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Tuesday, May 6, 2003 02:20 pm

Make mine a martini

Capital city bars offer their own versions of the famous drink

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On a recent night in the Capitol City, two professional women in their 40s sit at a table in a popular downtown watering hole, sipping ruby red liquid garnished with fruit. Across town, a group of young 20-somethings order drinks in a rainbow of colors with names that sound more like song titles or lipstick shades. At the bar is a businessman talking on his mobile phone while slowly sipping clear liquid with a stuffed olive resting on the glass.

These local residents are enjoying the hottest trend to hit the alcoholic beverage market in a long time. From the traditional gin martini favored by purists to modified modern versions that tantalize the taste buds with premium chocolate and fruity liquor, the martini is being sipped by a whole new generation.

Billed as Springfield's only true martini bar, 11 West (11 W. Old State Capitol Plaza, 527-9911) opened nearly a year ago with a martini list featuring 25 different versions of the famed drink. Besides its signature martini, the Hamilton--a concoction of vodka, triple sec, and lime juice--the bar also offers variations with names as interesting as their ingredients, such as Baby Love Me More (made with gin, banana liquor, pineapple juice, and grenadine) and After Dinner Mint (vodka, chocolate liquor, creme de cocoa, and peppermint schnapps).

"Everyone has their favorite," says executive chef and manager Rosh Mahmood. "I'm a vodka martini man, a little dirty."

Some attribute the martini craze to the death of Frank Sinatra, when people wanted to re-create the elegance of the Sinatra era. Martinis show up in James Bond novels, Cole Porter lyrics, and Bette Davis and Clark Gable movies. The drink's popularity has prompted many bars and restaurants to offer their own martini menus.

A little research reveals that nothing about this topic is clear--except the drink itself. There seems to be a lot more involved than popping the top off a bottle of Bud. Everyone has a different opinion on every aspect of the drink, from its origin to its contents (gin or vodka, plain or flavored, shaken or stirred). There are even opinions on the olive garnish (plain or stuffed, pitted or not). That's if you like an olive--some prefer lemon peel or a cocktail onion. Of course, with an onion, it's technically called a Gibson. It's a little complicated, but maybe that's part of the drink's appeal.

The basic recipe starts with the right ingredients. The first is gin, which is distilled from rye and other grains and flavored with juniper berries. Gin is derived from the French word genievre (juniper). The second ingredient is vermouth, a white appetizer wine often flavored with 40 herbs, roots, berries, and seeds. For a basic martini, chill your stemmed glass, shaker, and gin in the freezer. (Vermouth is best kept at room temperature.) Add three parts gin to one part dry vermouth, shake about eight times, and pour through a cocktail strainer into a chilled glass. Local bartenders say ice is important because it does more than make the drink cold, it helps combine the gin and vermouth. The trick is to not let the ice melt and water down your gin. The less vermouth you use, the dryer the martini is. Top it off with an olive or lemon peel and you have the drink of kings. That famous V-shaped glass is designed so that when you hold the glass your body temperature won't warm the drink. Ah, yes, the glass. This simple-shaped drinking vessel seems to have as much appeal as the drink itself.

Floyd's Thirst Parlor (210 S. Fifth, 522-2020), one of several new downtown watering holes, offers 17 varieties of martinis, with the best-sellers being the traditional dirty martini with vodka and olive juice and a vodka-based, chocolate-flavored version using a carefully guarded secret recipe and several kinds of chocolate liquors.

"It's a social trend," says bartender Robert Holland. "If you walk a chocolate martini past 15 girls, three are going to want one. They taste good and anything that comes in a martini glass is classy. They look good. A chocolate martini is pretty. The aesthetics of the drink is pleasing."

And while the true traditionalist who grew up on Sinatra and a dirty martini may say these new versions are really just sweet concoctions with ingredients that don't resemble a martini in any way, shape, or form, Holland says, "To me, anything that's served in a cocktail glass is a martini."

Holland and other bartenders agree that while men and women drink the traditional martini, more women favor the funky flavored versions.

Janet Hudson, manager of Soiree (2824 Plaza Drive, 546-4660), another relative newcomer to the city's restaurant scene, says as soon as the novelty martini list was posted at the bar, customers began ordering them. Soiree offers seven varieties, including sour apple; raspberry lemon drop; a "Soireetina," the house version of a chocolate martini; nuts and berry, which is also called a "dessert in a glass," with a mixture of Frangelica, chocolate Godiva, and Chambord, a raspberry liquor. The "mochatini" features chocolate-flavored liquor and coffee.

"They just come up with more and more flavors," Hudson says. "A lot of people want a dirty martini, which seems to the be most popular of all time. But the chocolate ones are also popular. They are just fun. It gives people a variety of things to drink, besides doing shots."

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