Taste: Spirits: The Return of the (Real) Martini

In a town as old-school as ours, why is it so hard to find a place that gets this classic drink right?

I knew there was a problem when I ordered a gin martini at a certain suburban steakhouse and the waiter brought an overfilled glass of under-chilled straight gin, even though I hadn’t specified “dry.” “We stopped using vermouth about two years ago,” the waiter said, attempting at least to explain a third of the problem. Despite our discussion, martini number two was no better.

There was a time when the word “martini” didn’t refer to a “chocolatini,” or any of the other nauseatingly sweet concoctions on your neighborhood restaurant’s so-called “Martini List.” It meant the classic, essential cocktail made with gin and some amount of vermouth, stirred until perfectly chilled and garnished with an olive or twist. It’s the drink once embraced by so many Mad Men types, Oval Office occupiers and suave Hollywood stars.

If you’ve never had a proper gin martini, you’re not alone. What with vodka’s hemisphere jump in the 1950s and the subsequent hyper-marketing of the flavorless spirit (as well as the general dumbing-down of the American palate), the gin martini slipped away, like so many memories of liquor-fueled escapades. Even James Bond preferred vodka after he was poisoned by a gin martini. (Hope you cashed those Smirnoff checks, Mr. Fleming.)

But our tastes are changing. Along with the general uptrend in classic cocktails, we’re drinking more gin, leading to the emergence of boutique brands like Anchor Steam’s Junipero and Philly’s own Bluecoat. Unfortunately, bartenders haven’t caught up, as evidenced by my experience at the aforementioned steakhouse­ — a steakhouse! Traditionally a martini mecca! — and countless other personal observations, the drunken details of which I won’t bore you with.

But if you’re ready to explore the wonderful world of the gin martini, there are a handful of places to cater to your needs — though it’s more about finding the right bartender than the right bar. Some of my gin-happy favorites include Katie at Chick’s Tavern off South, Bridget at Rittenhouse’s Friday Saturday Sunday, anyone behind the bar at Queen Village’s Southwark, and APO (né Apothecary) barman Christian (pictured below), who knows more about the drink than any one person should.