Discovering the martini's Bay Area roots

The next time 007 orders a martini, shaken not stirred, he’ll be asking for Belvedere vodka. That’s right, James Bond is getting picky in his old age, and thanks to a recently inked deal with EON Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Sony Pictures, the upscale Polish vodka brand will be the exclusive choice of our favorite intrepid spy when the 24th installment of the franchise, “Spectre,” debuts in November.

A global marketing campaign celebrating the union begins next month, with limited edition bottles being manufactured for the occasion.

While you’ll have to be a little patient for the film (and it might be impossible to find a 007 enhanced bottle of Belvedere), you don’t have to wait to order a martini, whose potent roots, according to some, reach right here to the Bay Area.

Like any good Bond movie, however, there are plot twists to that story, too.

Some believe that a New York bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia at the Knickerbocker Hotel invented the drink in 1911, while the British say the drink is derived from a British-made army rifle called a Martini & Henry that had a serious kick.

But we locals love a good San Francisco tale, and some say Bond’s favorite drink was born in the East Bay city of Martinez in 1870 when a miner, allegedly on his way to celebrate in San Francisco after striking it rich, stopped for a drink at a local bar and asked the bartender to concoct something special. The result was The Martinez, made with sweet vermouth, Old Tom gin, bitters, a dash or two of maraschino and a lemon twist. It was said to be the granddaddy of the modern-day martini.

But Jeff Burkhart, local cocktail historian, bartender and author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars,” is more inclined to believe the New York version.

“Martinez makes the claim, they even have a historical marker downtown, but the drink they say is the forerunner of the martini features Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth and bitters, none of which figure into today’s martini. A Martinez is more like a Negroni than anything else. Or a gin Manhattan,” Burkhart says.

Here in San Francisco, just about any bar worth its cocktail shaker can shake up a martini. But the Top of the Mark at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel is top of the line as far as I’m concerned _ not only for 360-degree city views, but also for its popular 100-martini menu that would make Bond green with envy.

Joseph Ferragamo, director of food and beverage for Top of the Mark, says the hefty menu accounts for roughly 25 percent of all drinks sold, and the classic vodka martini _ made with Ketel One vodka, vermouth and two olives _ is a best seller. (Of course, you can order it any way you want.)

Asked to comment on the origin of the martini, Ferragamo said he had not heard of the Martinez, but added, “The first martinis were all gin-based, and over the last two years premium gins have made a comeback and are giving the vodka martini a run for its money.”

Whatever the story, and whatever the drink’s precursor, the modern-day martini _ shaken or stirred _ undeniably is here to stay.

Perhaps in the future we can persuade 007 to pay a visit to San Francisco to unravel the mystery. Who knows? He might fall head over heels for our locally made No. 209 gin and change his vodka martini ways.

Bar info: Top of the Mark, 999 California St., S.F., (415) 392-3434, www.intercontinental.com/sanfrancisco

Kimberley Lovato has been writing about travel, food and drink for the last 20 years and has never met a happy hour she didn’t like. She writes at www.kimberleylovato.com

FeaturesFood & DrinkFood and WineJeff BurkhartMartinezMartini

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