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Taste Testing the $125 Martini

Carly Salzberg | April 21, 2014 | Story Restaurants

Last Wednesday, SFist introduced us to what the St. Regis Hotel (otherwise known as Willie Brown's house) is calling "the world's greatest martini." It had beter be—not just because this is the town that gave the world Vitamin V—but mostly because it costs $125. For one.


Sadly, in their haste to share the news of the $125 cocktail with the world, our colleagues didn't actually try one. So—obviously—we knew what we had to do: Go drink one and report back. You know, for journalism. In a city with $4 toast and $42 half a roast chicken, is 125 bucks for a single martini the new normal? Or was this all just a gimmick?

We left our office early, and headed down to SOMA, to speak with Matthew Reina, the beverage manager of Ame restaurant, the Michelin star establishment connected to hotel, who proved to be a font of wisdom about the $125 martini. (Full disclosure: They compped us.)

Alright, we told him, give us your best pitch. “Many of the city's most successful startups have begun with people convening right here,” said Reina. “We see a lot of business travelers and we cater to clientele from various tech companies.” It's no surprise that the eight year old restaurant is selling the $125 martini—everything at the St. Regis, from the presidential suite to Brown's residence—is pricy.

We meet him around four o'clock on a work day. Reina shows up dressed in a snazzy black suit handsomely matching his swanky clientele with a sweet punch of tangerine and pearl stripped on his modern, cavendish knot tie. I have on a worn-out green trenchcoat.

Reina introduces me to the bartender, Eric Lauer, who will be performing the mixology. Lauer goes to work stirring into ice—not shaking—two and half ounces of Nolet’s Reserve Dry Gin (the bottle goes for $500 to $700 online). Reina says it has been distilled in Holland for centuries and carries a prestige as one of the oldest and original distilleries of gin. Lauer mixes the liquor with a Japanese steel yarai for forty seconds in a crystal-cut beaker shaped glass. Then, exactly two quick dashes of orange bitters and a half ounce of dry Spanish Perucchi vermouth ($15 online), stirs it even more gingerly and then pours it into a high stemmed martini glass and colors it with a lemon twist.

This is as good a time to admit it as ever. I've never actually had a gin martini before.

The first sip smooth, cool, and dry—but the botanical spices give it a hint of bitterness that makes the alcohol feel invigorating. “It’s kinda like walking through a green house,” said Reina. I smile, in agreement. I have no idea what he's talking about. “It’s a light floral, delicate style gin,” he adds. To me, it tastes like pine sol and lemonade.

Reina instructs me to drink the martini with confidence and breathe out immediately after swallowing, allowing the liquid to kick-start my olfactory system. I begin to taste the tang synthesized from the orange bitters, floral infused gin, and subtle lemon peel zest. I am thoroughly pleased and stimulated by the cocktail as it flushes my body warm. Also, I am getting drunk.

I ask Reina to provide me with a couple sample, less expensive gins. You know, for journalism. Reina prepared about an ounce of Nolet’s slightly less than exquisite Silver Dry Gin as well as Tanqueray, into two individual shot glasses. I take a drink of water, wait a minute and then try Nolet’s silver first. Sweet notes of a Turkish rose that is supposed to evince peach and raspberry. Honestly, it tastes just as good as the other primo stuff. Then Tanquaray, which, dear reader, is certainly less palpable than Nolet’s Reserve Dry Gin yet ginny none-the-less.

So is the $125 martini just a marketing ploy used to tantalize the dollars out of the rich? Of course it is.

And it's working. Reina says that a guest had just ordered the martini before I showed up. In fact, he puts in order’s for more Nolet’s Reserve Dry Gin every week.

I left the glitzy bar rather stunned by the whole display and slightly intoxicated. However, the bustle of the city was quickly sobering. I went in search of a public bathroom and found nothing. I had to convince a Starbuck’s employee to open their security locked bathroom in a dance of desperation. She said she was sorry—homeless try to take advantage of cafe’s accommodations. Apparently, I look trustworthy.

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