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Martinis are a loaded drink. Perhaps no other alcoholic beverage has generated such a precise and passionate following as the one that supplemented the iconic careers of James Bond and the entire Rat Pack.
Tradition says a classic martini is a cocktail made with gin and dry vermouth. Inviting vodka to the party has, more recently, opened the floodgates and significantly blurred the lines of martini qualifications. Most of what you see today is just a foo-foo drink in a martini glass.
When surveyed about Milwaukee's best martini shakers and stirrers, OnMilwaukee.com's readers chose Hi-Hat Lounge, 1701 N. Arlington Pl., and Elsa's on the Park, 833 N. Jefferson St. OnMilwaukee.com sent its editorial staff to put each establishment to the test. We tried to keep it classic. Here are the results.
Molly Snyder Edler
Martini: The dirtier the better
Pick: Hi-Hat Lounge
I'm not satisfied with a martini unless it has more olive taste than Popeye's lips. Hence, the Hi-Hat martini ($11) was by far my favorite. Ice cold and super salty, this drink could get me in trouble. My only complaint? I would have liked three olives instead of two, which I will ask for next time.
The Elsa's martini ($9) was good, too, but it just wasn't dirty enough. It tasted like a plain ol' vodka martini with a couple of olives in it. However, because this martini tasted really strong, it was easier to sip, as opposed to the Hi-Hat version which I just wanted to knock back.
Both of these drinks were well crafted. Hi-Hat got extra points because of the extreme olive-ness, but I certainly wouldn't pass up an Elsa's martini. Especially if you're buying.
Pick: Elsa's on the Park
To the dismay of many true martini aficionados, I ordered a cosmopolitan at both Hi-Hat and Elsa's. While it's not your standard representation of a "classic" martini, it remains an extremely popular drink, and a staple of just about any martini list in the city. Basically, if a bartender can't get this one right -- vodka, cranberry juice, triple sec and a splash of lime -- there's little hope for the other varieties.
I found Hi-Hat's and Elsa's versions to taste quite different, despite their similar pink hue and curly yellow lemon twist. Hi-Hat's $10 cosmo was a 10-oz. affair made with Kettle One Citron, a choice that made the martini deceptively smooth. It was subtle -- not too sweet, nor too red, which indicated it had not been "watered down" by cranberry juice. I've been told by bartenders that not being able to taste the booze is a sign of a quality drink, but I really didn't feel like I was consuming a martini at Hi-Hat; it felt more like a mixed drink (and not a $10 one).
Elsa's used Absolute Citron for its 10-oz. martini, which costs $9.50. It might not have been as "smooth" as Hi-Hat's, but if I'm drinking martinis, I need to be able to taste the liquor, or else I'm in trouble. Elsa's was potent enough to warrant the price and was an excellent example of a sipping drink, rather than an overly-fruity slammer.
Pick: Hi-Hat Lounge
I'm no martini expert, let's just clear that up from the start. But I know what I like. I ordered dirty vodka martinis at both places and the two cocktails couldn't have been more different. The Hi-Hat version ($11) was made with Reyka vodka and was very, very dirty; so olive-y that it made me yearn for the slightest taste of booze.
But the same drink at Elsa's ($9) was heavy on alcohol taste with only overtones of olive juice. The Hi-Hat version was colder, with a thin skin of ice chips and, if I have to choose between too little alcohol taste and too much, I'll stick with the subtler approach. So, my vote goes to Hi-Hat.
Pick: Disqualified due to bronchitis
All I could do was sit and watch my co-workers drink martinis, as my body chose to make me sit this one out. Too bad antibiotics and martinis don't mix. My inner James Bond loves a good martini, and I wish I could weigh in with my opinion.
Martini: Classic vodka, dry
Pick: Hi-Hat Lounge
For me, martinis were created for one reason and one reason only: I want to get buzzed and I want to be in the express line.
I've got nothing against vodka. Or gin, for that matter. But, I'd rather order a premium vodka on the rocks than soil it with vermouth (although the drink gets its name from a brand of vermouth. -ed.) . A lot of people like the "ritual" of the martini. The signature glass. The olives. Me? I'm happy with a regular old rocks glass (known in the industry as a "tub"). And, I don't particularly like olives. I'd rather have martinis with a twist.
But, there is an art to making a martini. Both the Hi-Hat and Elsa's obviously have a lot of practice. The Hi-Hat drink, mixed by Alex, had a small layer of ice chips on the top. That's a sign of vigorous shaking and it makes for a cold and tasty (if diluted) drink. I ordered a "classic" martini at both spots.
The Hi-Hat's came with olives. Elsa's came with a twist of lemon. Both were well-mixed and well-presented. The Elsa's drink was made with Gordon's vodka, which is a top seller in the state. The vermouth was a bit more pronounced than in the Elsa's version. Normally, that would be a deal-killer for me. But, the drink from Hi-Hat had a bit more body and character.
I can't really envision a situation in which I'd order more than one martini in a sitting. If I did, however, I'd choose the selection from Hi-Hat.