Educational · upscale dining

A Comprehensive Guide to Martinis


This one is for Kenny.
I know I didn’t do well on my first martini test, I hope this makes up for it.


 

So, you’ve decided you want to know more about martinis… that elusive, complicated, contentious martini.  Maybe you’re new to drinking and you’ve decided you’re going to be a classier kind of booze hound than your plebeian friends with their long islands and vodka red bulls.  Maybe you’ve just started bartending and realized that hell hath no fury like a martini drinker who didn’t get exactly what they wanted (even though you made it like your bar book said!).  Maybe you just love spirits and want to know more about this drink people rave about.   No matter what your reason, you’ve opened a whole new can of worms with this one.

It’s important to understand that whatever way the customer (or you) likes a martini is the right way to do it.  If you like a 2:1 gin:vermouth stirred; you’re right.  If you like 4 oz of ice cold vodka shaken and served in a pretty glass; you’re right.  If you order “Well Vodka martini down, on the rocks, extra dry”, I’ll think you are a moron, but sure; you’re right!  How to make a proper martini depends on what year you’re pretending you live in.  Normally I wouldn’t delve too deep into the history of a cocktail because I don’t think people love that as much as I do, but with Martinis… the drink is its history.  You cannot separate the two.


 

Let’s start from the beginning.  Sometime in the 1860’s the Martini, the Manhattan and a drink called the Martinez developed.  It is unclear which came first and it honestly doesn’t matter that much for right now.  There is also some contention as to where these drinks developed and who first made them.  This also doesn’t matter that much to us.  A Manhattan is made with American Whiskey, Sweet Vermouth and bitters.  A Martinez is made with Old Tom Gin (a sweeter variety), Sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur and bitters.  There are also, of course, dozens of other cocktails developing at this time using similar ingredients and structures of various names and origins.  Sweet Italian Vermouth was hot on the scene during this time so it found its way into many a drink.  It’s not totally clear when the difference between the Martinez and the Martini happened but at this time if you ordered a Martini, you were liable to get 2oz Old Tom Gin, 1oz Sweet Vermouth, Bitters stirred and served up.  Now even though this is the earliest iteration of the Martini that we see and is actually named the “Classic Martini” If someone orders this in your local bar, they are unlikely to be referring to this particular drink.

Past 1910 is when the ‘Dry’ martini developed and this is where people tend to make their stand as to what is a ‘proper’ martini ratio.  Old Tom Gin is out of fashion at this point, replaced by Dry Gin (usually either London or Plymouth).  French Dry Vermouth is now hot on the scene, replacing Italian Sweet Vermouth at an incredible rate, though not particularly surprising given that Americans are deeply obsessed with all things French.  Over the course of the next 80 years, the ratio of Vermouth in the glass is steadily decreased.   30’s: 3:1, 40’s 4:1, 6,8,12,15:1 and so on into modernity.  It became common practice to ask for a vermouth ‘rinse’, wherein you pour a small amount into the chilled glass and tilt and swirl, thus ‘rinsing’ the glass with the vermouth before pouring out the remainder.  Winston Churchill famously preferred his made while looking (presumably disdainfully) at a bottle of unopened vermouth.

Later, in the late 1960’s, Vodka really hit the American market.  Various men had tried various ways to break into the market since the 1920’s but met with little success.  The history of Vodka is its own (very exciting) tale, but the conjunction of Vodka and Martini happened on screen in 1964 when James Bond (Sean Connery) first ordered his signature martini.  It’s popularity only grew from there, yielding several other Modern Classics such as the Matin, the Vesper, and the Diamond Martini.

As a side note, some might be having such thoughts as “What about the lemon drop martini? Or the Cosmopolitan Martini?” This is a perfectly reasonable question.  During the 1990’s it became incredibly fashionable to serve drinks up in the Martini (or Cocktail) glass due to their elegance and versatility.  I have a great deal of respect for the art of presentation and I applaud bartenders efforts to make their drinks more visually appealing, particularly to female patrons who now found themselves in bars significantly more often during and after prohibition.  Such drinks however, are not to be mistaken for a true Martini.  A Lemon Drop is a vodka sour served in a martini glass.  The Cosmopolitan is a variation of the same.  While both drinks deserve our respect and admiration as classic cocktails, their preferred glassware does not denote their nature.

Now that we know the history of the Martini, and we all agree that any variation is perfectly deserving of the title of Martini, let’s get down to:

HOW TO ORDER.


Vodka or Gin?

This is a simple enough question for most people, at least here in the United States where Vodka is infinitely more popular than Gin.

For those who have strong opinions about such things, they almost certainly know which Vodka they prefer.  I would encourage people to branch out however, since vodka can be a great deal more complex than Americans typically believe.  The Odorless, Flavorless spirit that we covet is truly an American concoction.  Typical Moscow vodka has distinct spicy rye flavor to it.  Corn Vodka’s can be noticeably sweet in comparison to blended vodkas.  Finding a place near you that does Vodka Flights (or cajoling your favorite bartender into assisting you) is well worth the time it takes.  Do try not to adhere to ‘tasting’ practices, since the nuances of various vodkas is well and truly lost if you’re doing four shots in a row.

As for Gin, I think there might be some sort of monster running around telling people to do shots of Tanqueray on their 21st birthday, since it’s a tale I’ve heard entirely too many times when trying to sell our gin.  Every single gin on the market is different.  Every Single One.  They can be significantly different, in fact.  If you haven’t taken the time to get to know gin, once again I strongly recommend a flight, though good luck finding a Gin bar conveniently located near you.    For those who are just beginning their journey into Gin, I recommend beginning with a New World Style, or ‘light juniper’ flavor, such as Hendricks (which most bars will carry).  Starting with familiar flavors (like cucumber and citrus and florals) will help new drinkers to adjust to the flavor of juniper.

No matter what your choice, this question is entirely a matter of taste.  Don’t hesitate to ask your bartender for assistance if you are at a loss here.  They are, at a minimum, familiar with the best-selling spirits and can sometimes be deeply knowledgeable about the products and flavors you are trying.


Vermouth??

Sweet or Dry? How much? What Brand?? There are so many question to be asked about vermouth but let’s start out with: Is it expired? Depending on the bar, it almost certainly is.  It’s also probably stored incorrectly, thus lending to it going bad much faster.  Vermouth is fortified wine, which means it is higher in strength and has additional spices and flavorings.  It is though, still a wine base and therefore will oxidize and go bad the same way a wine would.  It takes a little bit longer to do so but is generally going to be bad from about 1-2 months after opening.  This is rapidly accelerated by big changes in temperature, such as storing a bottle in the cooler overnight and taking it out every day (as we did at my last bar).  Considering that the bottle we had was replaced once in my 1.5 year tenure behind the bar, it was well and truly bad.  I don’t begrudge bartenders or restaurants this, primarily since most of them don’t actually know what vermouth is, much less have a strong opinion on it, much less a strong enough opinion to make sure it’s always kept properly.

So let’s assume that your bar has a fresh bottle of vermouth, just for you.  Now, do you want Sweet Italian Vermouth or Dry French Vermouth?  I strongly recommend trying each one by itself, just a little sip.  Vermouth falls squarely into the category of “things people don’t try but assume they hate”.  Personally, I like drinking either just by itself.  I cannot describe to you the flavor of vermouth because it is, in my mind, an experience more than a flavor.  When I sip on Sweet Vermouth I suddenly find myself transported to the Italian countryside on a warm spring day, sitting next to the vines, listening to the bees buzz and watching my boyfriend labor in the fresh sun (spoiler alert: he’s shirtless).  A small glass of Dry Vermouth finds me in a quaint Parisian café, next to a bustling street as the waiter describes our lunch in words I can’t understand but find tantalizing nonetheless.  Once you have decided which vermouth you prefer, if any, then you can decide how much you want in your Martini.  If you love it as I do, try a “Classic” 2:1 ratio.  If you like them both, try a “Perfect” martini, ½ sweet and ½ dry vermouth with your Gin or Vodka.  If you hated it order your martini “Extra Dry”, which is to say, with no vermouth, or if you found it relatively interesting, simply “Dry” or with a rinse of vermouth.

Once you have decided which ratio you prefer then you can begin trying various brands.  It has been my experience that only the most dedicated of cocktail bars stock various brands of vermouth and ensure that they are kept properly.  Here in Phoenix that would be Bitter and Twisted, though with a booming cocktail culture, I have no doubt that there are more.  It is also worth searching for bars which are known for their martinis in your area, as there are often gentleman’s clubs, or older establishments which do exquisite martinis but are not well regarded for their other cocktails.


Shaken or Stirred?

This question is simply a matter of technique.  When you shake a drink, it will get colder faster which makes it good for working in fast paced bars.  It will also, unfortunately, leave small ice chips in the drink once strained which clouds the drink and potentially ruins the presentation.  When stirred, the drink can get just as cold but it will take longer.  This method leaves the martini blissfully clear and makes for excellent presentation, should you care for that.  Traditionally, any drink that involves all clear ingredients should be stirred so as to maintain that elegance.  If you care about clarity, ask for it stirred and if you prefer it colder and don’t care what it looks like, then ask for it shaken.  If you opt for a “Dirty” martini (one containing olive juice), then disregard all arguments and have it shaken since it’s already going to have a clouded look.  Personally, I am in the ‘stirring’ category, since I believe that in a drink as structurally simple as the martini, the art is in the ritual of the making.  If you have gone through the trouble of reading pages upon pages on making a proper martini, hopefully you have developed some respect for the art and stature of the drink.  To rush preparation at the expense of presentation would be to disregard what it means to be a ‘Martini Drinker’.


Up or Down?

Up refers to being served in a chilled martini glass.  This is the traditional serving method and is visually more appealing, though not always the best option.   When drinking in a potentially precarious situation, such as a pool party or crowded bar, I would opt for my martini served down, so as to avoid the chances of it getting spilled and the glass broken.  This question also begets whether or not you would like rocks (ice) in your martini.  This is somewhat more complicated.  If you are not a prolific and practiced drinker, I would recommend rocks to begin with, as drinks are easier to consume when they remain ice cold and are continually being watered down.  You will though, be missing out on one of the great elements of a martini.  Should your drink be served properly chilled, there will be fewer flavors at the beginning, both from the vodka and the vermouth.  As the drink acclimates to room temperature however you will notice a significant increase in fragrance and flavor in your glass.  Having a subtly new drink every time you put the glass to your lips is one of the reasons the martini is so popular among those of sophistication and purveyors of flavor.  Appreciating this evolution is something to aspire to for those of us who are developing a palette for such fine nuances.


Bitters?

Traditionally there are two types of bitters that can be used in a martini: Aromatic or Orange.  These too, I encourage people to try on their own to know how they affect the flavor of the drink.  Aromatic bitters tend to be significantly more bitter and complex, while Orange bitters tend to have an overwhelmingly orange profile with some complexity and depth behind it.  My palette tends to lean more sweet and more citrusy so I prefer orange bitters.  People who are accustomed to more bitter flavors (Manhattan lovers and beer drinkers) might prefer Aromatic.  This is probably one of those preferences that you might change depending on the day.  There is also a wide realm of other fun bitters to try from chocolate to chiles to plums.  Once you’ve determined your taste in other martini factors, feel free to experiment with these interesting new additions.


Garnishes?

Now that you actually have made the drink, you must decide what your preferred garnish is? This too is entirely a matter of taste, but it can also strongly depend on which gin or vodka you happen to be using.  Typically you would choose between lemon peel, olives, orange peel, or a cocktail onion.

When you are using peels, the way in which you use them is also important.  For example: I love a lot of citrus flavor, so when I make myself a vodka martini, I express the lemon peels essential oils over my chilled glass before stirring it in with the drink.  Once I’ve strained the martini, I fish it out and re-express it before dropping it in.  This will give you a lot of fresh lemon flavor on the nose, which will effect the way you perceive the taste.  I do the same with orange peel in my gin martini (the gin from my distillery pairs exceptionally well with orange).  Some people do the expression only at the end of the process, meaning that the oils are layered on top of the beverage.  Some stir the peel in so that the oils are part of the drinks flavor as well.  Any of these are acceptable.

Olives and cocktail onions bring a different element to the drink.  Obviously, you must like either olives or onions to some slight degree to have them in your drink, but unless you eat them outright, they can add another dimension most people don’t think about: Salt.  The salty brine these are kept in can greatly enhance the character of the drink, without adding too much of their own flavor.  A small amount of salt chemically enhances the way your taste buds perceive things, so in any cocktail it is a welcome addition.  Dave Arnold and his staff frequently do this at Booker and Dax in New York, and he explains its relevance in his book Liquid Intelligence (an excellent read, though not for the faint of heart).  In a drink so delicate as  a Martini, where every ingredient is equally as important, enhancing flavors is a respectable quality to bring to the table.

When beginning to branch out and create martinis “with a twist”, this is a great place to start.  Choosing a garnish that better accentuates the flavors of your gin or vodka is well within the spiritual traditions of the drink.  Cucumber peels or wheels with Hendricks is a common change.  Grapefruit peel is exceedingly popular here in Phoenix, as are a myriad of other citrus fruits.  Edible flowers are also my current obsession and would undoubtedly bring a fragrant change to an old classic.


 

Other Classic Martinis:

As we’ve said, there are a variety of martinis, even outside the realm of ‘how you prefer your traditional martini’, which utilize other ingredients.  Here are just a few:

Gibson Martini

Gin
Dry Vermouth
Cocktail Onion

Dirty Martini

Gin/Vodka
Dry Vermouth
Olive Juice

Matin

Vodka
Campari
Dry Vermouth
(This drink is featured on the martini poster that I have at home from Pop Chart Labs, though it is no longer available online.  I cannot really seem to find any other explanation of this particular martini, and it often seems to pop up under the name “Campari Martini” as well.)

Vesper

Vodka
Gin
Lillet Blanc

Green Vesper

Vodka
Gin
Absinthe


I hope this guide has helped you, either as an enthusiast or as a bartender.  Drink responsibly, drink well and enjoy the journey!

 

-Megan E. Campbell

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