us. The drink, while still crisp, was more toothsome than a standard dry Martini.



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