THERE’S A WINDOW of time on my resumé in the early 2000s when it was my lot in life to run a romper room of a wine bar in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Occasionally, to avoid its semi-deranged, tinfoil-hatted owner, I’d pop across Hayes Street to Absinthe Brasserie & Bar for a nerves-soothing tumbler of Oban. Neither Rob Schwartz nor Jeff Hollinger, the head bartenders, knew me very well, but each poured a generous shot of the Scottish single malt, which I always thought of as a singularly kind gesture of hospitality.
Just a few years later in 2006, that pair partnered with the talented San Francisco food photographer Frankie Frankeny on a well-conceived cocktail recipe book, The Art of the Bar. In it, Rob and Jeff included a section on some of the classic drinks they served at Absinthe that butted up against current trends. “Die-hard devotees,” they observed with some amusement, “surely cringe at the idea of calling vanilla vodka mixed with Midori and a mélange of fruit juices a melon Martini.”
No doubt feeling reverberations of the 90’s vodka craze that spilled over into the new millennium, they wrote, “Nowadays, just about anything served in a martini glass is dubbed a Martini.”
Flashing forward to the present, I wonder what these former Absinthe guys would say about something like beefsteak tomato water, sherry vinegar, and basil oil, all expertly mixed in a martini glass—an intensely flavored concoction that, when I tasted it in the waning days of this past summer, reminded me of the passage in their book and the question it begged: when is a martini not a martini?