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.

A martini recipe contest in Chicago, 1951.

Francis Miller/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

At a 1951 martini recipe contest in Chicago, one version featured three drops of tequila as its special ingredient.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

One entrant in a martini recipe contest rubbed garlic around the rim of the glass, 1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Judges tested the entries at a martini recipe contest held at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel, 1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

During a martini competition at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel, a line of men prepared the cocktails as the judges (at left) watched,1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

During a martini competition at the La Salle Hotel in Chicago, judge George Anderson toasted the finalists, 1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A judge at work during a martini competition at the La Salle Hotel in Chicago, 1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

During a martini competition at the La Salle Hotel in Chicago, a man added vermouth to a bottle of gin as he prepared his recipe, 1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Judges at a martini recipe contest at the La Salle Hotel in Chicago, 1951.

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Three drink mixers tried singing in harmony after test tasting martinis at a 1951 contest in Chicago. Said one, “The improvement of Martinis in this country is a noble cause.”

Francis MillerLIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

More Like This

lifestyle

The Couples Walkathon That Lasted Five Months

lifestyle

Celebrities in Bed

lifestyle

When Racing Babies Was a Thing

lifestyle

Howard University: “Every Signal Told Students We Could Be Anything”

lifestyle

There’s Quaint, and Then There’s a Story on Phone-Obsessed Teens from 1956

lifestyle

Seeds of Inspiration: Wonderful Watermelon Moments