It’s not that I hate Martinis exactly. It’s more that they’re tedious, like a salad at Cosi or an episode of CSI. You know what you’re getting. They accomplish what they set out to do.
They should call any mixture of gin and vermouth a “Meh-tini.”
And of course the name Martini has been desecrated since the late Clinton administration by the reckless use of flavored vodkas and day-glo sweeteners, resulting in happy hour chalkboards nationwide filled with several varieties of “[WTF]-tinis” for $5.
Then there are the cultural connotations of the drink: haughty, heeled well, self-satisfied — “classy,” as interpreted by those who view it from below.
What could I do to a Martini, I asked myself, that would inflict culinary interest and cultural disorder — and still make a great drink?
Introducing the Hillbilly Martini
I love the Caipirinha, a Brazilian drink made from the abundant local spirit, cachaça. It drinks like an earthy rum.
Muddle half a lime with a teaspoon or two of sugar, pour in 2 oz of cachaça, add ice, drink. The pulpy lime debris is the “garnish.” [Here is Esquire’s David Wondrich‘s less enthusiastic take.]
It’s simple, delicious, and cheap. In Brazil, it’s the people’s drink. [The swells in Sao Paulo probably drink Martinis.]
The word “caipirinha,” I should point out, translates almost exactly as “hillbilly.”
Joseph, meet João
To pull off this cultural transgression, I’d need:
- A gin with one of several characteristics: The “softness” of a rum, high notes of citrus, or an earthy bottom.
- A vermouth that wouldn’t just be the Euro snoot standing aside at the Brazilian street party.
I tried more combinations than I should admit. Here’s the best I came up with so far — my 137th try or something like that.
The Hillbilly Martini® Recipe
- 2 oz Tanqueray Rangpur gin
- Very lime-y, plenty of botanticals
- .25 to .5 oz Cocchi Americano
- Strictly speaking, a cheat — not really a vermouth. But it’s an aromatized wine, an apertif…close enough, I say
- 1/2 lime
- 2 sprigs thyme
- Failing to find an “earthy” gin [see below], I added this herb to give it some terra firma
- 1.5 teaspoon turbinado sugar
- The gritty texture and light brown color keep the drink grounded
How to make the Hillbilly Martini
- In an Old Fashioned glass, make an “X” of the two thyme sprigs.
- Place the lime half face-up on top of the thyme and sprinkle with turbinado.
- Muddle enthusiastically, grinding the sugar into the lime.
- Add the Cocchi Americano and gin.
- Stir vigorously. Those brown turbinado grains are stubborn.
- Add ice, stir again. Drink.
Hillbilly Martini: Tasting notes
This particular variation actually came out pretty well.
As I’d hoped, it maintained the rustic simplicity of the Caipirinha, with the lime notes of the Rangpur playing nice. The thyme added a reasonable approximation of the of-the-earth flavors of Cachaça.
The drink is pretty citrus-forward, so you had to go sniffing for the gin’s botanicals and the Cocchi’s soft, slightly bitter herbal notes. Balance was tricky: Too much of the Cocchi took the drink up into the VIP suite. Too little disappeared. But in the right amount it added a certain complexity without wrecking things.
Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. You try hard enough to make something work and you risk either succeeding or convincing yourself you have.
Lessons along the hillbilly trail
I tried other stuff in various combinations. None worked as well.
- Old Tom gin: The best failure, actually, offering a softer, sweeter gin profile veering slightly toward white rum. But it didn’t bring much citrus to the party, and it’s pretty juniper-heavy.
- Hendricks gin: Way too delicate to stand up to all that sugar and lime. Wish I’d wasted vodka instead.
- Genever: Its malty character nearly approximated cachaça. Didn’t quite make it, though. Worth more tinkering.
- I’d like to have omitted the thyme — another cheat — but I couldn’t find a vermouth or aromatized wine that added sufficient terroir, as they never say in Brazil. Dolin and its European cousins were too prissy, and somehow flattened things out.
Nothing new under the fun
Experienced drinkfolk will realize that all I’ve done is essentially rusticize a Gimlet [gin, sweetened lime juice] while wasting some perfectly good Cocchi in the effort. Or re-herbed and bow-tied a Mojito. Or dragged a Rickey from Washington, D.C. to South America, kicking and screaming.
So this is not as original as I hoped.
But I showed the private school twerp a good time. And I’m damn proud of it.