Q: I’ve always been amused by the expression “bruising the gin,” which seems to me the kind of thing one of Bertie’s pals at the Drones Club might utter. What’s the origin/history of “bruise” used in this context?
A: When the verb “bruise” showed up in Old English in the ninth century (spelled brysan), it meant to crush or mangle by a blow with a blunt instrument.
By Shakespeare’s day, however, the crushing-and-mangling sense of “bruise” had weakened considerably to mean injure with a blow that discolors the skin but doesn’t break it.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites this example from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (probably written sometime before 1600): “I bruiz’d my shin th’ other day.”
Since then, the verb has taken on various literal and figurative meanings—peaches and egos are bruised, for example, as well as gin.
However, the sense of bruising gin hasn’t made it into the OED or the half-dozen standard dictionaries we usually consult.
We’re not big on martinis, but we’ve read that they can be bruised—that is, diluted and made to taste sharper—by shaking.
The shaking breaks up the ice and, as a 1999 British Medical Journal study notes, is “more effective in deactivating hydrogen peroxide” than simply stirring the gin and vermouth.
To bruise or not to bruise? Most martiniacs seem to believe a martini should be stirred, not shaken, to avoid bruising the gin. However, the earliest written example we’ve found of “bruise” used in this sense takes the opposite position.
In John O’Hara’s 1935 novel Butterfield 8, Paul Farley explains his change of heart on the subject of martini-making:
“I’ve always taken a holy delight in not bruising a poor little cocktail until this English barkeep explained the right way, or his way, and I must say it sounds plausible. He told me a Martini ought to be shaken very hard, briskly, a few vigorous shakes up and down, so that the gin and vermouth would be cracked into a proper foamy mixture.”
For the other side of the stir-versus-shake debate, John T. FitzGerald, chief instructor at the Bartenders School in New York City, offers this advice in an ad for Hiram Walker gin in the June 19, 1939, issue of Life magazine:
“Why should a martini be stirred instead of shaken? Because shaking ‘bruises’ the vermouth … that is, emulsifies it and makes the cocktail cloudy.”
No discussion of shaking and stirring would be complete without mentioning the most famous advocate of shaking—James Bond.
In Casino Royale (1953), Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, 007 orders a “dry martini” made to his own, distinctive specifications.
Bond directs the barman to mix vodka, gin, and the French aperitif Lillet: “Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
The scene continues: “He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.”
Interestingly, Bond doesn’t use his catchphrase “shaken, not stirred” until the film version of Goldfinger (1964), when he tells a stewardess: “A martini, shaken, not stirred.” However, he uses a similar phrase, “shaken and not stirred” in the novel Dr. No (1958).
Getting back to your question, we haven’t come across a good explanation of why the word “bruise” was originally used to describe the transformation that occurs when a martini is shaken.
We wonder, though, if the bruising of ginger—the pounding of the root to release its juices—in ginger beer may have influenced the usage. Or perhaps the bruising of mint in making a mint julep.
Although the ginger and the mint are physically bruised, the ultimate goal of the bruising is to intensify the flavor in the drinks.
By the way, we don’t recall any remarks by Bertie Wooster or his pals at the Drones Club about gin-bruising. But we recently came across this comment by the British writer Robert McCrum about P. G. Wodehouse’s intoxicating contributions to the OED:
“Wodehouse’s Drones will make for the bar like buffalo for a watering-hole. Their lexicon for inebriated includes: awash; boiled; fried; lathered; illuminated; oiled; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; scrooched; stinko; squiffy; tanked; and woozled.”