H.L. Mencken once described the martini as the only American creation that was as perfect as a sonnet.

Would grumpy H.L. shudder today.

The classic martini gin with a splash of vermouth and an olive served in an icy cone-shaped glass is under siege. Many of L.A.'s top watering holes report that sales have plummeted or simply gone flat.

"We're off about 50 percent," says John Rucci, head of food and beverage operations at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

At the main bar of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, bartender Subash Shetty says sales of the classic are off more than 15 percent. At the Beverly Hills Hotel, martini business is generally flat, according to Erich Steinbock, food and beverage director.

Why the decline of a drink that was so popular just a year ago?

Ali Kasikci, general manager of the Peninsula, says the arrival of anti-smoking laws is largely responsible for the decline at his popular Club Bar, where Hollywood power players like to relax and make deals.

"The martini is an aggressive drink," Kasikci says. "And it went well with someone who smoked a cigar. A CEO with a Havana in one hand and a martini in the other was the classic. You don't see that anymore because of these laws."

Thanks to the sale of classic martinis, revenues at the Club Bar were once around $130,000 a month. Now, the figure hovers between $80,000 and $90,000.

Other bar owners and managers agree that the smoking ban has affected martini sales since it went into effect on Jan. 1, 1998. But so has something else the arrival of flavored martinis made with gin or vodka and infused with exotic fruit flavors, essences and even chocolate bars.

Serious martini drinkers don't see these concoctions as real martinis. They dismiss them with the same disdain they have for cocktails topped with tiny umbrellas.

For a purist like Joel Parker, a San Fernando Valley public relations executive, even a martini made with vodka instead of gin isn't a real martini.

"The use of vodka in a martini began the decline of Western civilization as we know it," he huffed.

The more exotically flavored variations of the drink have been called "Gen-X martinis" by bar owners and operators.

"The reason why the classic is slipping is younger people," says Loren Dunsworth, who runs Lola's, a popular martini bar in the Fairfax District that's often jammed with twenty-somethings. "They don't like to drink the classic martini. But they are in love with the idea of drinking a martini, so they turn to something that is infused. (They think) if it's in a martini glass, it must be a martini. In fact, it is not."

At Lola's, a customer named Jenny sipped a lemon-flavored "martini," noting that she avoids the classic version. "It's too strong," she said. "The lemon cuts the taste of the alcohol."

While there is no official date for the creation of the famous drink, historians put its arrival in the last quarter of the 19th century, reportedly originating in Martinez, Calif. hence the name. Its cachet as a sophisticated drink took off in the 1920s when the "silver bullet," as the powerful drink was nicknamed, was splashed into what is now the classic cone-shaped glass.

It was extremely popular in the 1930s, especially after Hollywood fell in love with martinis on screen and off. Its popularity bottomed out during the 1980s, only to take off again in the '90s.

"It became a status symbol," says Ashley Goldner, a bartender at Rix's in Santa Monica. "If a man holds it with a cigar, he looks macho. A woman looks sexy."

Kasikci said the smoking ban has aided the popularity of flavored martinis among customers whose palates are no longer parched by smoke. "The taste buds are now alive and open to more delicate tastes," he says.

One of the most popular variations is the apple martini. Other flavors include watermelon and even kumquat nectar. In Dallas, there's the Mars Bar martini that comes with swirls of dark and white chocolate liqueur.

There still are some bastions left for die-hard, classic martini drinkers. The Palm in West Hollywood, with its steak and lobster menu, is one of those places where gin and vodka and a touch of vermouth are still the preferred type of martini.

"This is an old classic steak house and tradition is still in effect," said Geoff Ellis, assistant general manager. "The classic is still on top."

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