Dear Word Detective: I just read the following explanation of the origin of the martini (on a website about kayaking, if you can believe it): “…and the martini itself resulted from a gold miner wandering out of the wilderness and into a saloon in Martinez, California (1862). He wanted an empty whiskey bottle filled with something worth the weight of his small pouch of gold, and thought just plain whiskey wouldn’t cut it. So the bartender filled it with a concoction of lesser-known spirits hidden behind the bar, plopped an olive in it, and labeled the drink after the town.” My gut feeling is that the chance of this being true is approximately zero. What do you think?– Carl Delo.
Well, I think that your gut feeling is probably correct, at least as far as that story being literally true goes. First of all, prospectors wandering into saloons in dusty western towns are second only to sailors on 18th century frigates as heroes of bogus word-origin tales. In this case, the probability of a prospector trading even a small bag of gold for a single bottle of anything strikes me as unlikely. If I’d been crawling around in the desert for a few weeks, I’d definitely be interested in quantity (probably of “just plain whiskey”) over the quality of a bartender’s inventiveness. On the other hand (and it pains me to even partially validate that silly story), the town of Martinez, CA, may actually have been the source of “martini.”
This seems like a good time to note that I don’t drink at all, and have actually never had a martini. Weird, right? My idea of fun is black coffee and oatmeal cookies. Anyway, a “Martini,” which the Oxford English Dictionary insists on capitalizing, is a cocktail usually made from gin and vermouth, although vodka is sometimes substituted for the gin. Incidentally, according to Cecil Adams’ Straight Dope web page (www.straightdope.com), James Bond’s famous “shaken, not stirred” martini was actually a hybrid of the two types, mixing both vodka and gin with the vermouth. Apparently Bond also had a license to annoy bartenders.
There are two theories about the origin of “martini,” and the truth may actually be a blend of the two. Early print citations mentioning the drink, around 1884, call it a “Martinez cocktail,” and assert that it took its name from the California town, which is certainly not impossible. But within a few years (1887), the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was calling the concoction a “Martini cocktail.” The second theory ties “Martini” to Martini & Rossi, Italian makers of vermouth, which was definitely in business and exporting to the US at that time.
The connection of “Martini” the maker of vermouth to the “martini cocktail” containing vermouth seems a no-brainer, but the earlier citations for “Martinez cocktail” pose a problem. The Oxford dictionary suggests that the original name was “Martinez,” perhaps commemorating its invention there, but that the name gradually was “remodelled” after Martini & Rossi vermouth became well-known. This seems very plausible, especially since Martini & Rossi bottles would have been clearly visible in nearly any bar, while Martinez, CA, is an awfully long way from Brooklyn.