A martini for the river…

”I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.” “They made me feel civilized.”
Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms.

I grew up with the martini. My dad once called it “the tonic of the gods”. As a kid I can remember my parents holding their daily after-work social hour and a martini – on the rocks – was always in attendance. And so it goes that this “king of cocktails” has graced my life. I hold court with it most every night – one, mind you.


The martini is clean, cold, pure, and the ultimate symbol of class. Ernest Hemingway described making Martinis as one of three manly skills alongside bull fighting and game fishing. Indeed, the Nobel prize winning author’s characters drank what Hemingway himself quaffed, and the martini was a constant. In Across the River and Into the Trees, Colonel Richard Cantwell orders a Montgomery Martini: 15 parts gin to one vermouth. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry muses of sipping martinis: “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”


The master at work – Hemingway pouring a strong one…

Most recently, I learned the martini even crosses over to fly fishing, in an entirely new cocktail recipe. Friend and fellow fly fisher, Eric Tomosky, mentioned the drink one day while we talked and then pitched an email my way with a delightful article from the “Scuddlebutt” section of Drake magazine. The article, written by Dana Sturn, gave the history of the making of this excellent version of an old classic and dubbed the formulation, The Steelhead Martini.

 Sturn writes that the drink was born out of need when a key ingredient – dry vermouth – was forgotten on a steelhead trip. For the non-sophisticated drinkers out there, the classic martini is an easy cocktail to make. The main ingredient, gin, is married with a small amount of dry vermouth: the drier one wants their martini, the less vermouth is used. In fact, some aficionados will literally wave the bottle by the gin in a symbolic act rather than pour even a drop of it in their drink. In any case, the vermouth was not in the fishing trip bar bag and so Sturn and his buddy improvised with scotch as a substitute – and the steelhead martini was born.

The steps are only a little varied from the standard martini recipe but are imbued with tradition which makes them even more appealing. Here’s the basic process:

  1. Start by placing glasses and stainless steel shaker in the freezer or on ice to get them chilled. Sturn’s exact instructions are to use stainless steel “goblets” for obvious reasons when roughing it along a steelhead river. Once the shaker is chilled, fill it with cubed, crushed or cracked ice.
  2. Pour 6 – 8 measures of quality gin into the shaker. Sturn uses Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray, which are both very high quality gins. I prefer Beefeater or better yet, the supremely delightful Hendrick’s.
  3. Add what would be the equivalent of a dash or so of dry vermouth in a classic martini, but in this case, we add no more than a teaspoon of single malt for the Steelhead Martini. Sturn advocates the use of a very smokey Islay malt such as Lgavulin or Laphroig, but also mentions the less challenging malts such as Balvenie or Glenmorangie, as substitutes in a pinch.
  4. Take a stirring implement of some sort – a glass stirring rod, a spoon, a long-bladed knife, or better yet, as recommended by Sturn, the tip of your spey or switch rod (I like that the best), and give the mixture one or two soft swirls. Now here is where I disagree with Sturn in personal taste. I’ve always liked my martinis ice cold and shaking is the best way to achieve that. However, it is said that shaking can “bruise” the gin, meaning the drink turns cloudy from the tiny shards of ice dispersed in the mixture.
  5. Now let the mixture sit – don’t pour just yet. In some ways, letting the drink rest allows the ice in the shaker to dilute the mixture a bit, smoothing the taste, but the process is rather more symbolic of what the steelheader does, in that good steelhead fishing is a cast and wait game and that rushing anything would bring bad kharma, riverside.
  6. The last step of the process is to stir the mixture again for several minutes in what Sturn describes as a slow and relaxed meditative manner. Then retrieve glasses, goblets, or cups, read aloud the final paragraph of A River Never Sleeps, and pour. Garnish the martini as you see fit – olives, cocktail onions, a dill pickle, or lemon twist.
  7. Getting back to my preference for an ice cold martini, I suppose the process could be altered to shake the mixture in step 4, and then after letting it rest, stir instead of shaking it in step 6.

More than anything, the true test of a quality martini is how it leaves you feeling. Some might say, “well, it leaves me feeling quite drunk” and that kind of remark is exactly not how to cherish such a classic libation.


A steelhead martini, chilled to perfection, garnished with a dill pickle. What a way to celebrate a good day on a river…

Instead, make it part of a riverside tradition. Doll it up with folding chairs and even a small folding table dressed with a tablecloth, as Sturn suggests. Use it to slow the pace down. Sturn claims the Steelhead Martini is especially warranted after a good morning of catching, if and when you are so blessed by the piscatorial gods. In that case, after sampling this unique concoction, listening to the sounds of the river, and regaling in the morning’s good graces, you might not even want to return to the river.



One Response to “A martini for the river…”

  1. Bob Stanton Says:

    Shaken, not stirred, eh? The dill pickle garnish is novel, I’ll have to try it. Wonder what Papa Hemingway used for a garnish?

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