The martini is no disguise for liquor. It only wears vermouth like one wears cologne, and there's no hiding under the fat olive foundered at the bottom of the glass and leaking just enough oil to produce a shimmer on the ice-cold, crystal-clear surface. So it's the perfect frame for showing off the kind of sweet-smelling quality gin and vodka that local craft distillers are making from organic winter wheat and grapes.
That was the lure of Martini Madness, the 15th annual cocktail competition held as part of Sonoma Valley Olive Season, a month-long series of olive-centric events. On Jan. 8, a dozen bartenders from area restaurants and bars set up in Saddles Restaurant at MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, and started shaking. The event was sponsored by local distillers Prohibition Spirits, Hanson Vodka and Spirit Works.
But the bartenders of Sonoma love their disguises—or costumes, anyway. With typical enthusiasm, HopMonk Tavern went with a Wizard of Oz theme—their "Flying Monkey," a crazed concoction of Uncle Val's Gin and FigCello with lemon juice, orange flavor, water and black pepper simple syrup, winning the hearts of attendees for the popular vote, and the palates of the judges, as well. The brewpub crew served their olive—beer-battered—on the side of the tiny martini cocktail cup.
Over at the Saddles Steakhouse booth, a Star Wars theme played in bright blue Curaçao, Hanson ginger vodka and multicolored Pop Rocks (pictured). Fun, but is it a martini? More gourmet but stranger still, 38° North Lounge (the bar at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn) interpreted the martini via the French baked dish Coquille St. Jacques with gruyere-infused gin and a smoked scallop-stuffed olive. Easier to try at home, the Girl & the Fig's effort was infused with sake and kimchi, and spiced with a sesame-and-chile-flake rim.
The folks from Carneros Bistro just skipped the clear stuff altogether and offered a Manhattan with Hooker House bourbon and a compressed olive. What's a compressed olive? I wanted to know too. "You know what," the bartender said, throwing up her hands, "you just compress it, and you enjoy it!" Extra points to B&V Whiskey Bar & Grille for floating Haraszthy Zinfandel on their Manhattan-style Zinful Cowboy.
Finally, I ran into someone who had a big, traditional martini in her hand. She got it at the hotel bar.
Tickets may still be available for the main event, the Feast of the Olive Dinner on Saturday, Jan. 30, 6–10pm, at Ramekins, 450 W. Spain St., Sonoma. Dinner features wine pairings, three menus and five courses made by 19 chefs. 707.996.1090. www.olivefestival.com.