Or maybe, really, it’s the implied elevation of status that comes with sipping a a drink Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, and, ah yes, James Bond imbibed long, long before many of us were even thinking about drinking.
The history of the martini is muddled. Like so many other famed culinary delights and popular refreshments, there are many, many people and countries who claim origin of this classic concoction, however, regardless of who first mixed the 5:1 ratio of gin and dry vermouth and plopped in a few ripe olives, they started doing so in the late 1800s, purportedly in California, although New Yorkers like to lay claim to the libation in the early 1900s.
Regardless, vermouths -- invented in Turin, Italy by Benedetto Carpano in 1786 -- arrived in the United States in the mid to late1800s, and Martini and Rossi finally honed their dry vermouth in 1900, so likely the evolution of the martini followed suit since vermouth alone can be unpleasant to American palates.
Martini purists will argue that all the pink drinks and non-vermouth “martinis” on bar menus these days are bastardizations of an actual martini. But the fun part of martinis is this creation and revolution of all things that now appear in these classy glasses.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that vodka martinis really hit the market, and soon after the New York and Los Angeles marketplaces started cranking out the decidedly nontraditional versions that so many of us are now acquainted with: cosmopolitans, metropolitans, French kisses, and the ever so decadent chocolate martini, to name a few.
The Milwaukee bar scene embraced the trend in the early 1990s, and we still have hold of it today, with old and new taverns alike offering a healthy martini selection with their other specialty drink lists. Below is a list of some of the best places in Milwaukee for both martini purists and those just looking for a fun, funky place to try their first quaff.
1686 N. Van Buren St., (414) 347-4144
Angelo pours a mean variation on the martini here; a classic dry gin concoction with a lemon twist dribbled with scotch, which he then sets afire. While sipping contentedly, you can sing along with Norma on the piano or enjoy as others take the stage. It’s a friendly, Rat Pack-loving establishment and you won’t get a better mix of classic cocktail and ambience anywhere else in town; if Dean Martin was still alive and lived in Milwaukee, this is where he’d go for a nightcap.
Elsa’s on the Park
833 N. Jefferson St., (414) 765-0615
You can’t go wrong with an Elsa’s martini on a Friday afternoon with their TGIF cocktail shrimp platter. A classic haunt for those who like to see and be seen, it’s not unusual here to see the entire bar lined with martini glasses. I personally like their Ketel One up, extra dry with two olives, but my girlfriends rave about the Lemon Drops here.
422 S. 2nd St., (414) 272-4222
Owner Bob Weiss takes great pains to train each of his staff people on the first night they work in the fundamentals of martini creation. Shaken, not stirred at this establishment, they offer their versions extra dry, and they pour the best straight up vodka and gin classics in town. An added bonus: if you ask for a Gibson (traditional gin with cocktail onions) or a perfect martini (half sweet and half dry vermouth) you won’t have to tell the bartender how to make it.
418 N. Mayfair Rd., (414) 475-5656
A stone's throw from the zoo, Jojo's is a welcome addition to Milwaukee's martini bar scene. It's particularly welcome for West Side and suburban residents wishing for something shaken, not stirred. Part of Jojo's appeal is the variety. If it ends in "-tini", they make it. The menu offers 87 martini varieties, beyond the standard house Jojo Martini (Pearl Vodka and dry vermouth). It can also be for a Key Lime Pie-tini.
The Palm Tavern
2989 S. Kinnickinnic AveAve., (414) 744-0393
The Palm Tavern is known for their beers and scotches, but the dimly lit Bay View establishment with its eclectic music mix lends itself well to a martini. Here, try one on the rocks, and for a little variation, order it dirty (with a splash of olive juice).
1227 N. Water St., (414) 431-7944
Small plate dining marries well with martini drinking, and Swig has them both down pat. This is the only place in town where you can drink three martinis in a sitting and not get hammered. Try one of their martini flights for only $25 and sample three variations from their creative repertoire.
Twist 'n Olive
2730 Hillside Dr., Delafield, (262) 646-5483
The Twist 'n Olive opened in March 2006 to the delight of Lake Countrians looking for a nice place to have a pre- or post-dinner drink. The completely liquid menu includes a plethora of gin and vodka martini varieties, over 42 beers, a wine list and a full bar to accommodate just about any cocktail concoction.
106 W. Wells St., (414) 223-0101
Where else in Milwaukee can you get a $5 martini happy hour? As James Thurbur said, “One martini is alright, two is too many, three is not enough.” Well, here you can get three for the price of one at some of these other establishments--just bring a couple friends to share them with. Our favorite is the Pango Berry Martini.
- Julie Lawrence and Eric Paulsen contributed to this article.