Antedating the Martini

Until a few weeks ago, the earliest known mention of the Martini was the “Martinez Cocktail” found in the Modern Bartenders’ Guide by O. H. Byron, whoever he was, published by the Excelsior Publishing House of New York in September, 1884. Unless, that is, you accept the pair of newspaper mentions from Cleveland and Chicago in 1883 discussing the Manhattan cocktail which define it as gin-based (you can find more about them here:
[The Coming of the Martini: An Annotated Timeline])

In May, however, I stumbled across an article in the Boston Weekly Globe from August 24, 1881 (page 7) titled simply “Mixed Drinks.” It’s a pretty standard “what the swells are drinking” article, with some reflections on the bartender and his craft. In the second paragraph, however, in a discussion of how drinks get named, we find the following lines:

Blockquote Thus it happens that there is always a goodly number of pet names to be called for at the bar, and that these in turn—save only the old staples—are not the same at different times but vary greatly in the course of years. Nobody knows who names them, but he must be an ingenious gentleman of an exceedingly original turn of mind. They have an article now masquerading under the startlingly facetious name of “Corpse reviver, J.W.P.”—the letters being the initials, undoubtedly, of the corpse which was originally revive by its administration. By far more gentle and soothing in its source is the appellation of another—“Sunday calm.” “Brandy smash” or “whiskey smash” have no reference to railway collisions, nor is there supposed to be any decoction of rooster’s feathers in a “martina cocktail.”

This is interesting for several reasons. One, it shows that, if parts of the country were still trying to figure out what to call this drink, the name it would eventually bear was already in circulation in 1881. Second, based on when they appear in print, it has always been assumed that the Manhattan, in print from August, 1882, was senior to the Martini (or Martinez, Martigny, Martena, Martine or, now, Martina–the spelling of the name was in flux for several years). Clearly that needs to be reexamined. Third, this is further evidence against the theory that the drink came from Martinez, California. But–fourth–it’s also evidence against the theory that the Martini was originally a New York drink. Boston was always considered a bastion of Martini drinking, and there may be more reason for that than we had assumed.

More proof that these matters are never really settled, and that there’s yet more gold in the archives waiting to be found.


My “Occam’s razor” thought lines run thusly, ready to be riddled with holes sharply-poked:

Vermouth—a mysterious ethnic specialty that seems to inhabit a previously vacant space between wine, liqueur, and spirit but about which nothing is really known—somehow draws the attention of some American bartenders. (How exactly this happened remains a significant mystery.) For whatever reasons, c. 1868, someone decides to use it as a cocktail base. So, Whiskey Cocktail, Gin Cocktail, Brandy Cocktail, … and now Vermouth Cocktail.

As you’ve pointed out before, the Vermouth Cocktail is interesting, but a bit wimpy, a better fit for the Sorosis Club than for saloon patrons. As the 1870s passed, so did experiments in fortifying the Vermouth Cocktail. The obvious way to go about this was to split the difference with the better known Cocktails of stouter spine: the Whisky Cocktail, the Gin Cocktail, the Brandy Cocktail, etc. Virtually every possible combination was attempted. These same experiments were quite possibly undertaken simultaneously and independently by different professionals in different joints, in no particular order. Two of these avenues of exploration not only did not suck, but were very interesting.

People like to name things—it’s useful. Ordering a Gin Cocktail tells the man behind the bar you want a Cocktail made with gin. One day circa 1880, you have the opportunity to try something called a Martini Cocktail… a cocktail featuring some (most likely) unfamiliar stuff from a bottle prominently labeled “Martini”. The cocktail is very interesting. Word spreads—99.99% by word of mouth. Somehow it becomes generally clear to the professionals that the drink is a Cocktail that’s half gin and half of this vermouth stuff, but as usual, the “telephone game” works its magic† through bartenders and patrons and pretty soon you’ve got “the Martinez, Martigny, Martena, Martine or, now, Martina”. Plus some other names that are quite different because maybe there were some other brands of vermouth around or some other flight of fancy inspired a different name. Whatever works, but they’re all drinking Martinis.

†several decades later, the same thing happened to the Daiquiri, which is fantastically mis-spelled in countless ways across early 20th Century guides


This is basically in line with my understanding. Both kinds of vermouth were being consistently imported into the US by the late 1850s, albeit in relatively small quantities. There was enough, however, for the mixologically-inclined bartenders to start playing with it. The game now is to attempt to track their experiments.
The earliest traces I have at present are pretty meagre, but they do include that thing from the Sorosis club banquet, discussed in Imbibe, and of the one a certain Fitzgerald was making in Knoxville in 1869:

Both kinds of vermouth were certainly available in Boston, just as in New York, from early on (I’d love to find some more early evidence of how they were being mixed from either place–or anywhere else, for that matter). It would be good, however, to have a better picture of Martini & Sola/Martini & Rossi’s early distribution in America, seeing as probably the most logical and compelling theory for the Martini’s name relies on the availability of that brand.


Did you track down the address? Someone had better go exhume the dissatisfied customers.


He does like to keep a well-stocked cellar.