It is the quintessential cocktail. But for a recipe involving just two ingredients, the debate over its correct preparation is endless. Vodka or gin? How wet? How cold? Shaken or stirred? And should you ever use salt?
Perhaps the simplest of all cocktails, what the martini lacks in ingredients it more than makes up for in mystique – and as cocktail historian David Wondrich observes, where simplicity and mystique collide, almost inevitably “you get religion”. Though zealotry might be a better word: rarely has so much high-falutin’ rubbish been talked about a glass of cold booze.
The martini was certainly not the first cocktail, though it does have good claim, as writer Richard Godwin points out, to be the quintessential example; indeed, legendary bartender Dale DeGroff calls it “the king of cocktails”. Popping on to the scene in the late 19th century, apparently as an evolution of the earlier, sweeter, Fancy Gin Cocktail, it’s been getting progressively drier, and more serious, ever since.
Famous fans include President Franklin D Roosevelt, the man who repealed prohibition and is said to have mixed the “worst martinis I’ve ever tasted”, Churchill, Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler, WC Fields and, last but not least, Homer Simpson, a man who is very clear how he likes his martinis: “full of alcohol”.
But, of course, this week is dedicated to the best known martini-drinker of them all – though 007 works his way through most of the drinks menu in the course of his career (which prompts his first visit to a health farm in Thunderball), he’s most closely associated with this cocktail. And thank god for that. A can of Heineken doesn’t have quite the same allure.
Gin versus vodka
Though he drinks both, in the original books Bond, a true creature of the cold war era, marginally prefers his martinis made with vodka rather than the traditional gin, ordering 19 to a mere 16 with mother’s ruin. In this new film, of course, he’s all about the Belvedere.
But changing one ingredient in a drink that only has two to begin with inevitably alters its character quite radically: as Mittie Hellmich writes in the Ultimate Bar Book, a martini is “structured on the perfect botanical balance between gin’s juniper berry and dry vermouth’s herbal qualities”. Conversely, vodka, a deliberately smooth and neutral spirit, brings nothing to the party.
Aaron Knoll, who, as the author of a book on gin, may not be an entirely unbiased observer, beseeches his readers not to even “think about swapping out the gin for vodka. Yes, we’re looking at you Mr Bond. Call it whatever you want, just don’t call that a martini.” In a recipe that leaves nowhere to hide, the more complex, and, dare I say, interesting flavour of gin is always going to win my heart.
Harry Johnson, whose 1888 Bartender’s Manual contains the oldest martini recipe in print calls for Old Tom, a slightly sweeter style of gin that lies somewhere between London Dry and Dutch genever, and which has made a small comeback in recent years. Though it has a pleasantly mellow, citrussy flavour, it lacks the attractive crispness of the drier variety.
If you must have vodka, Bond has made a pretty good choice this time around: Victoria Moore, a gin fan, confesses in How to Drink that she’s also partial to “a vodkatini made with Belvedere vodka, an almost perfectly soft spirit – its texture is quite incredible, like goose down”.
She’s right, it’s deliciously silky, though I don’t feel it marries as well with the herbaceous flavour of the vermouth.
The magic ratio
Early martinis tended to be very wet – Johnson’s recipe contains equal parts martini and vermouth, yet somehow, in the century that followed, the vermouth became an inconvenient extra, the geeky friend whose only role was to make the star of the show shine even brighter.
Hemingway is said to have favoured a Montgomery martini, named for the general who wouldn’t attack unless he outnumbered the enemy 15 to one, while Churchill apparently thought it was enough to look at the vermouth bottle while pouring out the gin – two examples that might lead you, like me, to conclude that the drier the martini, the bigger the masculine ego, and to remind you of Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, a vodkatini fan whose entire philosophy might well be summed up in his claim to Don: “We drink because it’s what men do”.
I’m with Godwin, who writes scornfully that, “once the vermouth is discarded, you may as well lose the aromatics in the the gin, too, and replace it with vodka”, but the ideal ratio is a matter as personal, as individual, as how to make a decent cup of tea. As Moore says: “Don’t expect anyone to agree about how dry a martini should be.”
And thank goodness for that, because I find her cursory smear of vermouth “around the rim but none in the drink”, far too little; it’s the socially acceptable way to drink a glass of nearly neat gin.
I try everything in between, from Johnson’s 1:1 to Hemingway’s version, and decide I like mine at Larousse Cocktail strength, four parts gin to one part vermouth, so I can taste the aromatic umami flavour of the wine. I leave your ideal ratio up to you, except to beg, as someone who previously used vermouth as a mere rinse aid, that you try it slightly wetter than you might think you like it, just the once.
Johnson uses a slightly sweeter style of vermouth, too, which is a revelation to a long-standing Noilly Prat fan; though it doesn’t fit the bill for a dry martini, it does make for an interesting version.
A fanatical friend once sent three unacceptably warm martinis back to the bar of a fancy restaurant before giving up and ordering something a little less temperature-sensitive. Although my willpower in the face of a freshly stirred martini is less impressive, it’s true that this is a drink where the temperature really matters. No one wants to drink a glass of warm gin – both because it lacks any sort of refreshing qualities, and because the warmer the drink, the more you’ll taste the harsh, fiery notes of the alcohol.
A frozen glass is the bare minimum, but I’m inclined to side with Moore, who freezes the gin too, over Godwin, who believes that freezing the gin “kills all subtlety”. (Vermouth should always be kept in the fridge, whatever you’re using it for.)
As Moore says “the real key” to a great martini is that “it should all be arctic”, to enhance that deliciously crisp quality that’s the real attraction of this drink after a long day’s work.
Hemingway is said to have frozen his garnish of choice, the cocktail onion, too, but people who put onions in drinks are monsters, and it doesn’t seem to make a good deal of difference with a twist of lemon.
As any fule no, Bond may be the man you want when you’re being chased by Soviet agents on skis, but you wouldn’t ask him to fix you a snifter – shaking is about the worst thing you can do to a martini, smashing the ice and over-diluting the drink. The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, calls for this violence, and the only benefit I can see to it is the pretty shards of ice floating on the top of the drink. I very much enjoyed Of Human Bondage, but perhaps the finest thing W Somerset Maugham ever wrote was that “martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of each other”.
Make sure you give the drink more than a cursory stir, too; Godwin writes that “if there is any secret to martinis it lies in the methodical business of stirring for at least half a minute, which binds it, chills it and dilutes it just a touch”, and indeed, this proves far more effective than Larousse Cocktails’ 8-10 seconds. Remember, your goal here is to achieve a drink as frigid, nay frozen as Bond’s heart. Nothing else is acceptable.
The classic garnishes for a martini are a twist of lemon peel, squeezed over the surface of the drink to release its oils, or a green olive (adding a soupçon of the olive brine makes it into a dirty martini of the kind apparently favoured by Bond this time around). Though I love a garnish that doubles as a bar snack, I think the dryly aromatic lemon works better with the other flavours here, and I particularly like Hellmich’s instruction to wipe it round the edge of the glass after squeezing into the drink for an extra lemon hit.
In theory that’s it – two ingredients and a garnish is all you need for a classic martini. Johnson’s sugar syrup and curaçao now seem to belong to a quite different drink, a more delicate, fruity number better suited to sipping after dinner, but I am rather taken with the bitters he puts in there, too. Bokers bitters, a once-famous name that fell victim to Prohibition, lend the drink an earthy, slightly spicy flavour, while Godwin’s optional orange bitters enhance its citrus notes. Not mandatory, perhaps, but certainly an interesting addition.
Among the deluge of martini-related press releases that have popped up in my inbox in the last month or so, one, from the Spanish brand Gin Mare, caught my eye with its bold claim that “the ultimate martini” demands a little salt to bring out the flavour of the spirit base. This, it argues, is the rationale behind the olive garnish, but it prefers “a drop or two of salt solution”, on the basis that it’s less likely to mask the other ingredients. I’m initially sceptical, but after a trial, I’m won over. Though it doesn’t make the drink overtly salty, it does make it crisper and more savoury – the perfect aperitif for the international man of mystery.
4 parts gin (or adjust ratio to suit your own tastes)
5g fine salt (optional)
1 part chilled dry vermouth
1 strip of lemon peel
Put the martini glass in the freezer along with the gin and chill for at least half an hour.
Dissolve the salt in 20ml water.
Half fill a mixing glass with ice and add the gin, vermouth and a tiny dash of salt solution, if using. Stir for 30 seconds, touching the glass as little as possible to keep it cold, then strain into the chilled glass.
Twist the lemon over the top of the drink, then wipe it around the rim of the glass and drop it in. Serve immediately. Repeat at your own risk.
What makes your perfect martini? Gin or vodka, dirty or Gibson? Or do you think they’re just a hopelessly overrated excuse for glugging neat spirits without shame? And if you’re not a fan, which cinematic drinks do lift your spirits?
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