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James Bond (and NPR) Had it Wrong With the Martini...

James Bond (and NPR) Had it Wrong With the Martinis

"That's not an olive, 007!And do leave off shaking your Martinis, will you?"

“That’s not an olive, 007!
And do leave off shaking your Martinis, will you?”

The NPR interview I’m referencing here is “old”, in both internet and news parlance. But I just saw it, and shallow science and bad science reporting need a vigorous slapping around whenever it is encountered, no matter how playfully it is presented. The interview in question is with a Dr. Andrea Sella of University College London, who was promoting the fact that he and others had spent someone’s good money on a “scientific” study of shaken versus stirred Martinis. Actually, he’s talking about two studies. One, which isn’t his, is about health differences, and his, which is about taste. The resulting claims, as outlined by Dr. Sella, are as follows:

  • Martinis contain anti-oxidants. When you shake your Martini, you will have slightly higher levels of anti-oxidants. Because vermouth. Anti-oxidants may arrest aging slightly by locking up hydrogen peroxide. Therefor shaken Martinis are more healthy.
  • Shaken cocktails have more water, bits of ice, and bubbles in them, which alters their mouthfeel, decreases their temperature, and increases the dilution. So shaken Martinis taste better.

I’d like to address both of these, but first I’ll embed the audio of the interview, which got a helluva lot of press attention when it first aired.

The claim that shaken Martini’s are healthier than stirred, and the underlying implied claim that both means of preparation have health benefits, is ridiculous. Look, I love Martinis, but praising them for their health benefits is like raving about the fuel mileage in your Formula One race car. Anti-oxidants may (or may not) delay aging a little bit. And there may be some slight increase in their presence in a shaken Martini. But listen to the researcher, the overall amounts of anti-oxidants in Martinis, and the difference between shaken and stirred, must both be pretty slight, or he’d want to tell you how much it is. Drinking enough Martinis to get whatever small anti-aging effect they may offer, shaken or stirred, is going to be more than offset by the liver morbidity that would set in. So if “live fast, die (apparently) young, leave a beautiful corpse” is your desired philosophy, by all means make Martinis a part of your health regimen.
For the sensible among us who like Martinis, drink them small, and drink them sparingly. If you want some anti-oxidants, eat more berries.

As for his credibility on shaken Martinis… I’m sorry, Doctor, but you need better credentials than just multiple advanced degrees in chemistry to convince me. While it is true that there is a debate about which makes a better Martini, shaken or stirred, that debate is between James Bond aficionados and actual Martini drinkers. For the record, I am assuming that we are talking about gin, and not vodka Martinis, though this is never addressed in the interview. Dr. Sella is right about the physical effects of shaking, but not about the actual resulting aesthetics. The giveaway is in the following exchange:

D(r. Andrea Sella): Well, one might expect it to taste somewhat different. Now, first of all, let me declare my interest: I’m not a huge fan of martinis per se.

(Guy) RAZ: Yeah, a lot of people hate martins.

D: Absolutely. I mean, martinis are definitely an acquired taste. But the crucial thing is that when you think about what happens between pouring something into your mouth and experiencing it in your mind, in your brain, it’s not just the sort of chemical components. There’s a lot more going on.

I’m sorry, but if you don’t like Martinis, then you are unlikely to design a test to properly measure what is a good Martini. A traditional taste test methodology, a la the Pepsi Challenge, where a random sampling of humans are given two glasses labeled A and B, takes a sip of each, and expresses a preference, is fundamentally flawed when applied to semi-universal products like soft drinks. It is doubly flawed when used for Martinis.

As Sella notes himself, Martinis are an acquired taste. Did he test only Martini drinkers, or a random selection? I’m guessing the latter. This means that a lot of people, like Guy Raz for instance, were going to experience a test between two drinks, both of which will likely taste like ass to them. The shaken one will be more diluted and muted in flavor, exactly as he predicts. Of course people, when confronted with a cocktail that is frankly pretty confrontational, are going to choose the version that is less a punch in the snoot to unprepared taste buds.

But had they given the test to habitual Martini drinkers alone, who are already accustomed to the unique, assertive medley of gin and vermouth, the results would have swung strongly in the other direction. People who actually want to drink Martinis are looking for that unctuous experience that is figuratively and literally diluted by shaking. Less objectively, the visual experience is better with a stirred Martini. The glass-like clarity of the drink, unsullied by ice flows, bubbles, or foam, is easier and more rewarding to gaze into, and more in keeping with the drink’s flavor.

Incidentally, I was initially also skeptical of the whole “shaking releases more anti-oxidants” claim itself, beyond the fact that there can’t be enough there to provide a usable health benefit, but on consideration, this makes sense. Dr. Sella states they found the anti-oxidant comes more form the vermouth than the gin. Many spirits experts will contend that it is the vermouth, not the gin, which is “bruised” by shaking, resulting in the release of a few new or altered flavors. I can easily see that along with those releases of/changes in flavor, you might also get some additional release of anti-oxidant compounds.

Regardless, if you want to learn to love Martinis, the road there is not through vigorous shaking. Learn to love the taste of gin in gentler cocktails, then try the real thing. And whatever health benefits may come from drinking alcohol, they come only from consumption in moderation, and frankly I suspect most of them come not from chemical effects on the body (for the most part) but simple mental hygiene of a life well lived.

And less you think I’m being too hard on Dr. Sella, he’s really quite the interesting and entertaining scientist and science popularizer. He also has a good sense of humor when things don’t go entirely to plan. You can see quite a bit of him on YouTube, in productions like this fascinating piece:


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  1. Interesting…

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