The Classic Martini
The Martini, that most noble of cocktails, has seen a new generation of devotees emerge in the last decade. Along with this new found affirmation of stature, the Martini has seen many changes with everything from subtle evolutions to outright abuse on its’ good name. Among these myriad lamentable variations has come the appletini, pomtini, carameltini and a host of other outright tragedies, none of which are a Martini. Thankfully, it is the “regular” Martini that concerns this treatise. First, let us begin with the adage that the is no perfect Martini except the one you like most. In other words, the best Martini to me is the one in my hands. I respect others choices to drink their Martini’s as they wish. However, while we are all just getting along, I will continue to dance with the one whom brought me to the dance, thank you very much.
The venerable Martini has had so many changes in recent years that when you order one these days you are likely to be asked whether you want a Vodka or Gin Martini. In spite of James Bonds’ better efforts, a Martini is a gin based drink unless one orders a vodka Martini. It is just a fundamentally different drink with vodka than with gin. And don’t get me started on the word vodkatini, either. I do not abide unnatural contractions. That said, many after work bar attendees these days prefer a chilled cocktail glass with 3 to 4 ounces of vodka and a twist of lemon or skewered olive. Again, you live with your choices and what makes you happy. Just know that is not a Martini by any definition. So much for the peaceful discourse, I guess.
The other major evolution in the Martini is to remove most if not all of the dry vermouth from the equation. It was Winston Churchill, in fact, who took his Martinis of straight gin, a lemon twist and a single olive alone. He would then, it is said, turn in the direction of France, the birthplace of dry vermouth, claiming that was as close to a whiff of vermouth that he would have to endure. That is why a cocktail of gin, lemon twist and olive but no vermouth is called a Churchill cocktail and not a Martini. One of the various smarmy recipe variants of the Churchill call for the opened bottle of dry vermouth be wafted, but certainly not poured, over the finished cocktail. My favorite, however, is the one that calls for the cork to the bottle of vermouth be merely placed in a corner of the room to impart the right amount of desired flavor to the drink. The humor employed here, much like this drink, is exceedingly dry.
Coming off the heels of my review of Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth, I felt challenged to find the perfect recipe (in my opinion, of course) for a classic Martini cocktail. As mentioned, most of the Martini recipes you will discover these days fall into one of two basic groups: first, those with just a splash, if any, of dry vermouth and second, those with slightly more than just a splash of dry vermouth. The argument seems to be around the proportion of gin to dry vermouth with the acceptable limit somewhere between a 7 to 1 and a 9 to 1 ratio being the ones most favored.
Again, as mentioned in my Noilly Prat review, after tasting some of these recipes with two of the more readily available dry vermouths on the market, Cinzano and Martini and Rosso, I understand why the first group of Martini’s exist. Both of those dry vermouths are thin and just dilute the Gin, making for a below average cocktail. At the risk of sounding like an elitist, anything that goes for $2.99 or less for a 750 ml bottle is not offering anything to the whole and can not hide its lack of quality in a mixed drink. Don’t agree? Have a Manhattan made with Cinzano sweet vermouth and then have one made with Carpano Formula Antica sweet vermouth and tell me which one is better. Quality will out, always.
So I was not surprise that with a better quality dry vermouth, one not likely to be found at the supermarket, an increased amount of dry vermouth improves the complexity of the drink. A great cocktail strikes a balance of flavors, otherwise it is just a straight up spirit; a massive shot glass masquerading as a cocktail.
Part of the problem the current crowd seems to have with the classic intention of the Martini lay in the gin often employed. The botanical qualities of gin are distinctive and, in a lesser quality gin, can often be unpleasantly medicinal at best and downright abrasive at worst. These gins tend to occupy the low rent district of the bartenders well and thus find their way into an unfortunately high number of happy hour Martinis. In this instance, what you end up with will be cheap in all senses of the word.
To my way of thinking, the Martini should be ordered to the customers exact specifications. Many people are afraid of being seen as pretentious by being a difficult or pretentious customer by ordering exactly what they want. Nay, I say it is your confidence in your standards that will shine through showing you as a person of distinction and class. Good bartenders also very much appreciate patrons who order distinctly and assertively helping them help you quickly so that they may help others as well. Plus, the person making fun of you is usually drinking a Bud Light, a Long Island Iced Tea or a Corona with a lime wedge. It’s a good thing we don’t judge someone by their drink of choice. So name your gin and vermouth of choice (if possible), select your garnish and method of chilling, either shaken or stirred.
A good Martini requires a good gin. Have a favorite or two (or more) and order by name. Most bars these days seem to carry Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire but more and more are offering a wider selection. In the end, expect to pay more and enjoy it as the sophisticated result of truly artisan effort all the way from the distiller to the barman. My gins of choice for my Martini’s (at the moment) are Martin Millers Gin, Hendricks and Junipero from Anchor Distilling. All three are extraordinary and each very different from the next.
As well, the garnish options are not unimportant to the point, in fact, that sometimes changing the garnish actually changes the name of the drink. See our Complete Guide To The Martini (coming soon) for a thorough list of these options. The standards, however, are a twist of lemon over (but not in) the drink plus a skewer of one or three olives. It is a rather strongly held belief of many bartenders, especially the good ones, that an even number of olives portends bad luck to the drinker and the barkeep. Try to not be that guy that pushes this by offering a bigger tip to make them ignore their superstition. It belittles us all.
The proportion of gin to vermouth in a classic Martini is 5 to 1 or 4 to 1 (depending on your sources). I appreciate both but only if good dry vermouth is present. I suggest trying the following recipe with Noilly Prat, at the least, if not one of the great boutique dry vermouths out there today. Should you find yourself in an establishment without a quality dry vermouth, either try a 7 to 1 martini (what they will probably call a wet Martini) or do what I do and order a Pink Gin; a drink where the quality of the vermouth doesn’t matter because it does not contain any. In that case, supply your abode with a small bottle of good dry vermouth and a bottle of quality gin which you will keep in freezer or at room temperature (it may pick up funky odors in the refrigerator). This way you will always be able to celebrate the arrival of honored guests in your home or simply cap the best of your days with a toast of the truly most noble of cocktails.
After all this, here is my suggestion for the Classic Martini.
The Classic Martini
2 ounces good gin
1/3 to 1/2 ounce (your choice) of quality dry vermouth. I prefer the 1/2 ounce measure.
1 lemon twist (see method)
1 or 3 skewered cocktail olives (never an even number)
Add the gin and dry vermouth to an ice filled cocktail shaker and either vigorously shake to chill or stir with a long stirring spoon thirty times to appropriately chill (shaken gets you an icy crispness while stirred results in a pleasant velvety quality, which I prefer) . Strain the drink into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the lemon peel above the drink to release its’ whisp of essential oils and discard. Add the skewered olive(s) to the glass and serve. You may turn still turn toward France if you wish.
- Cocktail Recipe – The Reverse Martini
- The Pink Gin Cocktail
- Tasting Notes – Hendrick’s Gin
- Tasting Notes – Noilly Pratt Dry Vermouth
- Cocktail Recipe – The Best Laid Plans Cocktail