The history of the martini is a murky one. As one might guess with many alcoholic concoctions through time, things weren’t always written down. This appears to be the case with the Martini.
Still, the history of the martini can easily be traced back to the late nineteenth century, when it was first listed in bar-tending manuals. For example, the Martinez cocktail is referenced in the 1887 Bartender manual by Jerry Thomas, of the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. The “Martinez” is also detailed in an 1884 cocktail book by O.H. Byron, as “a Manhattan in which gin is substituted for whiskey.”
There are also a few historical references points from which we can at least set some boundaries. Gin itself goes back to the 17th Century Holland, though ‘modern’ Gin started a bit later. Gordon’s produced its first version of London Dry Gin in 1769 and Beefeater came along in 1862. An Italian vermouth maker, Martini & Rossi, started marketing its product under the brand name Martini in 1863.
Still the exact location and date of the invention of the “Martini” is a bit confusing. There appear to be 3 1/2 main conflicting story lines. The first, and the half, is that the Martini originated in California. The second that it originated in New York. And finally that it was a marketing ploy.
The town of Martinez, CA, advertises itself as the birthplace of the Martini so we’ll start there. It suggests that the drink in fact originated in a prominent bar in Martinez, where it was known as a “Martinez Special.” There it was served to a celebrating gold miner on his way to San Francisco, who, after enjoying the drink so much, delivered the recipe to San Francisco when he had to instruct a local bartender on how to make it. That bartender is allegedly the “Professor” Jerry Thomas.
During the late 19th century Thomas was renowned around the US for his innovative bar-tending work, flashy techniques, and man-about-town demeanor. He claims to have invented the cocktail himself while at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. He contended that it was for a gold minor on his way across the bay to Martinez and beyond to the California gold fields. Thomas therefore named it in honor of this traveler.
Whichever of these may be true, or not, none-the-less Thomas is noteworthy for publishing the first seminal cocktail manual, The Bar-Tenders Guide. The aforementioned 1887 edition included the Martinez cocktail. The recipe was: a dash of bitters, two dashes of maraschino (a cherry liquor), a wineglass of vermouth (most likely sweet vermouth), a pony of Old Tom gin (a sweetened gin) and a quarter slice of lemon!
However that is nowhere near today’s gin and vermouth definition of a Martini. So does that count as the invention of THE Martini? Or just a predecessor?
Another interesting note about the California stories is the reference to the gold miner. The California gold rush started in 1848 with the first ‘rush’ of incoming minors in 1849. Hence the name ’49ers’ for the San Francisco American Football team. The Gold Rush peaked in the early 1850s and was pretty much done by the late 1850s. If these stories are to be believed that puts the date of invention firmly in the 1850-55 range.
Another theory promoted by some cocktail historians is that the Martini first appeared at the New York City’s Knickerbocker Hotel. This hotel was, in the early 20th century, manned by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia. He claimed to invent the drink before World War I. The story goes, he served a drink, a favorite of John D. Rockefeller, that blended London dry gin, Noilly Prat Vermouth, and orange bitters.
This is certainly a more Martini-like concoction and its likely, though impossible to verify, that he named it after himself. Its also very possible that di Arma di Taggia knew of the Martinez of California, perhaps from some returning Gold Miner? Or even had acquired a copy of Thomas’ Bartender manual. So its quite possible that both the West Coast and East Coast theories are, in fact, part of the natural evolution of the Martini.
Finally, some believe that the martini was named after the Martini and Rossi vermouth. This seems to be an obvious source – customers ordering a gin and vermouth concoction at a bar would simply ask for a “gin and Martini.” Given how simply drinks were labelled in the 19th centuries, it’s plausible that this got shortened over time to ‘Martini’. Martini & Rossi, as part of their branding or marketing, would certainly have encouraged this transition. This would be true even if the company didn’t invent the “Gin & Martini”.
Ultimately no one will know for certain who, when, or where the Martini came to be. Personally I adhere to the gradual evolution idea. Somewhere in California a Martinez was created. Over time the drink evolved to the Martini, likely with a New York push which added a modern ‘cosmopolitan’ flair and aura. And mostly certainly encouraged by Martini and Rossi.