While tracking down the origins of this most famous cocktail may be interesting, the more pertinent question is what has the Martini become? The reason for its relevancy is the explosive growth of Martini variations, many of which bear little resemblance to the original recipe. Traditionalists contend that regardless of their burgeoning popularity, cocktails sporting such ingredients as cream, cordials, juice and confections cannot be presumed to be Martinis. Others suggest that changing drinking habits have naturally led to an evolving definition of what sort of libation can be called a Martini.
Before tackling the question, practitioners need to identify the Martini’s underlying mechanics. The cocktail’s universal appeal can be attributed to the magical marriage of French (dry) vermouth and liquor. As an aperitif wine, the vermouth softens the backbone of the gin or vodka, rendering the cocktail incalculably smooth and sublime.
The other significant element of the cocktail’s anatomy is the garnish, which traditionally is a speared pair of green olives. Certainly the olives give the drink an elegant and finished appearance, but they are more than mere window dressing. The olives imbue the cocktail with a salty, briny flavor.
So, in essence, the Martini can be said to be the combination of vermouth, gin (or vodka) and green olives. But, as mixologists know all too well, the Martini is a highly individualized drink. Vary the ratio of vermouth to the gin and the resulting cocktail will taste markedly different. Certainly changing the base liquor from gin to vodka will a have a pronounced effect, as will serving the drink on the rocks versus the more traditional straight up. Even substituting pimento stuffed green olives for ones stuffed with garlic or bleu cheese will dramatically alter the taste of the drink.
If change and individuality are at the heart of the Martini’s mystique, then where does one impose creative limitations? In other words, when is the drink so severely altered that it stops bearing resemblance to a Martini and begins to more resemble something entirely different?
Purists typically balk at the inclusion of any ingredient in a Martini other than the vermouth, liquor and a garnish. They’ll suggest that if you want to be creative, get a box of Crayons, but don’t mess with perfection. While their point is well taken, change is an inexorable force and the Martini is not immune to its effects.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Martini underwent significant changes as it became increasingly more popular to order Martinis dry or extra dry, which in parlance means to use exceedingly little vermouth. During the same time frame, vodka began to supplant gin as the spirit of choice in Martinis. So, does a cocktail prepared with a few drops of dry vermouth and two or more shots of vodka still qualify the resulting cocktail as a Martini?
That remains a contentious point. In the 1948 seminal work by David Embury entitled, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, the famed master mixologist asserts that using less than one part of vermouth to seven parts English gin disqualifies the drink’s status as a Martini. However, with the popularity of extra dry Martinis — which typically is nothing more than chilled gin or vodka with olives —the conventional definition of what is and what isn’t a Martini has steadily undergone change.
What if you replace standard issue vermouth with an equally appealing aperitif wine, such as Lillet or Dubonnet? Is it still a Martini? Again, the answer will vary with each respondent. For example, in the Ian Fleming spy thriller Casino Royale, James Bond ordered a dry Martini, “served in a deep champagne goblet and made with three measures of Gordon’s (gin), one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, and then add a large, thin slice of lemon peel.” This famous version is now referred to as the Vesper, or the 007 Martini. Not only does James Bond obviously prefer Lillet to vermouth, he splits the base liquor between gin and vodka, which to this day is somewhat unconventional. Would you brave telling James Bond that his cocktail wasn’t a Martini?
As this will reveal, the nation’s finest mixologists have been tweaking the Martini into glorious new incarnations. While some of these drinks may bear similarities to other cocktail styles, one can still see the genetic footprint of the Martini in their formulation. Is it possible to be overly enthusiastic and lead a Martini too far off the path? Perhaps, but why dally in the theoretical? If the cocktail looks and tastes delicious and you’re holding the glass, does it really matter?
About The Martini
The Martini is the most often returned drink at any bar. Use too much vermouth and the drink will get returned. Not enough and it’ll come back. Shaken, not shaken, too watery, not sufficiently chilled and the Martini will be coming back. Yeah, they’re that touchy. The only viable precaution is to make certain you clearly hear the guest’s drink order and prepare the cocktail like you were working with nitroglycerin.
- Shaken vs Stirred — In the day, if you shook a Martini you were said to have “bruised” the poor drink because of its cloudy appearance. The cloudiness results when a Martini prepared with a significant proportion of vermouth is shaken, thus rendering it extremely cold. Slight cloudiness aside, a shaken Martini is still imminently healthy and robust.
Nevertheless, violently agitating a cocktail comprised solely of a spirit and aperitif wine might be construed as overkill. While shaking a drink will quickly render it cold, the practice will also highly aerate the cocktail and cause more ice to melt, thereby risking over-dilution. Stirring the cocktail takes a little longer to achieve the desired serving temperature, but it is generally presumed a more civilized approach. With deference to James Bond, most Martini aficionados prefer that the cocktail be treated more gently.
So, what’s really important when mixing a classic Martini? The primary objective is dropping the temperature of the ingredients to serving temperature. While only the genuinely obsessed would bother sticking a thermometer into the drink to ensure that it is sufficiently chilled, the proper serving temperature for a Martini is around 37-38˚F.
Thoroughly mixing the various ingredients into a homogenous cocktail is next on the list. Distilled spirits have specific gravities lighter than water, while ingredients such as fortified wines and liqueurs are heavier than water. The gentle act of stirring is sufficient to mix the various ingredients into solution.
The last and rarely acknowledged purpose behind stirring is to add a healthy measure of water to the cocktail. It is the unheralded member of Team Martini. The water seamlessly melds with spirits and modifiers. It softens the blend and further dulls the edge of the liquor. For that reason it’s advisable to only use quality ice made from spring or mineral water. The taste of the water will play a part in the finished cocktail.
- Vermouth — Vermouth is what renders the Martini gloriously smooth. It is also the ingredient whose use requires the most care. Vermouth is typically produced in two distinctively different styles — French and Italian, which are also known as dry and sweet vermouth respectively. It is the dry, French vermouth that is the featured performer in the Martini.
French vermouth is made from a blend of light, Picpoul and Clairette varietal wines, which are aged 2-3 years in oak casks that are exposed to the elements to accelerate maturation. After aging, the wines are infused with botanicals and fortified with spirits to 18% alcohol by volume. Most premium vermouths have a complex floral and fruity bouquet and a dry, mouth-filling palate laced with spice and citrus.
Over the course of the last century the trend was to use increasingly less vermouth in the cocktail, thereby making a progressively drier Martini. Early versions of the drink called for 3 parts gin and 1 part vermouth (3:1), however, over time, the 7:1 dry Martini became the accepted norm. It’s said Winston Churchill made his Martinis by pouring gin into a pitcher and glancing briefly at a bottle of vermouth across the room, which by definition is the epitome of an Extra Dry Martini.
Today, however, a steadily growing number of mixologists are reverting to the classic style of using more vermouth when preparing Martinis. This trend comes with a caveat. Vermouth is a complex, sophisticated wine, one that is difficult and laborious to make. Suffice to say, the better the vermouth, the better the resulting Martini.
- Fortified Wines — A time proven avenue for creating delectable signature Martinis is to substitute one of a number of aperitifs for vermouth. There is a natural affinity between spirits and fortified wines. These wines — venerable products such as Lillet and Dubonnet, Fino sherry, Oloroso port, Madeira — are imbued with tremendous flavors and lavishly textured bodies, making them incomparable ingredients in Martinis. Today’s practitioners are continuing to explore and redefine the boundaries of this magical pairing.
The list of viable candidates must surely start with Dubonnet and Lillet. Both are French aperitif wines fortified with grape spirits and flavored with proprietary blends of herbs, spices and fruit. They are unsurpassed in Martinis and add greatly to the cocktail’s exuberance.
Next would be Iberian greats Sherry and Port. Sherry is a fortified wine produced in Jerez de la Frontera, the famed wine growing region in southern Spain. Of the two styles, dry delicate Fino Sherry is most frequently used instead of vermouth to invigorate Martinis. The Fino Sherry admirably highlights the distinguishing characteristics of each and every one of the botanicals in gin.
Ports are fortified wines made primarily from red wine grapes cultivated in the Upper Douro Valley of northern Portugal. The style most often recruited for use in making cocktails is Tawny Port, which is a blend of older wines, pale in color with a distinctive amber edge. While Ports are most often paired with whiskeys, it is not unusual to see it featured with super-premium gin or vodka in a Martini.
No reason to stop there. Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine made from Bordeaux grape varieties and young Cognac brandies. It is elegant, flavorful and ideally suited as a modifier in Martinis. The same can be said about Madeira, a typically sweet, fortified wine made in Portugal and Marsala, an amber fortified wine from Sicily. With such a diverse cast of aperitifs to choose from, one wonders if there are enough days in the week for fully exploring the possibilities.
- Premium Spirits — The sustained popularity of super-premium gins and vodkas has strapped a booster to the Martini boom. While some may see committing the world’s finest spirits to cocktails a sacrilege, others see it as an act of creative genius. As was the case with vermouth, the better the liquor, the better the Martini. The cocktail’s uncomplicated and unfettered structure makes it an ideal vehicle for showcasing the enhanced character and unsurpassed quality of top-shelf spirits. Flavored vodkas are also frequently recruited for use in signature Martinis. They offer flavor without sweetness, which in many recipes is advantageous. Why limit your Martinis to just gin or vodka though? Tequila and rum perform beautifully in these cocktails.
- Infused Spirits — Infusion jars are unrivaled at creating singularly brilliant spirits that the competition can’t duplicate. When you create a winning infusion, there’s only one place to get it. You can turn virtually any spirit into something extraordinary by infusing it with everything from kiwis, melons and pepper to vanilla, cucumbers and sun dried tomatoes. Steeping spirits is straightforward and uncomplicated. The process involves marinating fresh fruit, among other things, in large, airtight containers filled with spirits. Several days to a week later, the fruit will infuse the chosen spirit with flavor, color, aroma and loads of appealing character. Consider promoting a signature Martini made with lemon-infused gin, pepper-steeped tequila, vanilla and cherry-infused rum or pineapple vodka. The possibilities are endless.
- Liqueur Modifiers — A splash or two of a liqueur contributes four invaluable things to a Martini. It adds a blast of flavor, texture and heft to the body, a welcome touch of sweetness and gives the cocktail an alluring hue. When Lauren Dunsworth of Lola’s first combined a measure of DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker and Ketel One Vodka to create the Lola’s Apple Martini, a new wave of Martinis were born.
Inspired modifiers are not limited to liqueurs, however. For instance, add an effervescent dose of champagne in your Martini, or heat things up with a few dashes of jalapeño juice. Splash in fresh lime juice, or use any one of the many flavored syrups on the market. There are no boundaries on creativity.
- Muddling — The Mojito and Old Fashioned are illustrative of how to best incorporate fresh ingredients on a per cocktail basis. In their preparation ingredients such as cut limes, oranges or fresh mint sprigs are muddled, thus releasing their succulence and essential oils. Sugar is added to balance out the acidic pith. The cocktail is then ready to receive the spirits and various modifiers that make it a singular creation. Increasingly mixologists are reaching for the bar muddler when constructing their specialty Martinis. The application of the century old drink making technique has elevated craft Martinis to fresh new heights.
- Garnishing — Garnishing a Martini isn’t an obligation or act of embellishment; it’s a creative opportunity. In a cocktail consisting of little more than a spirit and aperitif wine, the garnish essentially becomes another source of flavor and dimension. Pimento stuffed olives do not circumscribe the garnishing possibilities. This point cannot be stressed enough. Embrace the freedom and live a little. Consider your options, a partial list includes prosciutto stuffed olives, speared lychees, orange zest spirals, anchovy-wrapped olives, fresh picked strawberries, bleu cheese stuffed olives, spearmint sprigs, kiwi slices, pickled green tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and watermelon spears. A thoroughly engaging garnish ensures that the Martini will be as visually appealing as it is delicious.
- Enhanced Presentation — Present the guest with a large chilled cocktail glass and a tray with the ingredients needed to build a Martini perfectly suited to his or her own personal preferences. A small water carafe resting in a larger, iced glass is filled with chilled liquor; another carafe contains the vermouth. There are small compartments with condiments such as olives, onions and lemon twists. It’s an elegant presentation that nearly eliminates any possibility of the Martini being returned due to bartender error.
Make every Martini you serve a work of art. Involve others in your efforts of devising a signature Martini or two. Once the winners have been selected, don’t keep them a secret. Great Martinis are meant to be shared.