Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The metaphysics of the Martini revisited

The esteemed Brandon Watson calls our attention to this list of classic cocktails, which makes reference to a variation on the Martini I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before: the Burnt Martini, wherein scotch takes the place of vermouth. Naturally, I mixed one right away upon learning of it. But I think I was too timid: Nervous about overdoing the scotch, I erred in the wrong direction and could taste it not at all. I’ll try again someday, but deviations from the Martinian norm should be indulged only rarely.

But is there a norm here? I addressed the question once before in a gag post, but since we’ve been discussing the metaphysics of artifacts, let’s address it semi-seriously. To certain super-sophisticates, vermouth, never mind scotch, shouldn’t appear in a Martini at all. (There’s the famous crack about Churchill to the effect that when mixing his Martinis he’d look in the direction of France, which would suffice for the vermouth. Perhaps Churchill’s Burnt Martini recipe would have called for a mere glance northward toward Scotland or a toot on the bagpipes.) This seems to me more than a little precious. And just false. Here’s the basic reasoning: A Martini is a kind of cocktail; cocktails are mixed drinks; gin by itself is not a mixed drink; ergo, gin by itself is not a cocktail, and thus not a Martini.

Would a mere hint of vermouth suffice? In his fine little book How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, Eric Felten tells us that M. F. K. Fisher would use an eyedropper to dispense her vermouth. Others spray a fine mist of vermouth over the top, or merely swish the vermouth around in the glass before tossing it out and pouring the gin. Felten thinks this sort of thing is silly, and so do I. If pure gin is not a Martini, neither is that which is indistinguishable to the taste from pure gin. Yes, one can definitely overdo the vermouth, but so too can one underdo it.

But scotch? Wouldn’t this give us another drink altogether? I think not. But then, does anything go? Must we tolerate Cosmopolitans and “Appletinis” as legitimate riffs on the genuine article? Again, I think not. Why not? Martinis are not natural substances, after all, but artifacts; thus, one might think, there is simply no “fact of the matter” about what counts as a Martini. But that is too glib. Cornbread and corncob pipes are artifacts too, but there is certainly a fact of the matter about which of them it was that General MacArthur liked to smoke. It is because artifacts are defined by the contingent human interests they serve that they exhibit an ontological fuzziness that natural substances do not, but those interests are stable enough that we can at least in most cases get a reasonable enough fix on what counts as an instance of a certain type of artifact and what does not.

What is the relevant defining “interest” in the case of the Martini? The origins of the cocktail are not entirely clear, but it seems to go back 140 years or so to a concoction called a “Martinez,” which was significantly different from what we think of as the “standard” Martini today, particularly in being sweet-tasting. (Felten has a sketch of the history, as do other books.) It was when, in the common mixing of the drink, the now obscure sweet gin then in use gave way to the more familiar dry variety, and sweet vermouth to its dry variant, that the Martini as we know it emerged. It seems also to have been around this time that it became The Martini – something that stood out from other cocktails and would eventually come to be regarded as the King. The “dryness” was key, in that it required of the drinker more discipline and refinement – like the opera enthusiast who knows he’s arrived when he’s made it through to hour four of a Wagner epic and likes it. (As a guy I used to know liked to put it, “If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, do it ‘til it does” – though it isn’t clear that Martinis and the Ring cycle are what he had in mind. I don’t know whatever happened to him and I’m not sure I want to know.)

It’s an excessive if forgivable devotion to this dryness that leads some to affect an aversion to vermouth. But if they go too far, they at least grasp the essence of the thing. Hence, it seems to me, scotch is plausibly in as a vermouth replacement, and even vodka as a gin replacement, though why anyone would want it I have no idea. Any garnish consistent with the theme is also in – even the lemon peel, since it gives something less than a hint of sweetness, though why anyone would prefer it to the olive is also beyond me. Indeed, I take just a bit of the briny to be an invaluable addition to the overall taste of a Martini, though the Dirty Martini goes too far. In any event, Cosmopolitans, Appletinis, and the like are definitely out.

Mind you, I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever be drunk – even by men. Just don’t pretend such a thing is a species of Martini. And don’t tell anyone about drinking one either – on a blog, say. Take the time a friend and I watched The Usual Suspects – he for the first time, me for the twenty-third – while the wives talked about whatever in the other room. It would have been preposterous to drink a Martini in such a context, or scotch, or wine (while munching on potato chips or popcorn, no less!) Something lighter, and sweeter, was called for. But it goes without saying that you couldn’t expect us to drink soda pop or lemonade either. And the ladies had already left the ingredients out anyway, so…

Ah, but this is a blog!


  1. Great post. I've been exploring the world of cocktails and have found the definitive classic martini recipe to be very elusive. Add to that that Noilly Prat changed its recipe and a beginner like me doesn't know where to begin. Guess I'll stick with craft beer...

  2. Ethanol concoctions and metaphysics are curiously related, that much is certain. I've always considered the following thoughts relevant:

    "If I had all the money I spent on drink...I'd spend it on drink."

    "Death? Personally, when you're dead you're gone; afterlife, aftershave... don't hold with any of 'em. The only spirits I want tormenting my soul come from a bottle."

    Philosopher and explorer Sir Henry Rawlinson--quoted by Vivian Stanshall.

  3. In heaven, there is no beer;
    So that's why we drink it here.
    And when we're gone from here,
    Our feiends will be drinking all our beer!

  4. I got home from work today, fixed myself a martini, and sat down to check the blogs, of which this is one of the staples, and found this post to complement my cocktail. Perfect.

    Judge Bork also has an entertaining essay about martinis and the decline of the West you'll probably like...

  5. Great post.

    Building off of Rawlinson, there is Yeats in the concluding line of his "A Drunken Man's Praise of Sobriety":

    "A drunkard is a dead man, and all dead men are drunk."

    Certainly life after death has been found in drink before...and the truer the drink the truer the life.

  6. Kant did away with all metaphysics over a century ago. Get with the times.

  7. New title suggestion: Scotchism and ID

  8. "Kant did away with all metaphysics over a century ago. Get with the times."

    Is this guy a troll? "[o]ver a century ago?" Well, yes, the ol' metaphysics slayer was known to imbibe some of his beloved coffee during the Gilded Age. Wait...

  9. "Kant did away with all metaphysics over a century ago. Get with the times."

    Wow! What a discovery Anonymous! None of us have EVER heard that before, you've really taken us by surprise! You sure are smart! Why don't you explain to us exactly how Kant 'did away with all metaphysics' so we can all be as enlightened as you are! =D

  10. Something tells me the particular comment in question was written by someone with a sense of humor. Just a hunch.

  11. An honest question: what did Kant keep, and what did he do away with?

  12. Just Thinking:

    To be aphoristic about it, I'd say Kant kept all the metaphysical impulses and ends of antiquity but jettisoned all the equipment and means for articulating/grounding them. He was often explicit about salvaging concepts which his predecessors had only dimly grasped by making them into transcendentals, which, however, in turn rendered them into phenomenal fictions. Read as much E. Gilson on Kant as you can, esp. in _The Unity_, _Methodical Realism_, and _Thomist Realism_. As a Jakian myself, I would add that his rejection of the universe was fatally at odds with his genuine but confused love for science (qua a hyper-Newtonian scientism).


  13. can someone PLEASE direct me to a systematic, thorough refutation of Kant by a classical theist (or by anyone for that matter)? I have found that SO many philosophers have given up on the traditional arguments for God's existence because of Kant's COPR.

    if we knock down the pillars of Kant and Hume and, as the number of classical theists grows, make it loudly known that the pillars have been knocked down, we stand a much better chance of turning history around!

  14. Re: Refuting Kant: I don't know how systematic and thorough you might consider it, but Adler's Ten Philosophical Mistakes does the job for me.

  15. Can't refute him, but here is a BIG supporter and an opinion that people got Kant wrong

    Ward elsewhere argues that DesCartes is not a dualist. He is no flake, dewspite these contrarian positions.

  16. Anon, do a search in google books and check out the opening chapter in Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief entitled "Kant". It's pretty good.

  17. Just Thinking:

    It's a great lecture, thank you. Ward is a goldmine. I am reminded of Paul Janz's very sympathetic reading, in _God, the Mind's Desire_, of Kant for Christian orthodoxy. Do you know this book?

  18. Cog

    The table of contents is quite luring. I see Bonhoeffer is in there too.

    I need to check it out,


    PS From searching, I see Janz is working on something called Transforming Theology. Have you any info on their progress?

  19. Just Thinking:

    Not an inkling about Trans. Theo. but it seems to tie in nicely with Ward's Rethinking Christianity heh (I say that without even having googled Janz's project, just going from titles, I am).