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What does “martini” mean anyway?

Prepare to be shaken and stirred. We are witnessing a major change in how people use the word “martini.”

Need proof? Here’s a picture of a menu from a nice restaurant in Maryland. A heading at the top reads “MARTINIS.” Below that heading is a list of drinks that are definitely not martinis. This is happening in places where people ought to know better.

A “martini” used to be exactly two ingredients: gin and vermouth. My 1970 Webster’s Collegiate defines “martini” in eight words:

“A cocktail consisting of gin and dry vermouth”

Now. We know that tastes change and language evolves. Many people prefer martinis made with vodka, not gin. It’s been my experience that most bartenders, when asked to pour a martini, will ask the drinker to specify gin or vodka. Contemporary dictionaries like Merriam-Webster.com make room for this by keeping the definition of “martini” the same, but adding a separate entry for “vodka martini“:

“A martini made with vodka instead of gin”

Here in New York City, some bars and restaurants bend the definition further and add other ingredients. Fruit martinis—like the appletini—usually consist of vodka with a flavored liqueur in addition to (or instead of) the vermouth. Purists refuse to accept these syrupy elixirs as martinis. Appletinis and their ilk smack of inexperience—drinks for beginners who want to get wasted on fruit punch.

Outside New York, I gather that the martini situation is even more serious. In places where drinkers prefer alcohol to taste like candy, the old definition of “martini” has basically been obliterated. “Martini” is now a catch-all for any cocktail served without ice in a martini glass. A Manhattan is a martini? A Cosmo? Where do we draw the line? Four Loko?

I suspect the word “martini” is being misused at nice restaurants as an act of marketing. The martini has cachet. Well-heeled people with good taste sip them at exclusive parties. It’s 007’s drink. The only problem? While the idea of a martini may be in style, the taste isn’t. People raised on Hi-C prefer cocktails that look and taste like hummingbird food. So restaurants forge a compromise: They label all sweet cocktails as “martinis,” so customers get to order a proper-sounding drink and still enjoy their sugar rush.

Is the martini toast? Do we need to rewrite the dictionary? I’m not willing to give a definitive answer without further research. Who else wants to help?

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language

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