In hell, said the American poet Randel Jarell, Americans tell each other how to make a martini.

A martini – "the elixir of quietude" as E.B. White described it – consists of gin and vermouth. The ingredients are chilled and then strained into a cocktail glass. That, at any rate, is the original martini, though vodka is now, somewhat grudgingly, accepted in the place of gin.

Gin is a strange and fascinating spirit, with a long and diverse history.

A Dutch invention, gin is essentially flavored vodka. The word itself comes from the Dutch word "jenever," which in English is "genever" – in French "genievre" – all of which derive from the Latin "juniperus." This goes a long way in explaining why the predominant flavor of gin is juniper berry.

The word "gin" is a truncated version of the word "genever."

A 17th century Dutch medical professor and physician named Francois de Boe Sylvius – who, incidentally, was one of the earlierst defenders of blood circulation theory – did not, contrary to popular belief, invent gin. But he did much to popularize it, using it in his medical profession "to purify the blood," as he put it.

Gin is relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, and, in large part for this reason, it took England by complete storm.

Vermouth is a sweet(ish) digestif made from a multitude of different things, such as orange peels and flowers, juniper and nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, marjoram, brandy, white wine, tree bark, and a great deal more.

The true origins of the gin martini are murky, though many stories exist.

Some say that back in 1912, a legendary New York bartender by the name of Martini invented the drink. Others believe it was originally concocted much earlier, back in 1850, in San Francisco, by Professor Jerry Thomas, who purportedly made it for a miner on the way to Martinez, California. The result: the Martinez cocktail, which is a gin-vermouth-maraschino-liqueur drink, slightly different from the martini, but a venerable drink nevertheless, which still exists to this day. Yet the citizens of Martinez, California, say that the martini originated right there, in 1870, and the bartender who first built it was a man named Julio Richelieu.

One thing that's known for certain: The Martinez cocktail first appeared in The Bartenders Guide in 1887.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a usually impeccable source, tells us – incorrectly – that the martini was invented in 1871, a full twenty years after Jerry Thomas’s drink came into existence.

The English, on the other hand, say that because of its kick, the martini comes from a strong British rifle called a Martini & Henry.

Many New Yorkers would have us believe that a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel – one Martini di Arma di Taggia – invented the drink in 1911 for John Rockefeller, who, by the way, took his martini with London Dry Gin, dry vermouth, bitters, lemon peel, and a single olive.

Some scholars believe the origins of the martini are forever lost – lost to history – shrouded in mystery. C'est la vie.

About the shape of the glass there is little dispute. The ritual is really the thing, holding the stem of the chalice to the light, somewhat to bless the dying day. But ever you are ready to begin, be extra careful not to bruise the gin.