Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Colony Martini

I recently purchased a 1945 book-length assessment of The Colony, written by a Gourmet writer with a flowery writing style and a name to match: Iles Brody. The Colony, for those who don't know, was the first haven of New York's Cafe Society, an Upper East Side restaurant that from the speakeasy days of the 1920s through the 1950s was the gathering place of bluebloods, artists, gourmands, royalty and celebrities. The Stork Club and El Morocco pulled off the same trick later, but The Colony was first.

Being of a drinking frame of mind, I turned to the chapter about the Colony's bar first. It was ruled by one Marco Hattem, a Turkish gentleman who was with the place for decades and was beloved for his gentle, soft-spoken ways. Hattem began working at the Colony during Prohibition, a situation which caused him to create the boite's most lasting liquid legacy. The Colony, you see, thumbed its nose at the Volstead Act, as did all the smart places in Manhattan at the time. If people wanted booze, they were served it (and some of these people were upstanding citizens named Vanderbilt and such.) He kept all the bottles in an elevator. If the Feds paid a call, he pushed a button and sent the liquor to the top floor.

Marco was dealing with bathtub gin. As Brody tells the story, "to take away the dreadful, raw taste of that poor gin, Marco added to his Martinis a dash of absinthe (later, when there was no more real absinthe, he added Pernod)." A nice trick. Basically an Obituary Cocktail minus the vermouth.

Whaddaya mean, no vermouth, you say? Didn't he say "Martini"? Yes he did. But Brody is not a terribly precise writer. His description would lead the reader to assume the inclusion of vermouth. But research into all known recipes for the Colony Martini shows that vermouth plays no role. Additionally, almost every recipe I've found for a Colony Martini runs this way: 3 oz. gin, 1 barspoon of Pernod, 4 dashes of orange bitters.

Orange bitters? Brody didn't say anything about that! Who's right here? The book, or everybody else? (The book, by the way, calls this drink the Colony Special.) Who knows? So, I decided to conduct an experiment. If I couldn't find out which recipe was the correct one, I could at least decide which one made the better drink. I stirred up two Colonys, one with the orange bitters, one without, and tasted them side by side. I used regular Bombay Gin, thinking it was a brand Marco would have had access to after Repeal. And since he originally created the drink with absinthe, I opted for that, rather than use any substitute.

So, no contest. The bitters makes the drink. The gin-absinthe combo isn't bad. The two liquors go together, and there's no question the absinthe adds something. (I tried to imagine how thankful I would be for the absinthe if I were drinking rotgut gin.) But, in the end, it was just gin and absinthe. Not much depth. The addition of the orange bitters increased interest manifold. The anise and orange flavors played with each other on the surface of the gin, and kept you interested.

One more step was needed. According to Brody, Hattem did something that is unspeakable to most Martini drinkers, once he has assembled the gin and absinthe. He shook it. "At other places, and at home, Martinis are usually just stirred," writes Brody, "because tradition has it that they get cloudy if they are shaken. Marco terms this a gross superstition, shakes his Martinis merrily, and pours them into their appropriate glasses where they glitter like crystal."

I tried this (minus the bitters). My Martini did not glitter like crystal. It was as clear as soup, and tasted similarly. If this is what the Colony swells were drinking, I feel sorry for them.


Dr. Bamboo said...

Just when I think that Martini lore has been completely documented...POW!

Nice stuff, Robert!

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Thanks, Dr. Happy to contribute to the record.

Anonymous said...

i'll try to avoid this martini. soup? that sounds horrible.

Anonymous said...

Yess! great article!

Anonymous said...

yeah, it looks like soup in the picture.

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Gloria, I only said to avoid the shaken version of the cocktail. The stirred version with orange bitters is worth trying.

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Momo, actually those are the two stirred versions in the picture. It's probably the quality of the picture, or the oldness of the glassware (they're antiques) that make them look cloudy. By the way guys, when I use the term soup, I mean the flavors of the drink are too muddled and indistinct, that they're become clouded. If you've ever had a Dirty Martini--that's the sort of alcoholic soup I'm talking about.

Cookbook of the Day said...

Your post on The Colony inspired us to take a look.