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A classic martini.
A classic martini.
Paul Quitoriano

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Cocktails 101: The Martini

Everything you need to know about the classic drink

There's nothing sexier than a martini. Beloved by James Bond and Carrie Bradshaw, the clean, spirit-forward cocktail has proven itself impervious to countless trends, from "shaken, not stirred" to appletinis. A traditional mix of gin or vodka, dry vermouth, and orange bitters is dressed with a choice of olives, onions, or a lemon twist as garnish. To turn the lights down low, just take a sip. Below, every single thing you need to know about the most classic of classic cocktails—history, tips and techniques, recipes, and variations.


History of the Martini

Like many classics cocktails whose origins stretch deep into history, the martini's story of inception is the stuff of legends. Yet, since the 1950s, the town of Martinez, California has claimed the drink as their own. The story goes that during the Gold Rush around 1849, a prospector who struck gold wanted to celebrate with Champagne, but since the local bar didn’t have any, the bartender instead threw together what he did have—fortified wine and gin—and called it the Martinez special. Over time, the Martinez recipe, which is more similar to a Manhattan, evolved into the martini.

Photo by Paul Quitoriano

Another theory is that the martini is actually the result of a very successful marketing ploy by Italian vermouth maker Martini & Rossi in 1863, when the brand created a drink in response to customers asking for a tipple of dry vermouth and gin.

When cocktail historian David Wondrich published the first edition of Imbibe! in 2007, he floated several martini origin stories. But he suggests the most plausible, although not proven, to be one involving New York judge Randolph B. Martine who supposedly invented the martini at New York City's The Manhattan Club.

Around the late 1880s, martini recipes started appearing in bartenders’ guides, including Harry Johnson’s 1882 Bartender’s Manual, which calls for Old Tom gin (a gin that's slightly sweeter than London Dry), sweet vermouth, absinthe or Curaçao, bitters, and gum syrup (rich simple syrup thickened with gum arabic).

After Prohibition, gin quality greatly improved from its days as bathtub-made liquor, and subsequently the martini became drier, since less vermouth was required to smooth out the more palatable spirit.

In the 1950s and 1960s, due to the growing interest in Russian and Polish vodka, the vodka martini usurped the gin classic in popularity. It helped that author Ian Fleming’s suave British spy James Bond made it sexy to order the vodka variation. During this Mad Men era, is was de rigueur to imbibe martinis during a day at the office, whether via office bar carts or three-martini lunches.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, and bartenders like "King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff, who worked in New York's legendary Rainbow Room in the 1980s, helped popularize cocktails that tweaked the martini template, with flavored vodkas, juices, and liqueurs. Credit HBO series Sex and The City for actually launching 'tinis like appletinis, flirtinis, and the iconic cosmopolitan into the mainstream consciousness, making its sweet variations a girls' nights out staple.

Thanks to the cocktail renaissance, with bartenders and enthusiasts delving deep the past, the classic gin martini is back.

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Perhaps the cocktail world's most iconic image. [Clockwise from top left: Flickr/Jeremy BrooksFlickr/Billy Metcalf PhotographyFlickr/Nathan Callahan.]

Simon Ford's 10 Tips for a Proper Martini


After years working as the brand ambassador for Pernod Ricard (Absolut Vodka and Beefeater Gin), and now the co-owner of spirits label The 86 Co., bar whiz Simon Ford has perfected the martini.

1) It’s all about the gin, so pick a good one. The martini is a cocktail that makes its spirit base the star of the show. It is not masked by flavor, so you want to make sure you're using a high quality gin.

2) It’s also about the vermouth. Once opened, vermouth should be kept in the fridge where it will last about three months. If you still have vermouth in the fridge after three months, it is a sign that you don’t make enough martinis.

3) Wet or dry? Less vermouth equals a drier martini, and the more vermouth you add, the wetter the martini. Don’t be afraid of the vermouth though, it's the marriage between the gin and the vermouth that makes the martini so special.

4) Stirred not shaken. Stirring your martini maintains a silky texture between the vermouth and gin. Ultimately, stirring yields a smoother drink.

5) Using bitters to add extra dimension to your martini is encouraged. A couple dashes go a long way. I like to use orange bitters but if there is a flavor you like, add it. I had a martini with cardamom bitters at London's The Connaught Hotel recently, which complemented the gin and vermouth really well. It was delicious.

6) Keep your stemware chilled. Martinis should be served as chilled as humanly possible, so don’t pour your chilled martini into a warm glass. Keep your cocktail glass in the freezer until serving.

7) Garnish your martini with a twist, and serve olives on the side. The lemon oils from the twist floating on the surface of your martini add a brightness to the drink. It is not a coincidence that olives go well with martinis. If you look at flavor guides, you will find that olives and juniper (gin's key ingredient) pair well together, however placing a warm olive into a cold martini isn’t necessary. It only acts as another element to warm your nice chilled drink, and it takes up valuable room in the glass that could have been used for more gin. Serve olives on the side and save yourself the mission of fishing them out of your glass as you enjoy your cocktail.

8) Ice is an important ingredient. Ice cubes that are more that one inch in diameter are good if you have them. Smaller ice dilutes too quickly, watering down your martini too much before it's chilled. Try not to use ice that has been sitting in your freezer for 17 years. It has freezer burn, and that flavor can affect your martini.

9) It's okay to drink vodka martinis, they also are delicious. I recommend using less vermouth with a vodka martini, as it can overpower the vodka.

10) The martini is a personal drink. Experiment with different gins, vermouths, and bitters, and try different ratios of vermouth to gin. Find your perfect martini though experimentation. Trust me, you will enjoy the journey, and when you find your favorite way to make a martini, you will be enlightened.

Variations

  • 50/50 Martini: The ultimate wet martini with equal parts gin and vermouth.
  • Gibson Martini: A martini garnished with a pickled onion.
  • Martinez: The precursor to the dry martini, made with sweet vermouth, Old Tom gin, and maraschino liqueur. This cocktail similar to a Manhattan cocktail, but made with gin instead of rye.
  • Vesper : The vodka and gin martini variation created by Ian Fleming in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. It's three parts (Gordon’s) gin, 1 part Russian vodka and a 1/2 part Kina Lillet (sub Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano).
  • Puritan Cocktail: A martini variation from 1900, made with yellow Chartreuse (1 3/4 ounces gin, 1/2 ounce dry vermouth, 1/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse, a dash orange bitters).
  • Dirty Martini: A martini with olive brine. The request for more olive brine makes it dirtier. "A splash of olive brine can add a new dimension to the drink," says Ford. "But if you add too much it basically says that you don’t like martinis, you just like olive brine."

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