The Martini might be one of the most contentious drinks behind the bar. When you order a Martini in a bar, generally what you get is gin, up, shaken (not stirred), with an olive or two. If vermouth is used, it’s used incredibly sparingly.
I’m sorry, folks. That’s not a Martini. That’s gin, up. Likewise if you do the same thing with vodka: it’s a vodka, up. If that’s what you like? That’s fine. However, please– do yourself a favor and try one that actually involves vermouth.
So why do people not like vermouth in their martini? For the same reason that people don’t like sweet vermouth: 9 times out of ten, bars have skunked vermouth.
Vermouth is a fortified wine. Wine, as anyone who’s opened a bottle, recorked it, and then tried to drink it a few days later, goes bad– it oxidizes. Everything you liked about the wine takes on acrid, sour, bad notes– it’s just no good anymore. Most people– and even lots of bartenders– forget that vermouth is, at its heart, wine that goes bad. Though it’s fortified, that really only extends its life by a week. This is why vermouth is often sold in small bottles; you can buy what you need so you’re not wasting vermouth. I like, for dry vermouth, Noilly Prat, which was the first dry (French-style) vermouth (and also happens to be made from one of my favorite grape varietals, Picpoul de Pinet). It also comes in small (375 ml) bottles that run around $5. There are two versions of Noilly Prat commercially available: one “original” and the American version. I haven’t found the original formulation in the area yet.
Okay, so let’s take a moment to talk about the cocktail that is considered the immediate predecessor to the Martini,the Martinez. I tried it recently at a Party Source cocktail demonstration, Gin is In, which featured Jay Erisman talking about gin, and Josh Durr making cocktails with it. One of the gin styles, Old Tom, is called for in the Martinez. It’s a sweetened gin– not too sweet– but still different than the London dry style you and I are most accustomed to. You wouldn’t want to make a dry Martini with this (as it’s not dry). The Martinez appears in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, about 40 years before we ever see a dry Martini:
1 dash Boker’s Bitters
2 dashes Maraschino
1 pony Old Tom Gin
1 wineglass Vermouth
2 small lumps of ice
When you deal with these old cocktail books, you have to be careful about measurements. A wineglass? A pony? If you want some translations, there’s a handy list here. Boker’s bitters? Bitter Truth makes the bitters that Jerry Thomas made, but they’re pretty hard to find. Angostura or Peychaud’s would work fine. A dash is about 1/4 of 1/4 oz (as every time you “dash” a bottle of bitters, the measurement is a little different).
Josh Durr’s recipe is a bit different, more gin than vermouth:
1.5 oz Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
1/2 oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth (if you can’t use a $30, 750 ml bottle of sweet vermouth, substitute Noilly Prat Sweet Vermouth)
2 dashes Luxardo Maraschino
1 dash Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Bitters (or Angostura)
This drink should be stirred in a mixing glass with cracked ice. You do not shake Martinis (or Martinezes), despite James Bond’s instructions. You only shake if there’s citrus, sugar or eggs in a drink– not if it’s just alcohol. So stir until it’s very chilled and serve in a cocktail glass.
By the turn of the century, the Martinez evolved into a drink with just gin and vermouth, and in 1906, following some clever marketing by Martini and Rossi’s dry vermouth, you have the martini.
Now, Martini proportions: use Vermouth. Don’t spray it, don’t wash the glass with it, don’t wave the bottle in the same zip code as your cocktail– use it. I’ve made Martinis for avowed anti-vermouth folks with fresh vermouth and they’ve loved it. I swear. The one in the picture is a “Perfect” Martini, that is, the proportion of vermouth to gin is equal. Popular proportions of vermouth to gin are as low as 1:6 (why bother?), 1:4, 1:3, 1:2 and 1:1 (perfect). The vermouth mellows the gin and makes it quite a delightful drink, not as abrasive or as hot as gin, up.
If you garnish it with a pearl onion, it’s a Gibson (named after the artist Charles Gibson, of Gibson Girl fame). If you make what James Bond actually drank, it wasn’t a Martini, it was a Vesper (which is made with Lillet and vodka instead of just gin and vermouth).
So figure out your proportions– and try a fresh bottle of vermouth. You won’t be sorry. The Martini is a refreshing drink (which I plan on imbibing often this summer).