On Auden’s Vodka Martini
“‘Martini-time, time to draw the curtains and
Choose a composer we should like to hear from”
WH Auden, from Symmetries and Asymmetries
And onto the gramophone (after heated discussion) would go Bellini, or Donizetti, or Richard Strauss, with Auden mixing all the while what guests deemed variously as ‘lethal’, or ‘the strongest martinis I ever drank’.
Auden took his martini production seriously. At midday the vodka and glasses were put into the fridge. An hour before serving the vermouth (specifically Noilly Prat) was added to the vodka in a ratio of one part French vermouth:three parts vodka. The only improvement I would make would be to add (as I do to a classic martini) a drop or two of orange bitters – I like Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Spanish Bitters.
However, strictly speaking, Auden was not eulogising about ‘Martini-time’, but rather less elegiacally about ‘Kangaroo-time’…. it doesn’t have quite the same poetic ring does it?
To be fair, Auden originally liked a classic martini made with gin. But his lover, Chester Kallman, preferred his vermouth mixed with vodka. And that is a completely different drink.
Originally the mix was called a kangaroo. But can you imagine even James Bond ordering a kangaroo – particularly one shaken and not stirred – without being laughed out of the bar? So it then became the ‘vodkatini’. Over time, with vodka increasingly ubiquitous, it just became a ‘martini’.
Shaken versus stirred?
I’m a massive fan of James Bond but I can’t really be doing with this ‘shaken, not stirred’ nonsense. I hate to sound pragmatic, but the shaken approach involves unnecessary washing up. And as W Somerset Maugham reasoned:
“a Martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie
sensuously on top of one another.”
And moving from the practical to the scientific, there are further arguments against shaking which takes the essential chill out of the drink (which Auden was at such pains to retain). So science also dictates (metal conducts heat and cold away, wood does not) that a thin wooden spoon would be the implement to do the stirring rather than a metal one. Ideally the spoon would be made of old – it’s now protected – juniper wood (go here for how wood can add flavour). But shaking will result in melting the ice in the cocktail shaker, and a watery cocktail.
Even Fleming himself, in a letter to The Manchester Guardian, responding to its criticism that his novels were ‘symptomatic of a decline in taste’ admitted that he’d “had to fit Bond out with some theatrical props…. I proceeded to invent a cocktail for Bond (which I sampled several months later and found unpalatable)”.
Recipe for a poet’s vodka martini
I use tablespoons – barmen will be horrified, but that’s what I have to hand in the kitchen.
- 6 tbsps vodka (I rather like Absolut ELYX, but go here for a list of some of the best)
- 2 tbsps Noilly Prat – or Dolin is fresh and citrusy
- Orange bitters – couple of drops – I like Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Spanish bitters
- Olive, slice of lemon…. Up to you
- A few hours before serving freeze the glasses and the vodka and put the vermouth in the fridge (where, in any case, it should be kept).
- Then mix your drink – the vodka, the vermouth and the bitters – in the glass, stirring well.
- Add the garnish and savour.
This post is dedicated to H and D du V de B
Below you will find the classic shaken not stirred request, and some sublime music by Vivaldi, which features in the latest Bond film, Spectre, to listen to as you sip appreciatively.