Bottles of Domani vermouth in Havana Cuba, Oct. 2007. (Photo by Bit Boy)

Two old buddies meet in an apartment in New York City.

One of them, Steve, prides himself on his manliness. Although he’s lived his entire life on the island of Manhattan, he sees himself as an outdoorsy type. He tells his friend, the urbanite Nathan, about his plans to spend the next six months backpacking through the Sahara Desert.

Steve shows Nathan with pride the care he’s taken to pack everything he’ll need for the challenging and dangerous journey. “You see, Nathan, every inch matters,” he says. “I’ve got this tent that’s no bigger than a hat when folded. Here are the water decontamination tablets. An emergency first aid kit. The best multitool ever made.”

Impressed, Nathan observes, “You’re missing something critical. You need a big bottle of vermouth.”

“Vermouth!?” replies Steve in astonishment. “I just told you every square millimeter is accounted for. What possible survival role could vermouth play?”

“It’s perfectly obvious,” says Nathan. “Let’s say you’re out there in the desert and you break your leg. Nobody for a hundred miles, no cell signal, no hospital, no nothing. You could bake out there in the sun never be heard from again by the time the hyenas get through with you.”

“Yeah. So?” says Steve.

“So what you do is you set out to make a dry martini. Pour in your gin, and then start pouring in your vermouth. And all of a sudden, all kinds of people will come from nowhere to say, ‘That’s no way to make a dry martini!’ Boom, you’re rescued.”

* * *

I first encountered this joke in my dad’s copy of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. Asimov, the great science fiction writer and polymath, confessed to being uncomfortable telling that joke because he wasn’t a drinker.

“I gather that to connoisseurs the contribution made to a dry martini by the vermouth is minimal,” he wrote, “and that to add more than a minimal amount is a felony.” Ultimately, he concluded that “No amount of purely intellectual understanding can make me tell that joke with real comfort.”