PERSONAL ESSAY

Two years later, I’m still measuring life in Martini glasses

It’s a drink that can never be ruined. Not even by a global pandemic.

By Kara Newman

Published March 13, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Classic martini cocktail (Getty Images/Cavan Images)
Classic martini cocktail (Getty Images/Cavan Images)

In T.S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the narrator famously recalls, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." As we roll past the two-year mark of when "Covid-19" first entered mainstream consciousness, I realize I have measured out my life with Martini glasses — and I still am.

I've always known that the crisp neutrality of the Martini can offer a pristine backdrop. That's why it's always been the opening sipper of any bar that's new or new-to-me: it's the ultimate acid test to evaluate how the classic might be configured and presented. It might be made with a high-end gin, a fancy glass or garnish, or super-chilled to an impeccably icy sheen. It's also my go-to at bars that aren't necessarily "cocktail bars," when I just want something reliable, the way some friends feel about ordering a beer at their favorite local. After all, it's a drink that can never truly be ruined. Not even by a global pandemic.

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When Covid first rolled in, the Martini naturally emerged as a tool of comfort — for me, and others around the country too. During the early lockdown months, shared images of "Quarantinis" on social media or Zoom gave the illusion of sharing a drink across enforced individual silos. We traded favorite proportions and bottles; my preferred was a 50-50 split of Tanqueray and Dolin Blanc, with a lemon twist, featured in plenty of my Instagram stories. I mourned when my favorite coupe glass finally cracked in protest, about seven months in. 

I've had a more complex relationship with the Martinis of the slow, stop/start re-emergence from the pandemic.

Some reminded me how much drinks reflect life going on around us, and how much I've missed that connection. The v-shaped glasses that cluttered the tiny round table outside our neighborhood Italian restaurant, the first time our little "pandemic pod" (remember those?) convened for an outdoor meal. A rounded Nick and Nora, just big enough to accommodate a single plump Castelvetrano olive, as I celebrated post-vaxx at the bar of a newly-opened steakhouse

Others brought back the less-welcome cadence of 2020's lockdown life: The bottled Martini I batched and stored in my freezer when the Omicron variant appeared, and torpedoed drinks dates into solo evenings at home once again. The makeshift Martini — vodka and fino sherry — my non-drinking husband assembled and dispatched on a tray, after Omicron found me anyway, and I did my best to isolate from him in our one-bedroom apartment (it worked. So did the Martini). 

I wish I could say that every Martini was comforting in its own way. But if I'm being truly honest, there were times I perhaps prematurely launched myself back out into bars when restrictions finally relaxed a bit, endeavoring to keep my professional life as a drinks writer afloat. 


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At one such outing, dangling well beyond my comfort zone, I slurped back my Martini with uncharacteristic haste — if I swallowed the fancy cocktail pick along with the olive, I wouldn't be surprised —smashed my mask back on my face and scurried back outside to safety. In my mind loomed the birdlike specters of 17th century physicians, who wore masks with elongated beaks packed with pungent herbs — surely some gin and vermouth botanicals among them, juniper, coriander, orris root — as they tended to plague victims.

Two years after the onset of pandemic life, I'm still navigating my way out. I know some already have declared Covid to be a thing of the past. As much as I'd like that to be true, I'm still picking my way through what feels like a minefield of alarming news stories, crumpled-up masks and shards of broken Martini glasses. I expect I'll get to the other side, eventually.

Looking back over the past two years, one particular, hopeful drink stands out: an airport Martini, consumed while waiting for a flight to Arizona in fall 2021. It was my first (so far, only) foray into pandemic-era air travel, a trip booked and cancelled four times over. Even while wheeling my distressingly dusty carry-on across the JFK terminal, I still wondered if my travel plans would collapse at any moment. Jittery about every aspect of flying but determined not to back down, I ordered a Martini to calm my nerves. Gin. Extra olives, please. 

This was no time for a fussy order — a stiff and straightforward drink was required. It did not disappoint: classic v-shaped glass, three speared olives distorted through a bracing cold sea of gin. (If vermouth was even in there, it sure wasn't much, and that was just fine.) It was perfect fortification as I watched other travelers hurry by. I clamped my mask back on, the last exhale of juniper a reassuring companion as I headed to the gate. 

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