The first martini I had in my life was in the sagging old Hôtel du Castor on Sussex Drive, Ottawa. “Le Castor” or “Beaver House” was a legendary stopping place of the river giant Joseph Montferrand (known as “Joe Mufferaw” in Ottawa Valley folklore) and reputedly one of many drinking places frequented by Sir John A. MacDonald. The hotel is now part of the “Mile of History” in Ottawa. The interior has been modernized and its exterior restored to its original by the National Capital Commission. The atmosphere in the bar was green – dark green leather chairs, pale green walls and something resembling green granite for the small square table tops. Likely the carpet was greenish as well. It is also possible that I am completely wrong about all of that though that is my honest recollection.
I can however say without prevarication that my first martini was a gin martini. Although I then knew virtually nothing about martinis I did at least know that the concoction is commonly made with gin and dry Vermouth. I never would have imagined the possibility of a vodka martini. Nor would I have thought to have had the martini other than straight up in the traditional martini glass which is the manner in which we were both served our martinis on that important day in the late autumn of 1975.
I recollect the sensation of drinking gasoline as I took the first sip of my martini. Little did I know that martinis translate jet fuel into rocket fuel. After our second martini we had clearly settled in for the afternoon which was fortunately a Saturday afternoon and therefore uncluttered by pressing obligation. My final and lasting impression of l’Hôtel du Castor was the declining sunlight on the brick cobblestones of the court yard behind the Hôtel.
That auspicious beginning for my martini career was explosive but not incendiary (at least not in the long run). In fact the experience hardly stirred my imagination for years afterwards. I must have considered the event unique and educational but nothing in the nature of addictive. Instead my subsequent years of imbibing were dedicated to blended whiskey and Porto.
In 1996 I began chumming with a friend who regularly drank martinis. Even then I wasn’t convinced to follow suit. Several years later however – again on a sunny Saturday afternoon – I was introduced to the pleasures of a martini complemented by a luncheon of Sea Bass and sliced Beefsteak tomatoes. This particular hedonism also transpired in the autumn since I recollect we sat before a blazing fireplace in a very comfortable apartment in the By Ward Market (pointedly not far from Sussex Drive).
Sometime after the turn of the century I began stocking vodka in the freezer. My mother had told me years earlier that the secret to a good martini was to pour off a cap of gin from the bottle, refill it with Vermouth, then store the bottle in the freezer. For some reason I switched to vodka rather than gin when making my martinis although I made a point of stocking both in the freezer. I discovered that when I entertained my friends, martinis were very popular. In fact my guests would subsequently ask for them specifically. I can’t imagine that there was anything especially clever about the way I made the martinis other than that I served them in extraordinarily large glasses (what I derisively called “bathtubs on sticks”). Indeed I became so wary of the effects which flowed from my martinis that I learned to limit my friends who were driving to no more than one (and even then they frequently reported the next day to having slept surprisingly well that night).
My favourite indulgence in a martini was at the end of the day in front of a blazing fireplace with a novel by a renowned British author like Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. When my little French bulldog Monroe was still whinnying among us he would join me in the drawing room, prone on the leather couch nicely elevated from the draughts of the hardwood floors. I did of course ensure that his every need was satisfied before I permitted myself the supreme relaxation of my ritual evening martini.
Lately my fondest memories of martinis revolve around two exceptional restaurant dinners in Toronto, one with my nieces at the Royal York Hotel (Epic), the other with close friends at La Société on Bloor Street. In both instances the martinis were complemented by oysters on the half shell which I suppose is never a bad way to begin any meal but made all the more irresistible by the addition of the clear liquor. As usual the martinis guaranteed an unsurpassed coziness at table.
Subsequently our journeys to South Carolina have been punctuated by thoroughly delightful martinis prepared by American bartenders who are well known for getting down to business. Until recently it was frequently a disappointment to return to Canada to discover the restraint practiced by local bartenders. In any event the modification is now lost upon me as I have nothing but fond memories of the martini to amuse me. As you might have gathered I have little to say by way of disparagement about the martini even though I made an abrupt right turn upon my sixty-fifth birthday. As the saying goes, “They are so history!” Yet for me they are a reminder of the vigour of my youth. I know it would be as preposterous to sustain the habit as it is to imagine I shall be forever young. So I quit while I’m ahead. But oh my they were good!