“The martini felt cool and clean…I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
A couple of years back, I posted a recipe for my absolute favorite cocktail: the (double) old-fashioned. That is my drink for the end of the evening, my nightcap, the libation that sends the Holy Bee off to dreamland. But what about the opposite end of the evening? My just-getting-home, pre-dinner, five o’clock opener to cocktail hour is often the martini, which is soon celebrating its own day — National Martini Day on June 19th.
As long as there are bar snobs, there will be arguments over how to make a proper martini. Brand of gin, amount of vermouth, use of the shaker, garnishes, and just about any other finicky minutiae can be endlessly debated regarding this very simple beverage by the type of people who like to debate about that sort of thing. I’m not presenting this version as the “correct” way, only as my way.
My only hard, fast rule is that martinis are made with gin. I’m happy to sample any other variation, as long as that baseline is adhered to.
The original martini recipe from the 1800s may make a modern-day martini drinker gag, using sweet vermouth in a staggering 50-50 ratio with gin. A little later, sweet and dry vermouth were used in equal measure. According to my battered 1977 copy of Jones’ Bar Guide, sweet vermouth was considered an integral part of the martini until the 1930s, when it started becoming some kind of weird pissing contest about how “dry” you preferred it. A dry martini once referred to one made with dry vermouth to the exclusion of sweet. It later became code for a microscopic amount of dry vermouth. Even to the point of not including it at all — everyone’s heard of silly rituals like waving a vermouth bottle over the martini shaker, or bowing in the direction of Turin, Italy, where vermouth originated. All very amusing, but the result is simply a glass of cold gin, which is fine, but don’t call it a martini.
Though when it comes down to it, I do like my martinis pretty dry, just because it’s what I’m used to, I suppose.
Gin at its essence is a clear, neutral spirit — basically, vodka. Unlike vodka, it gets a distinctive flavor from an infusion of juniper berries, and a variety of other aromatics proprietary to the individual gin manufacturers. (“Gin” is a shortened, Anglicized version of the Latin word for “juniper.”) Originating in Holland, gin jumped across the North Sea and became immensely popular in England. A little too popular, in fact. In 17th and 18th century England, gin was the drink of the lowest of the low classes, sold at a penny a mug in any of the almost 8,000 “gin houses” in London alone. Though it was called gin, by the end of the so-called “gin craze,” what was often consumed was nothing more than crude, sweetened grain alcohol. Referred to as “a mother’s ruin,” it was considered a massive social problem. The Gin Act of 1751 shut down a lot of cheap distilleries that couldn’t pay the exorbitant new tax. That and the development of more refined distillation methods (such as the column still) caused gin to be once again acceptable to classier folks. Cleanly-made, unsweetened “London dry gin,” the preferred variety for martinis, was born. In addition to juniper, the most common aromatics infused into London dry gin are citrus peel, coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, and liquorice.
Vermouth is a fortified wine. Most dry French vermouths originate as a low-alcohol white wine, which is aged for awhile, then “fortified” with an additional infusion of a neutral grape spirit and aromatics. Originally used medicinally, vermouth became a popular aperitif, then, beginning in the mid-1800s, a widely-used ingredient in cocktails where it added flavor and character. The word derives from a French pronunciation of the German term for “wormwood.” Martini & Rossi and Gallo are the two most commonly found brands, and won’t hit you in the wallet like some of the fancier types. Since we’re working dry, we’re dealing with tiny amounts of the stuff, and it won’t make much difference. If you do invest in pricier vermouths, by all means treat yourself and up the amount you include in your martini by a considerable amount, for a more historically accurate take on the cocktail. And keep your nice vermouth refrigerated once you open the bottle. (The preference for super-dry may have stemmed from old, bad vermouth.)
Additionally, you don’t need really expensive gin to make a good martini, though if that sort of thing is important to you, knock yourself out. I can’t really taste the difference when it comes to clear spirits. (Except for Gran Legacy, the bottom-shelf gin carried by CVS drugstores, which tastes like the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. I literally spit it out on the first sip, and poured the rest of the handle down the drain. That’s $8.99 I won’t get back.) A good middle-shelf London dry variety, like Beefeater or Gordon’s, will do the trick nicely. I’m using Gordon’s in these photos just because it was James Bond’s and Ernest Hemingway’s preferred brand, and the brand good old Charlie Allnut guzzled by the crate in The African Queen. So by God, it ought to good enough for the likes of you and me.
I used to make giant martinis in oversized glasses, until I was talked out of it by my brother-in-law (who is also a master of the rye Manhattan). He held up a 4-ounce martini glass and declared it the way to go.
“That’s tiny!” I objected. “I’ll finish that in twenty minutes.”
“So then you make another. That’s why they’re small. And that way they stay cold.”
I saw the light, shamefully remembering myself slopping around with a half-finished, hour-old, room temperature martini in a big glass. Never again. A warm martini should not be tolerated by anyone.
So get yourself a 4-ounce cocktail glass, and put it in the freezer before you start. Fill a shaker with ice. Pour in two shots of London dry gin. Now the vermouth.
Obviously, there’s going to be vermouth. But how much? People bandy around a bunch of ratios — six-to-one, eight-to-one, fifteen-to-one (how do you even measure that?) — so it’s obviously just a matter of preference. On the Good Eats episode dealing with cocktails, Alton Brown goes super-dry, pouring a little vermouth into the ice-filled shaker, then dumping it back out, leaving only a vermouth-scented residue on the ice. I do prefer dry martinis, but that’s a little extreme for me. I highly doubt I would even taste the vermouth, and to reiterate, I want to drink a martini, not gin straight-up. On the other hand, I find that too much vermouth can be cloying and interferes with the aromatics in the gin. Luckily, a typical bottle of vermouth comes with a perfect measuring instrument — the cap. Depending on my mood, I’ll use anywhere from a half-a-capful to just barely covering the bottom of the cap.
Shaken or stirred?
Despite the preference of a certain British secret agent (see below), most purists agree that stirring is the proper method of mixing and chilling your gin. Clear cocktails, mixologists say, should be stirred to avoid cloudiness. It also prevents the drink from being watered down with the tiny ice chips that come with vigorous shaking. Some also insist shaking “bruises” the gin, which sounds like over-pedantic nonsense to me. If you can taste things at the molecular level, you’ve surpassed bar snob and entered the realm of mutant freak. While all of the pro-stirring reasoning may be true, I’m afraid I have to go with shaking. I think it gives you a slightly colder starting point when you begin sipping. I’m not a professional and I don’t need my martini to win any beauty contests, so I don’t care about clarity vs. cloudiness. And I like the tiny ice chips. They’re a nice visual clue that your about to sip something really, really cold, and the watering-down factor comes into effect because I’m probably going to have more than one. A slightly weaker drink overall means I can consume more without getting shnockered or having to listen to the tiny voice in my head that is wondering if I have a problem. (Quiet, you!) In the end, it’s another factor down to drinker’s preference. And of course, there are just as many internet articles defending shaken drinks as there are criticizing them
Next question — do you like your martini “dirty”? That is, with a splash of brine from the olive jar? Rightly or wrongly, I mentally associate dirty martinis with rookie drinkers, who need an outside taste to blunt the impact of straight spirits as a kind of flavor safety net. Still, a tiny touch of savoriness is nice, so I borrow Alton Brown’s vermouth trick. I drop a pimento-stuffed Spanish Queen olive into the chilled glass. Then I splash in some of the brine from the jar…and pour it back into the jar. Whatever residue clings to the olive and the inside of the glass provides just enough extra olive-ness.
Strain your shaken or stirred liquid into the glass and enjoy.
Eat the olive towards the end, using your last sip to wash it down. Many enjoy a lemon twist as a garnish, which adds some good tanginess…but it doesn’t provide a snack. Remember, enough olives count as dinner. If you’re deeply odd, up the vermouth amount and use three cocktail onions for garnish, turning your martini into a “Gibson.”
If you get called away from your drink to deal with some random household emergency — the cat barfed on the hall carpet, say, or you have to help a spouse find a missing shoe — stick your unfinished martini in the freezer for the duration.
“Finest Kind” — The Holy Bee’s Dry Martini
- 3 oz. London dry gin
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon (approx. — to taste) dry vermouth (hovering just around a 6-1 ratio)
- 1 Queen pimento-stuffed olive (I have found Star brand to be the tastiest)
Combine ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Go ahead and bruise the hell out of that gin. Get it nice and cold, and release those antioxidants. Place a large cocktail olive in a small (4 oz.) chilled martini glass. Pour a small amount of olive brine over the olive, then pour it back into the jar. Strain your concoction into your glass.
Though I may have disparaged the notion of vodka martinis earlier, we can’t escape the fact that vodka martinis are indelibly associated with James Bond. The words “vodka martini, shaken not stirred” come from Bond’s mouth only once during the film series’ first 25 years, in 1964’s Goldfinger, but his preferences are mentioned by other characters in several other films. (As many have noted, what kind of crappy secret agent is Bond if everyone he meets knows his go-to beverage?) Why does the proper and elegant 007 prefer a supposedly improperly-made martini with a pedestrian spirit like vodka?
The movies never really provide an answer, but the Bond novels (which the Holy Bee has written about extensively) shed a little light. At the time of the first Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale, vodka was just beginning to gain some popularity outside of Eastern Europe, but was still considered off-beat. (It was built up into a bar essential by a Smirnoff advertising juggernaut later in the decade.) Bond developed a taste for it while working at the Russian embassy just after the war. As far as his preference for a shaken rather than stirred drink, the truth is that a lot of Bond’s preferences, quirks, and brand loyalties are simply those of Bond author and creator Ian Fleming, including that for shaking over stirring. Fleming believed shaking brought out the flavor better. But Bond never limited himself to a “signature” drink in the original Fleming novels. He drank anything short of turpentine, including Miller High Life beer in Live And Let Die. His permanent association with the martini may have something to do with the drink he personally invented in the pages of Casino Royale, and named after his love interest, Vesper Lynd. (Spoiler alert: she was a double agent. It blew my mind when I found out her name was supposed to sound like someone saying “West Berlin” in a Russian accent.)
- 4½ oz. Gordon’s gin
- 1½ oz. vodka
- ¾ oz. Lillet
- large, thin slice of lemon peel
Shake very well, skip the martini glass and pour into a deep champagne goblet, garnishing with the lemon peel.
A couple of things to keep in mind. Like the Holy Bee’s beloved double old-fashioned, this is one hell of a powerful drink, so use with caution. Bond noted that he only allows himself one drink per evening while on an assignment, “…but I do like that one to be very large and very cold and very well-made.” Also, the formula for Lillet (a vermouth-like fortified wine) has changed over the years. It no longer contains quinine, which is what makes tonic water taste tonic-y, so your Vesper won’t taste exactly like what Bond imbibed 65 years ago.
In closing, I have nothing against vodka, mind you. It has its place. But because it’s flavorless, it has no real character and doesn’t make much of a “martini.” My personal belief is that vodka is just magic gasoline for turning non-alcoholic fluids (juice, soda, etc.) alcoholic.