Martini Straight Up Always

Phnom Penh MartiniMartini at Zino
I sat at the dimly lit, elegant bar of Zino in the South-of-Sihanouk Gourmet Ghetto. Outside on Street 294 the sun-blasted asphalt was baking, heat waves rising from the surface. But I was in the cool depths, contemplating the dish of chilled oysters on the half-shell laid before me and planning a fitting accompaniment for the succulent bivalves. Custom called for a glass of full-bodied Chardonnay, or a dry Sherry, or even a cold beer. But I was in a rebellious mood. I called for a Martini.

Usually a Martini in this town is a miserable slug of cheap gin or vodka, indifferently shaken and poured into a warm glass. It’s anything for which the barkeep has no other name. But Mr. Vireak, the head barman at Zino, has always shown himself as a man who knows his business. “Rek,” says I, “Do me a Martini.” There then followed the mixological interrogation that only a pro would exhibit: Gin or vodka? Dry or sweet? Shaken or stirred? Straight up, or on the rocks? Olive or twist?

The Martini, with only two ingredients and a garnish, is elegantly simple, yet unforgiving of mistakes. It dates back to 1862 when the famous “Professor” Jerry Thomas concocted the first one. He was head bartender at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel where he tended to the daily needs of his “patients.” His simple yet perfect libation became the drink of choice for literati such as Jack London and Henry Miller, and the official drink of the ruling class and those who would aspire to it. FDR and Winston Churchill mixed their own to the definitive recipe, while James Bond gave detailed instructions for a somewhat idiosyncratic mix using equal parts of vodka and gin.

This is not a drink to knock back in haste. It needs to be sipped, savoured and meditated upon. The story goes that FDR always made two of them last 30 minutes apiece. Hence, the “Cocktail Hour.” He always made his own, and he made ‘em “dirty,” adding a teaspoon of olive brine to the mix. He shook a pair for himself and King George VI when he and the British monarch plotted world strategies during a state visit in 1939. They each had two. How it might have affected the ensuing war is not recorded.

So now I watch Rek make a drink fit for a president or a king. He pours premium gin generously over ice in a cocktail shaker. The traditional drink should not be too dry. So he gives it a good splash of vermouth, making a cocktail, not a straight shot. He shakes it into submission. Shakes it ‘til it cries for mercy. Shakes it so that the botanicals in the gin will volatilise and so reveal themselves to my senses while still remaining glacially cold. When he pours it into a chilled glass, a patina of ice crystals floats upon the surface. Now my oysters are in good company.

Zino Wine Bar. #12, Street 294.
023 998 519

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