Lesson #408: The Martini

I’m reading a book I’d have liked far better 15 years ago, before I spent a few summers in Minor League baseball and before I embarked on a series of long-distance road trips across entire continents. It doesn’t matter what the book is, because a. it’s not that great and b. what’s important here is that it mentioned the origin of the martini.*

The book makes a brief note, in a discussion about Joe DiMaggio** being from Martinez, California, of Martinez being the birthplace of the martini.

Now, I’m an academic skeptic, so give me a little gobbet like this one without any other context and without citation, and I’m going to run with it. So here’s the real story on the martini:

The martini was created. And that’s about where the agreement on its creation stops. Some people believe that a precursor, the Martinez, which is a wine glass of vermouth with a shot of gin in it and was served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the 1860s is the inspiration for what we call a martini. Some believe it was developed by the Italian gin distiller Martini & Rossi. Some believe it was created by an Italian immigrant bartender at the Knickerbocker hotel in New York just before the First World War.  Some believe it was developed in England and named for the Martini & Henry rifle the British army used in the late 19th century. No one, apparently, believes the martini was first created in Martinez, California.***

What’s most interesting about the martini is that because of the ease of distilling gin — so easy it could be done in, say, a bathtub — it became a very popular prohibition drink in the US. It was way more vermouth than gin, then. Probably because bathtub gin isn’t the highest quality gin one can make. The martini maintained its popularity through the 1940s and 50s, at which point there was some difficulty in obtaining good quality vermouth, so were mostly just chilled gin by the 1960s. And then they fell out of favour until (what I just assume was) some college kid decided to start messing around with martinis and brought us all the appletini in the 1990s — which is made with vodka, not gin. So thanks? I guess?

You can read more about the martini here and here.

*Fun fact: for as much as I love beer, I have never had a martini. I enjoy tequila now and again, but I’m not huge on liquor on the whole. I also have a general aversion toward gin for a couple reasons, not the least of which is it tastes like I’m drinking a Christmas tree.

**Even non-Americans know who Joe D was. I’m not explaining this one to you.

***To be fair to the author, the book was written in the late 80s, and as someone who was alive and aware and remembers the late 80s (however vaguely one remembers the everyday of one’s childhood), I know for sure that I could not have easily found this information at the time. However, even being a personal narrative doesn’t excuse just dropping that information in without having been to see a reference librarian. I know for a fact those existed in the late 80s.


Lesson #377: Pramen

This comes by way of the fact that while I was back in the motherland, I picked up two bottles of Zlatý Bažant, a Slovak beer I can’t get in America, but really quite like.* As a rule, I’m down with Eastern European lagers, but my selections are somewhat limited here. I was able to find a couple (pricey) bottles of the Croatian beer Karlovačko in the spring, which was a nice treat. And I can get Żywiec and Tyskie — both Polish, the former better than the latter — and a whole slew of Czech beers, including — only very recently — my very favourite beer of all time, Budvar’s dark lager (černé or tmavý ležák, depending on how formal you want to be — the former means black, the latter is what’s on the label and means dark lager). But if I want Slovak or Hungarian lagers, I’m SOL. Which is why I brought a couple bottles of the Bažant back with me.

This led me to a conversation with The Swede about language, the Swedish phonemic pronunciation, and how Zlatan Ibrahimović‘s given name literally means “golden.” He wanted to know how I knew that; I told him to look at the Eastern European beers. Zlatý Bažant translates to “golden pheasant.”** I also mentioned the Czech beer Zlatopramen. And my general knowledge that zlat- is the Slavic root for gold.

But then I realized…I know what zlat- means, but I have no idea what pramen is. This will make more sense to you if you know that Staropramen is a beer that exists (it isn’t my favourite, but I’ll drink it if my options are that and pretty much any American/Canadian/British lager). Now, I know what the root star- means (old), but I’d never thought to look up pramen before. Two beers, different root word, same ending. It obviously means something.

It means spring — of the water variety, not the season. In case you’re ever quizzed on it.

If you were curious, my very favourite Czech word is čtvrtek — which is absurd to pronounce,*** but means Thursday. And yes, that is six consonants in a seven letter word. I also like the word zmrzlina (ice cream).

*If you’re a beer drinker, it’s a bit spicier than your average lager, so it has a bit more flavour, but it’s still crisp and good for outdoor/summer drinking.

**In fact, there’s a golden pheasant on their label and the imported labels have the English translation. We tried to swipe a Bažant glass when we were in Bratislava, but had no luck. In fairness, we didn’t try especially hard. We were only there two nights; the first we bought bottles of beer — Budvar’s standard lager, specifically — sat on the castle walls and drank them (yes, there is photographic evidence) and the other, I went to the opera and accidentally left him at a Greek wedding reception and then we went back to the flat and watched half of a Leafs playoff game on my tablet at 1am. That was, incidentally, also the night I discovered, while looking for the Leafs game on the TV, that my very favourite CanCon (Canadian Content) show, which my cousin in a major Canadian city rightly makes so much fun of me for enjoying because it’s pretty terrible, has actually been successful enough to be dubbed into Slovak…I took video of it for her. Because I’m a good cousin/friend, and I care.

***On the plus side, Czech pronunciation rules are delightfully easy (which I assume is to make up for the ninety million declension rules)…stress is always on the first syllable and every letter is pronounced exactly how it’s written. Phonemically, Czech is as simple as a language can be.

Lesson #273: Beer! For Space Travel!

You know how I know this idea cannot possibly go wrong? Because it combines two of my favourite things ever. Beer and space travel.

The owner of an Australian microbrewery called Four Pines and a researcher at the aeronautics company Saber Astronautics Australia decided to get together and make beer that can be consumed in space. Two of the biggest problems that one* experiences as regards food and drink is space is the loss of taste due to a swelling of the tongue and the way in which gasses in one’s body expand. So your average (American) Budweiser** isn’t going to be a good space beer.

Taking this into consideration, the brewers at Four Pines came up with a smoky Irish stout — which, incidentally, was my immediate guess for the best type of beer to use for this sort of thing since they’re full of flavour. Guinness for examples is poured with nitrogen rather than with carbon dioxide — with a lowered carbonation. It can, obviously, be bought just like any other earth beer, but it can also be safely drunk in space.

Even better? They named it Vostok.

So. Awesome!

If you want to read more about it, you can go here or here.

*I’d say you, but the chances that you’ve been to space and are reading this are so marginal that it probably barely records as a number.

**Because anyone who knows anything about beer knows that the original (Czech) Budweiser, which makes one of my favourite lagers and my very favourite beer, their dark lager, (which I can’t get in this country so I have to settle for Warsteiner’s Dunkel, which is also a good beer, but is no Budvar Cerny) is much, much better than the American swill with the same name. This is not to suggest that there aren’t good American beers; there are plenty. I personally really like Rogue and Anchor Steam’s beers. I also like New Glarus quite a bit and some of the Great Lakes beers are very good.

Lesson #202: Three Sheets to the Wind

I was reading an article today on how the Royal Navy plied its sailors with a nightly ration of rum from the time Britain took over Jamaica in 1655 (at which time the ration was a gallon (!) of beer per day)* until 1970 and managed to work my way — a very straight line for once — to the expression “three sheets to the wind.”

The origins of this are not exactly clear, which is to be expected. Some say the term refers to square rigged tall ships, some say it refers to small sailing craft.

1. Sheets are ropes or chains attached to the lower corner of sails to keep them in place. So, by one definition, “if three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.” This particular website says that the earliest recorded use of the expression (which at the time was actually “three sheets in the wind”) was Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, which was published in 1821. A publication three years later, specifically of the novel The Fisher’s Daughter by Catherine Ward, suggests that there was a sliding scale of drunkenness beginning with (obviously, one feels) one sheet to (in) the wind and ending with four — in which the sailor is unconcious. It should be noted here that while Pierce Egan and Catherine Ward’s books are actual publications with actual references to the term, the authors of this post are drawing their primary information about the term itself from a group called CANOE — Committee to Assign a Nautical Origin to Everything. Hardly a reliable source.

2. Supporting the above hypothesis and offering a second are Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey who submitted, in their book Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions, that,  “Sails are controlled with ropes called ‘sheets’ and the most any sail has is two – a lee side sheet and a weather sheet. The sailor’s contention is that if a man who had been drinking was given as many as ‘three’ sheets he could still not steady or control himself on a regular course. An alternative idea is that of a ship caught with three (jib) sheets in the wind as she goes from one tack to the other. The sails would flap and the ship would wallow and stagger in the locomotion of a drunk.”

3. Definitely most difficult to verify, but likely the most reliable,  a submitter to the New York Times says, “The true origin of “three sheets to the wind” was disclosed to me by a Nantucket sailor. Four sheets to the wind are O.K. because they are balanced. So are two sheets now and then. But three? Never…Letting go a sailboat’s sheet to flap in the wind usually gets the skipper out of trouble by causing the boat to come up into the wind on an even keel — the opposite of the metaphor intended.” In this case, the submitter is talking about small boats…the kind you sail on the lake or in a harbour, not the kind that once hauled cargo across oceans.

4. Backing up our sailor’s friend are the Word Detectives. I have no idea who they are, but they seem at least reasonably researched.** Then again, so do the others, so take that as you will. According to them, “the “sheets” in the phrase are the lines (ropes) that hold a sail in place. If one of the “sheets” (from the Old English “sceata,” meaning the corner of a sail) comes loose, the sail flaps in the wind and causes the ship to lose power.” They note that the legend — as indicated by others — that there was a numerical classification may be true based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the expression.***

Coincidentally, today is my third youngest cousin’s birthday. He’s 19.

*There was a practical purpose to this. It was to keep the sailors healthy…beer was safer to drink than the water they had available to them.

**I may only be saying this because they threw in some etymology.

***Personally, I’m not sure how the definition existing in a dictionary shows anything other than the existence of the expression in question, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.

Lesson #189: Information for Your Next Road Trip (A Random Law)

I love random laws. A lot. I find them awesomely entertaining. I mean, I could literally spend an entire day just reading up on strange laws.*

I love driving, so this information is absolutely useless to me. I suck at being the passenger on a road trip. I have, however, taken part in this particular law, albeit illegally.**

In Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia passengers are legally allowed to consumer alcohol.***

*I know, for example, that, in the state of Texas, it is illegal to take more than three sips  of beer while standing. I have, as you can imagine, broken this law more times than I can count. Pretty much any time I was in a bar.

**Once, on the fourth of July in the southern state I used to live in, with a bunch of friends and a sober driver. In fairness, we were breaking this law on our way out to (and back from) some back country roads to avoid breaking another law — the one that says it’s illegal to set off fireworks within the city limits of the town we lived in.

***This information can be found here.

Lesson #169: What the Americans Drink

This is completely independent of last week’s post on the Canadians’ awe-inspiring juice guzzling abilities, I promise. I just happened to stumble on this map of the distribution of American drinking today.

Montanans drink the most per capita. I only know one Montanan and he’s a good drinker, so I guess I can go with that. Utahans drink the least per capita, which should surprise exactly no one. I don’t know any Utahans, though my Montanan friend currently lives in Utah.

Oddly, New Yorkers drink very little on average. And apparently the no tax thing in New Hampshire has a lot of people boozing it up there (though I wonder how much of that purchased beer is actually consumed by New Hampshirites  — -ians? -ans? New Hampshans? — and how much of it is taken back down to Massachusetts.) The Nevada number is sort of a misnomer given that Vegas is in Nevada and we all know about Vegas.

Not surprisingly, much of the bible belt falls under the less alcohol consumed than the more. Also not surprising is the tidbit that  Reno has the highest rate of alcoholism. I’ve been to Reno, I get it.

A little surprising…under Kentucky law, most of the lushes I know are still sober! Under Kentucky law, I’ve been drunk twice.

Lesson #142: Kosher Wine

Wine aging at Tishbi

My friend in Jerusalem has a contact who is a wine distributor. Since we had the car and he was headed up north to see some of his winery people, he agreed to take us along free of charge on an informal wine tasting tour at some of the wineries up near Haifa.

Now, I’m not much of a wine fan. For all the subtleties I can taste in beers, I’ve got nothing for wine. I don’t particularly enjoy it; it’s got a sharpness I don’t care for. But when in Rome… It didn’t convert me to a wine drinker or anything, but it was really fun to go and see the wineries and taste the different kinds of wine and meet the winemakers and hear their stories, which I imagine is not a part of a regular tour.

And, because our guide was so knowledgeable, I asked him about 80 million questions about the kosher winemaking process. He was good enough to answer them for me. (Thanks David!)

Because there’s no slaughter or anything like you have in kosher meat and wine isn’t something that can’t be mixed with another thing to prevent it from being kosher, the process by which a wine is deemed kosher is that from the time it crosses a certain point in the process between the picking and the separating of the grapes from the leaves and stems indicated by an actual line in the sand (a figurative one, not a literal one, but the implication is there) after which the wine can no longer be touched by anyone who isn’t Sabbath observant* until it has been bottled and/or packaged for shipping, which is also demarcated by some sort of line. The people who handle the wine making process in the interim must be approved by a rabbi as being Sabbath observant before they can join the process. A lot of more orthodox Jews will also not accept a glass of kosher wine that has been poured by someone who isn’t Sabbath observant.**

*By which is meant that the person observes all the rules pertaining to the Sabbath such as no travel, no electricity, no cooking, prayer, etc. from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

**For more about what makes wines kosher and how they’re made see here and here.