The writer H.L. Mencken memorably described the martini as the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.
The cocktail, invented in the second half of the 19th century, came into its heyday in the 20th Century, and it was the signature cocktail of the era in which the original LIFE magazine was published, from 1936 to 1972. Martinis frequently show up in cultural representations of those days, savored by the doctors of M*A*S*H during the Korean war and guzzled by the ad executives of Mad Men in the 1960s. This lengthy YouTube disquisition on Roger Sterling’s martini drinking is a good primer on its cultural significance.
In the Dec. 10, 1951 issue of LIFE—which featured one of the magazine’s odder covers, on the fashion evolution of Harry Truman— the editors ran a story on a contest for the best new martini recipe. The tone of the story was tongue-in-cheek disapproval of anyone who dared to tinker with the classic formula of four parts gin and one part vermouth, and it carried the headline, “Martini Heresy: Prize Recipes Will Have Purists Giving Up Their Gin for Ginger Beer.”
The contest was held at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel and sponsored by a local liquor dealer. The judges, all older men with the bearing of humorless villains in a Marx Brothers movie—considered 240 variations on the martini formula, though the actual taste-testing seems to have been limited to the 25 most promising ideas.
The winner of the contest used a recipe that was described by LIFE as “comparatively simple” and succeeded thanks to original details that were really minor tweaks: an olive stuffed with anchovy and a glass rinsed with Cointreau.
The story ended with a quote from one of the mixologists that was as somber as their attire: “The improvement of Martinis in this country is a noble cause.” But do let it be noted that, going by the pictures, by the end of the judging all those martinis seemed to have loosened up the crowd.