Vodka or gin, shaken or stirred? When it comes to the perfect martini, aficionado Alice Lascelles finds it’s all a matter of personal taste
trends come and go, but no mojito, cosmopolitan or Manhattan will ever match the timeless elegance of the martini. Favoured by legendary names from Mae West to Winston Churchill and James Bond,
this iconic cocktail has become synonymous with glamour, power and just a whiff of danger. Not bad for 75 millilitres of liquid.
But what is this liquid anyway? Going by your average cocktail menu, as long as your drink contains gin or vodka and comes in a V-shaped glass, then it’s a martini. After that, anything goes:
Champagne, fruit, cream, caviar and even 24-carat gold are all apparently eligible for martini membership.
Some are content to leave it at that. But others, including this particular martini fan, remain sticklers for a more old-school definition, which allows for gin or vodka, vermouth and very little
else. And that means the quality and character of your spirit is paramount.
So hooray, then, for the recent arrival of several excellent new gins, including the bergamot-scented No.209, juniper big-hitter Junipero and the smooth, citrussy Bulldog, which join the likes of
Beefeater, Miller’s, Tanqueray and Plymouth as essentials on any martini backbar. At the same time, a return to more full-bodied Eastern European-style vodkas, including Belvedere, Wyborowa
Exquisite and Smirnoff Black, means there has never been a better time to tinker with your martini.
But before you reach for your cocktail shaker, there’s another problem – measurements. A good rule of thumb for a dry martini is around two shots of gin to half a shot of vermouth, but proportions
vary endlessly, mainly because no one knows for certain who invented the very first martini, or how they made it.
What we do know is that recipes featuring gin, vermouth and bitters started to surface in the US around the 1880s, with the sweeter Martinez (see box below) giving way to the drier martini over
time. The origins of the drink’s name are equally murky, with possibilities including the American town of Martinez, a cocktail-swilling judge called Martine, a New York restaurateur also called
Martinez and even the British Martini Henry Rifle. But academics generally agree that the similarity to the vermouth of the same name is largely coincidental.
So what did these 19th-century martinis taste like? Probably sweeter and more aromatic than today’s, as early recipes call for equal parts gin and vermouth. The dry martini as we know it, with lots
of spirit and very little vermouth, didn’t take off until American prohibition ended in 1933, when drinkers sick of revolting bathtub gin were keen to revel once more in the flavours of well-made
The result was an almost quasi-religious approach to martini-making, with bartenders inventing increasingly esoteric ways of adding as little vermouth as possible. Techniques included misting the
drink with a vermouth atomiser – a method which is still popular today – adding vermouth-soaked ‘stones’ to the mixture and, in one case, recommending the glass of gin merely be bathed in the light
of a sunbeam that had previously passed through a vermouth bottle.
Most of these are, admittedly, a little ridiculous. But that, surely, is the beauty of the martini – the gin/vermouth/twist recipe is utterly minimal, but its variations are infinite. Which is why,
the ultimate martini remains the cocktail Holy Grail.
HOW TO MAKE THE ULTIMATE MARTINI
Few people know more about mixing a martini than Alessandro Palazzi, bar manager of Duke’s, the
world-renowned martini hotel bar in Mayfair. So we asked him to give us his tips for making the king of cocktails.
What’s the secret?
The key to a perfect martini is making sure it’s really, really cold. We keep our gin and vodka in the freezer, as well as our martini glasses. But you can also chill the glasses by filling them
with ice and leaving them to stand while you mix your martini. The quality of the ice is also very important. Never use crushed ice for stirring, as this will make the martini too watery. Large,
hard cubes, made from purified tap water are best.
Which gin or vodka is best for a martini?
It depends on your taste, but I prefer characterful, citrussy gins – Beefeater is my favourite, but I also like Tanqueray, Beefeater Crown Jewel and the new No.209.
Shaken or stirred?
A martini is traditionally stirred with ice in a large jug-shaped vessel called a mixing glass. This gives it a more concentrated flavour and silkier texture than shaking, which produces little
of ice, making the drink more dilute. I prefer to stir, but it’s a matter of taste and I’m happy to shake a martini if a customer asks me to.
- Take a mixing glass and fill it about two-thirds full with ice cubes.
- Add a splash of Martini Extra Dry vermouth and mix it with the ice for a few seconds using a long-handled spoon.
- Once the ice is coated with vermouth, pour off any liquid, but keep the flavoured ice.
- Add 75ml of gin or vodka and stir very quickly, before straining into a frozen martini glass.
- Now take an unwaxed lemon (Sicilian are best) and peel a two-inch piece of zest. Hold it in your fingers with the shiny side facing down and gently squeeze so that the oils spray over the
surface of the drink. Drop the zest into the glass and serve.
WHAT MARTINI TO ORDER?
When it comes to making martinis, the devil is in the detail. Just a tweak in the recipe and you’ve got a whole different cocktail. Here are some of the classics.
Dirty martini A savoury, flavoursome dry martini made with a splash of olive brine, or muddled with a few olives then strained.
Dry martini The most well-known variety, made with gin, a little vermouth, a twist of lemon zest and possibly a dash of citrus bitters. A standard gin/vermouth ratio would be around two
shots gin to half a shot of vermouth, but this is very much a question of taste.
Gibson A dry martini garnished with two pickled onions instead of an olive or a lemon twist. History does not relate who Gibson was, alas.
Martinez Invented in the 1880s, this mix of gin, sweet vermouth, bitters and maraschino liqueur is thought to be the forefather of the martini – a request for this is sure to impress your
Naked martini A vodka or gin martini with nothing but a twist of lemon zest to preserve its modesty. A double shot of neat spirit in other words.
Reverse martini Made by reversing the traditional gin/vermouth ratio to something in the region of one part gin to five parts vermouth. Also known as a wet martini.
Vesper martini Three parts gin, one part vodka and a splash of vermouth with a lemon twist, this mix was first requested by James Bond in the novel Casino Royale.
Editorial feature from the Square Meal Lifestyle magazine - Spring 2008