That recent post about the Turf Club started to bring together a bunch of thoughts I've been working up on perhaps one of the most hotly debated topics in mixology: the Martini. While a lot of speculation has gone into the origin of this particular drink (and its name) I personally have less interest in that topic than in how to actually make one properly. Be warned, ye who enter here: I have some fairly intensive thoughts on this aspect of the drink, so get yourself ready for some screed.
So, let's take a fine look at that most revered of cocktails, one which conjures classic, sophisticated images of old movies and young, beautiful socialites. It's sadly one that has experienced a slow downfall in the Post-Prohibition years, though it's seen a recent semi-revival. Friends, meet the Dry Martini.
Understand please that I'm not referring to just any old concoction served chilled in that iconic conical glass. In many bars these days the term "martini" is basically interchangeable with "cocktail": a broad category, not a specific recipe, which is a sad dilution. I want nothing to do with such misbegotten creations as the Chocolate Martini (though we may someday make an attempt to save them). No, I mean the kind you envision with an olive, crystal clear, and speckled with hints of dew: the Martini that coined the term. What I mean is that the Martini is to the cocktail as Kleenex is to the tissue or Band-Aid is to the disposable bandage: the standout in its genre.
Yet we must be more specific. Nowadays, order a Martini at a reputable bar and you get a short quiz. Gin or vodka? How dry? Olive or twist? These, at least, are the questions I ask when one of my guests places their order. This semi-modern treatment (although I associate it with old-school steakhouses for some reason, don't ask why) is just fine, but it is not the old-fashioned way that I want to espouse here. If you like your Martinis with vodka, okay; if you like them extra dirty, then that's fine too. But please don't call them "Martinis", it wounds me. It's missing everything that makes the original, classic Dry Martini; it's like calling a shot of rum a "Margarita" (another drink we may make an effort to rescue at a later date). Let's have a new name for this sort of thing, please. And yes, I do have one: the Olivia. Makes sense, right? Olive-ia? Not to mention that I've mostly seen ladies ordering this one in lieu of something sweet. The same drink ordered by a man, however, has a different name: the Douchebag Martini. At least when made with Gray Goose.
Okay, so, ranting and raving aside, what exactly am I talking about? When I say Dry Martini, I'm referring to a mixture of good gin, a healthy amount of dry vermouth (or "French" vermouth, though it's not always from France) and a solid dash of orange bitters. In this case the old ways are definitely best.
There are some rules to doing this right. First, plenty of vermouth. Yeah, yeah, I've heard all the corny lines about how much (i.e. how very little, if any) vermouth to use. Wave a bottle over the glass, glance at the vermouth from across the room, whisper the word "vermouth" as you pour. This, frankly, is not only lame but simply and completely wrong. Vermouth is the core of this drink's appeal, and its absence is a terrible mistake. For one, a Martini without vermouth is really just chilled gin (or vodka, fine) served in a fancy glass. Just ask for gin if that's what you want. For two, it's got way too strong a punch, with absolutely nothing to balance out the liquor, missing the whole wonderful synergy between vermouth and gin entirely. For three, this rendition is the one that drove today's tippling public away from gin into vodka's arms, and for that it cannot be forgiven. Sure, vermouth-less is how Winston Churchill made his, but he was a statesman, not a bartender. As long as we're renaming some of these problematic "Martinis", let's call this one the Churchill Martini. It's a good way to get hammered, especially if you're fighting off a German invasion, but simply not a very pleasant drink (though, in fairness, getting vermouth was problematic at the time).
Now, the traditional Dry Martini is a drink all about the synergy between gin and vermouth; you cannot have a true Martini without it. But truth be told, the precise amount to use should vary according to your own preference and the gin you're using. The "standard" recipe from around 1900 given by David Wondrich in Imbibe! calls for equal parts gin and vermouth. Although relatively dry compared to other drinks of the age, this 1:1 ratio seems completely insane today, and there are indeed some compelling reasons to up the gin content, both of which have to do with the ingredients available back in the day. For one, spirits were slightly rougher and higher-proof in 1900, requiring more vermouth to balance out their punch. For two, vermouth is an aromatized wine, and just like any other white wine, French vermouth will lose its flavor if not kept sealed and refrigerated. Given the paucity of commercial refrigeration and shipping technologies at the time, it would be surprising if today's vermouth weren't more strongly aromatic than its forefathers. As a side note, this is why you should always store your dry vermouth in the fridge (red vermouth is more highly fortified with sugar and can be kept at room temperature, though chilling helps).
I like the classics (obviously, right?) and thus prefer my Martinis with a 2:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, especially if using a good London Dry. This is still far wetter than the modern version, but I find it a smooth and seductive drink, not at all like the raw slap of a Churchill. There is some room for disagreement here. Many of the classic-cocktail-revival recipes I've seen call for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, which is a bit punchier but still lovely. I particularly like this ratio if using a softer, sweeter gin such as Old Tom or Plymouth, as it helps highlight the botanicals which are more subtle than in a London Dry. Any lower than 8:1 and you're getting into Churchill territory, where the vermouth is a lonely voice in the gin wilderness. No matter how much vermouth you prefer, please don't forget the orange bitters. Many varieties are widely available and they round off the bright citrus character of the vermouth with a deeper note, helping it integrate with the gin. There's a reason that those classic recipes invariably include this component even if they disagree on the exact ratio of gin-to-vermouth.
There is one other rule of Martini-making that cannot be forgotten. This drink must always be stirred - shake, and you'll ruin the whole thing. Many people associate the Martini with the adventures of 007 and that great line ("shaken, not stirred") which so happens to be completely wrong from a mixological standpoint. Shaking a Martini does two things: it introduces air bubbles, which cloud the finished product, and it waters the whole thing down. The first is excusable, but the second is not, particularly when we've spent so much time finding the perfect balance of flavor. More water flattens out the vermouth completely, and reduces the gin to a faint junipery shadow of its true self. Instead, pour and stir the ingredients well over large, cold ice cubes, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and you'll be rewarded with a silky texture and complex flavor, the exact things that make the Martini so very appealing.
As a side note I should mention that there is a more traditional James Bond variation on the Martini, a rather storied drink that provides a source for the odd preference to shake (I shall provide only a short retelling here). Ian Fleming's original spy novel, Casino Royale, contains a scene in which the protagonist Bond orders a "Vesper", named after the book's femme fatale. As he describes it in detail, this is a drink made of three parts gin, one part vodka, and one part Kina Lillet. This last became something of a holy grail for cocktail archaeologists when Lillet changed the recipe for the American market and toned down the bitter component, making this drink nigh-impossible to replicate. Fortunately, with the recent resurgence of a couple ingredients you have two distinct options. You can either go ahead and use Lillet Blanc supplemented with a dash or two of orange bitters, or use the lovely Cocchi Americano which serves as a perfect substitution (both here and in other cocktails). This drink is typically shaken, which lightens it somewhat; not a bad thing here, and also why the vodka is present. Yet I just as often stir mine. Which you choose depends on exactly which Vesper you want; either a smooth, citric, and slightly bitter Martini variation (if stirred) or a somewhat more airy and approachable drink (if shaken). Garnish either with a nice big swath of lemon peel. This is probably one of my favorite classic cocktails ever, so I apologize if I'm nerding out a bit. If you can find it, please just buy the Cocchi for this drink; it is also an incredibly tasty and flexible ingredient.
We've covered before another classic, the Turf Club, that forgotten love child of Mr. Manhattan and Mrs. Martini. This needs no further description; I'll only add that I love authentic Old Tom gin here too. This cocktail points the way to many other Martini variations. If you're swapping out dry vermouth for sweet vermouth, why not just about any other aromatized wine? Indeed, Dubonnet Rouge fits very well into the Martini formula, especially if used in a 3:2 ratio supplemented with an extra dash of orange bitters. You can use other esoteric vermouth types, such as blanc or bianco vermouth, which I particularly like with Peychaud's bitters and a highly citric gin (Tanqueray Rangpur is a nice choice). Hell, if you've got a sweet tooth you could even try a fortified wine such as madiera or sherry, though I would keep the proportion low and back it up with plenty of extra bitters. The one thing you don't want to use is a bitter Italian amaro or cocchi, which in general totally overwhelm the gin and knock the drink way out of balance; I tried this once and never again.
We'll stop here, without delving into the many other cocktails you can create with spirits beyond gin, such as the aforementioned Manhattan. The same rules don't always quite apply, but they're similar in terms of construction, balance, and staying power. If nothing else, the whole category serves as a lesson in simplicity of form and importance of execution. Shake a Martini, and you ruin it; stir with the perfect balance of gin and vermouth, and it's divine. Nor can that perfect balance or the exact chill be achieved through a recipe; it takes care and consideration. It's a drink that to me perfectly embodies the definition of an art: something that takes a short time to learn and a lifetime to master.
Okay, fine - that's entirely too highfalutin. Let's just say the Martini is one hell of a drink, and a fine starting point for the enthusiastic amateur. Try your own, and learn a little something in the process. You'll be glad.