The Mysterious Early History of the Martini

There is little dispute that the Martini is the premier American cocktail or that at such times in its history that its popularity has waned, it bounced back with renewed vigor, with popularity soaring again and again to new, unprecedented heights. And, each renewal brings with it new variations, and new groups of fans, many of whom become lifetime devotees.

But what of the origins of this iconic cocktail? Where and when, and by whose hand, was it invented? And, what was it originally named? The answers to these questions are not known with any degree of certainty, with stories that trace the drink's origins to both California and to New York, and that state emphatically that it's original name was in fact the Martini, or that it was the Martinez, or that it was the
Martine, or even the Martina. As to who invented the Martini, those stores include everyone from world famous bartending pioneers to oblivious unknowns, whose very existence is called into question.

Jerry Thomas was the preeminent bartender of the 19th century, revolutionizing the concept of the cocktail and bringing into popularity the concept of the individual mixed drink, combining spirits, syrups, sugars, bitters, and ice, served in individual glasses to customers one at a time, changing forever the prevailing custom of serving groups of people with large punch bowls of a common drink. However, some seek to provide to Thomas even more credit than the substantial amount to which he is entitled, at least as far as the
Martini is concerned. One theory about the origin of the Martini traces it to the 1860s and Thomas and the City of San Francisco and to the Occidental Hotel where he tended bar. Certainly Thomas was tending bar there during that time frame, but the likely apocryphal story has him creating a new drink at the request of a customer on his way to the small east bay hamlet of Martinez, CA, and Thomas concocting a gin-and-vermouth drink, naming it the "Martinez”, in honor of his customer's destination.

While the "Martinez" did appear in the 1887 edition of Thomas' "Bar-Tenders Guide", that reference was two years after Thomas' death, and after it had appeared in another bartending guide, 1884's "Modern Bartending Guide". More significant though is the fact that the drink, whether already called the Martini, or still the Martinez, had already gained a wide measure of popularity, yet Thomas neither spoke about it nor referred to it in any of many newspaper interviews he gave over the years, nor was it mentioned in any of his obituaries. And, the growing popularity of the drink generally did refer to it as the Martini, with few references to it as the "Martinez".

Whether or not actually invented by Thomas, another version of this particular fable has it that the Occidental Hotel Bar was a stopping off point for large numbers of people who each evening wiled away their time, waiting for the evening ferry across the bay to Martinez, and that that is the origin of the name. But, these Jerry Thomas stories are not the only ones tracing the possible invention of the Martini to northern California. There are even stories of Martinez-ites who are emphatic that no, the drink was invented on their side of the bay, actually in the town of Martinez.

Martinez natives who take credit for the drink's creation in large part base their opinion on a 1965 Oakland Tribune article, quoting one Toddy Briones, who laid claim to the "Fact" that it was his brother-in-law, Julio Richelieu, who invented the Martini at his bar located on
Ferry St. in Martinez, in the mid-1870s (guess Briones was pretty old when he gave that interview). Supposedly, a customer had bought a bottle of hootch from Richelieu, in exchange for a gold nugget, and the benevolent bartender threw in the newly-invented drink as change. Richelieu was said to have seen the popularity of the Martini increase significantly after he moved his bar across the bay to San Francisco's Market St.

While there was a Richelieu's Cafe in the Market St. area of San Francisco, it did not open until the very late 19th century and after the Martini had gained a fair amount of popularity, and no "Julio" can be found to have had any interest in the establishment. Further, newspaper articles about the establishment never mentioned the Martini, or any connection
between the two. Plus, "Richelieu" was about as popular a name for a cafe back then as "Denny's" was in the late 20th century. Also, it would appear that no one in Martinez had taken any credit whatsoever for the invention, ever, until 1950 when a local politician, Claude Greety, President of the local Chamber of Commerce, had brought it up during an after-dinner speech (one lubricated with, perhaps, a Martini or two?). One more nail in the coffin of this story is the fact that by the time in the late 19th century that the customer would have made that drink purchase with a gold nugget, the California Gold Rush was long over, and the likelihood of anyone trying to purchase consumer goods, even a drink or three, with a gold nugget, as is it being accepted by a proprietor, is laughable. By the way, tourists to Martinez are still waiting for the first annual Martini festival.

So, moving east, it's time to get to the New York branch of the Martini theories club, and a NY jurist, Judge Randolph Martine, to whom the New York Times in a 1904 article gave Martini-invention credit.

Martine was a regular at the well-known Manhattan Club, a hangout in the mid to late 19th century for gamblers, sportsmen, and the city's legal establishment. Even prior to the Times article, several bartending guides and other publications from the late-1880s to the early 1900s, described the cocktail, calling it the "Martine". In 1893's conclave of the International Association of Bartenders in Chicago, on their agenda was a discussion of that particular libation, the "Martine". However, it was at least once reported that Martine himself had neither ever taken credit for the drink, nor had he, apparently, ever denied that he drank nothing but Champagne. Also, the use of the name the "Martine", while common, was not universally used and not unique to the drink - seeing it referred to as the Martini was also a common sight throughout the New York of the late 1800s and early 20th century.

Of course, it must be mentioned the possibility of confusion between the gin and vermouth cocktail and the Italian brand of vermouth
named "Martini" which went on sale in New York around 1867. In fact, as the drinks' popularity spread, a Washington Post article only a few years later, was emphatic that a true Martini could ONY be made with Martini Vermouth!

Another story giving New York credit for the invention of the Martini centers around the infamous New York Turf Club on Madison Avenue, an even more notorious hangout for the city's gambling establishment. The Turf Club's claim-to-fame, a gin-and-vermouth "Turf Club" cocktail recipe, was published in 1884's "How to Mix Drinks - Bar-Keeper’s Handbook". But the confusion therein is rampant, for a couple of reasons. The also infamous Jockey Club was in the same building as the Turf Club, and a Jockey Club
bartender was interviewed not too long thereafter, by the Chicago Tribune, and he gave a confusing interview about preparing similar drinks that he called the Martini/Martinez and the Manhattan, which is of course consists of whiskey and vermouth. BUT back then gin was not the gin of today, clear, dry, and “light”, Rather, the heavy, dark gin of the late 19th century greatly resembled whiskey, and confusing the two, even when doing the pouring, was an easy and likely frequent occurrence. Plus, all such concoctions also featured generous amounts of bitters, further murcking the identity of the basic ingredients. And, for a final confusing touch, he also at times referred to the Martini/Martinez by yet another name, the “Turf Club”.

A final note regarding the Martini and possible New York origins, is the following. The Martini or the Martinez or the Martine or, well, you know, in its early decades, was in no way, “dry”. Rather, the gin-to-vermouth was often equal. Well, eventually New Yorkers had another idea, and stories exist that around 1911 or so, at the Hotel Knickerbocker, the drinks was served with a new proportion, that is mostly gin, producing perhaps the very first “dry” Martini.

That icon to 1950’s opulence, smoking and liquor, Mad Men, gave rise to a book of dining and drinking recipes, “The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook”, and it contains a bit of Martini history of its own. The book refers to the Martini’s possible origins in Martinez, CA in 1870, and even to the use of the name Martini as far back as in 1888, but it seems to ignore history and give credence to a much later invention, again at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel, in 1911. There and then Mad Men tell us, one Martini di Arma di Taggia FIRST mixed gin, vermouth and orange bitters and strained them into a chilled glass.

No one really knows the true story, and that is part of the mystery, allure, and romance, of the Martini.

©2016 by theHoundDawg for
No reprints or any commercial usage without written permission other than linking to this page, which is encouraged.