“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 vermouth gone a little off.)
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. Continue reading