The martini is a simple cocktail, with few ingredients and one overarching principle—it should combine maximal coldness with minimal dilution. However, it’s also quite technical and a beautiful example of the narcissism of small differences; add the wrong quantity of vermouth or cool it the wrong way and there are people who will think you’ve revealed yourself as being lower than a monkey and more vicious than a cat.
I’m not too concerned about this; as the poet said, God fulfils himself in many ways,/Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. There’s more than one good martini, and nor do you always and every time have to drink it the same way.
The martini’s appeal feels simple, but it isn’t, it comes from a combination of flavour, texture (‘mouthfeel’), sensation and aesthetics.
The ideal martini should be preternaturally cold, limpid and clean, and it should burn you twice over, first with frostbite and then with alcoholic heat.
Hemingway described a character drinking it “icy old” and then feeling “its warmth and momentary destruction of sorrow,” which’ll do as an ideal.
When I say martini, I mean a dry martini. Made with dry vermouth and dry or dryish gin. This is what most people mean now, but if you’re being pedantic you can ask for a dry martini.
Just to be clear, dry is the opposite of sweet, while wet = sweet.
There is some potential for confusion, because while historically a dry martini is just one made with dry gin/vermouth, it can also mean one made with a particularly high ratio of gin vs vermouth. Dry vermouth still has a certain sweetness, so the higher the ratio of vermouth in your martini, the wetter it is, but even then it’s still dry in the older/technical sense.
When ordering a martini in a restaurant or bar you can ask for a dry, quite dry, very dry, wet, or wettish martini, and it should be clear enough that you’re talking about the gin/vermouth ratio if they know their business. Similarly, some places will offer choices or indicate a house style (e.g. ‘very dry’).
However you make it, the martini repays good quality ingredients and a bit of technique. The choices you make revolve around balancing sweetness and dryness, the botanicals of the gin and the vermouth, and coldness and dilution.
In addition to the obvious gin and dry (white) vermouth, an orthodox martini can include a discretionary dash of orange bitters. Traditionally, it’s garnished with a twist of lemon peel or a green olive, with the former perhaps being regarded as more ‘proper’. There are variants, but they have different names.
The martini works because of the way the botanicals of the gin and the vermouth blend. If you change the gin’s botanicals radically, and in particular if you obscure the flavour of juniper, you’ll ruin this beautifully harmonious combination.
Contemporary artisan gins, whose botanicals may be novel and interesting, or just cruel and unusual, can be a bad choice for a martini. What you want is a balanced, classical, juniper-led combination of botanicals.
Strong gins often work better, because gin is distilled to be more alcoholic than its final form and then diluted with water, and the more you water it down, the more you dilute the flavour as well as the booze. You want plenty of flavour.
Most martinis are made with London dry gin, but you can also use slightly sweeter classical gin styles, such as Plymouth, though this has implications for the ratio of gin/vermouth—see below. Floral gins such Hendricks aren’t a favourite of mine for martinis, but can be made to work with the right vermouth.
My favourite martini gin is actually quite new (2012), but it’s classically proportioned and makes a beautiful drink.
First choice gin(s)
Fords Gin, made by the 86 Co. Strength: 45° vol. Botanicals: juniper, coriander, orris, jasmine, Angelica, cassia, bitter orange, lemon and grapefruit. Approximate UK price: £30. As sleek and clean run as a 1960s racing car, but full of subtle flavour. Drinks well in both dry and wet martinis. London dry style.
I also like Berry Bros and Rudd’s new No. 3 London Dry Gin. Strength: 46° vol. Botanicals: juniper, sweet orange, grapefruit, Angelica, coriander and cardamom. Approximate UK price: £35. No. 3 is the house martini pour at Dukes Hotel in London, which is famous for its martinis. A nice bit of elegant junipery chew to it in a martini; can handle being in a wet martini.
A few other gins
Of the well-known brands, the two barkeeper’s friends, Beefeater and Tanqueray, make a good martini, while the premium/high-strength Tanqueray No. 10 is well worth trying. Hemingway and James Bond (and by extension Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming) favoured what Mark Palmer, writing in the Spectator last year, called “good old, but disastrously uncool, Gordon’s,” but I can’t think of the last time I had a Gordon’s martini. Bombay Sapphire is also a good bet for something a little different, while some like the sweeter Plymouth style (now just represented by the Plymouth label). A friend who mixes a particularly keen martini swears by Sipsmith London Dry with a teardrop of Noilly Pratt.
There was quite a thing for Booth’s gin, ‘the gentleman’s gin’, in martinis back in the day, but they stopped making it last year. You can still pick up older bottles if you have some spare brass and would like to impress the shades of Kingsley Amis, Michael Jackson (the writer on drink, not the artiste) and the Queen Mother.
Note that some of the very expensive gins are costly because of small-scale production, fancy bottling and marketing, and you often don’t get what you pay for. No doubt this will change as the gin boom subsides.
There’s nothing like the absurd profusion of choice with vermouth as opposed to gin, but there’s still rather a lot out there once you start looking. Most people only think French or Italian, ignoring e.g. Spain/Catalonia and the new world, but even then there are options—especially if you also consider aperitivo and apéritif wines, such as Cocchi Americano and Lillet Blanc, as you should.
First things first: it’s dry, white vermouth that you want, sometimes called ‘extra dry’, not the in-between off-dry stuff and obviously not the sweet red stuff. Americans call the former French vermouth, and the latter Italian, even though the French and Italians make both styles; it’s a matter of origins. Also: Martini e Rossi is not a privileged brand, just because it (almost certainly accidentally) shares the name of the cocktail.
One more thing: vermouth is a fortified wine, not a spirit, and once you’ve opened a bottle, always keep it in the fridge. And try not to keep it for more than a few months. If a bar has a dusty, unrefrigerated bottle of Cinzano on the shelf, probably don’t order a martini; and definitely don’t order a wet one.
My favourite style for the martini is vermouth de Chambéry, made in the French Alpine region from which it takes its name—the only French vermouth-growing area to be granted Appellation Controlée status. Only one independent producer remains: Dolin.
First choice vermouth(s)
Dolin Dry. Light, fresh, dry and clean; just the thing for a noble dry martini, while its subtlety also makes it a prime choice for wetter ones. UK price: approximately £15.
The Wine Society’s Chambéry vermouth is actually made by Dolin and is supremely good value at around £9. I can’t tell the difference, least of all in a martini. You have to be a member to order from the Society, but that’s no hardship.
Because I don’t have a large enough fridge to have half a dozen open bottles of vermouth at a time, I almost always use one of the Chambérys at home, but I like to drink around a bit when out.
A few other vermouths
Of the well-known vermouths, Noilly Pratt has the best pedigree. It was Hemingway’s favoured martini vermouth, and Kingsley Amis said that it was the only choice if you had to drink this “horrible muck on its own,” although he thought that its darker tint spoiled the pale clarity of the martini. Some of my martini-swilling pals go for it in a big way, usually the Extra Dry and not the Original Dry—the former is less of an interesting drink on its own, but is drier and sleeker; it was made specifically to meet the American market for very dry martinis.
There are a number of newish vermouths that I’m keen to try in a martini, including: Carpano Dry (new, but from the oldest vermouth maker); Casa Mariol Vermut Blanco (Catalan, their sweet dark vermouth is excellent); Ransom Dry Vermouth (one of the new American vermouths, expensive and hard to get in the UK, and unusually made from riesling, gewurztraminer and muscat).
One last thing: it’s best to think about your gin when you pick your vermouth; the one that drinks best on its own may not pair well with your gin, or any gin at all. It’s a drink in its own right, not just a mixer.
Orange bitters are a traditional component, though discretionary. They disappeared from martinis, and bars more generally, for a while, but in the last 15 or so years they’ve come back strongly.
I use Angostura Orange Bitters, but I’m not educated enough, or enough of a bullshitter, to recommend a particular brand. Michael Dietsch recommends Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 or Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters for the martini, while some people (e.g. our own Andy Hamilton) have been known to make their own. Dietsch also recommends using Angostura sparingly because of its strong flavour.
Add a dash, maybe two.
A twist of lemon peel or an olive are most traditional. Both have merit. The oils from the peel are a famously good match for the classical martini’s botanicals and can lighten the booze a little, while the salty savouriness of briny olives also works nicely.
It’s best to cut the lemon freshly to preserve the oils, and skilled and conscientious types will then twist the peel and ‘express’ the oils over the drink before adding it; I dislike fiddling with my drinks and have never bothered to learn how to do this.
It’s best to add olives that have been kept in brine rather than oil, unless you like a greasy martini, and, as with everything that goes in, use cold ’uns. A nice meaty unstuffed green olive is best.
The dirty martini goes a step further and adds a teaspoon or two of brine along of the olive.
If you add cocktail (pearl) onions for the garnish, you’ve made your martini into a gibson. Hemingway liked to freeze Spanish cocktail onions for maximal coldness.
The fashion for extreme dryness, i.e. a lot of gin and not much vermouth, took hold some time in the 20th century, and it has run and run.
Originally a dry martini was more like a 50/50 combination of dry gin and dry vermouth. (This is now often called the fifty fifty, or, if someone wants to be achingly faux American, the fiddy fiddy.) Although the move towards dryness was to some extent a Yankee phenomenon, it had plenty of early support in the UK, e.g. from Churchill, who is supposed to have said that “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini,” or that he would bow in the general direction of France while drinking his cold gin, or whatever, depending on which newspaper piece on the martini you last read. (It may well have been Alfred Hitchcock who said the first thing; sooner or later most epigrams of a certain type and period are attributed to Churchill.)
The very dry martini is still an excuse for writers, librarians, graphic designers and other sedentary types to push their chests out and swagger it a bit, full of cerebral machismo, following in the tradition of Hemingway et al. People talk about legendary artists of the bar who would pour a small quantity of vermouth over ice and then discard it before using the same jug to mix the gin; they repeat jocose variations on how homeopathic they want the vermouth to be in their martini; they swear they’ll shoot a bottle of Noilly Pratt with a handgun while lying in a bath of freezing gin. They talk like they detest vermouth; as if its presence in a martini is a sort of hateful necessity. I don’t have a problem with any of this, it has produced many a noble martini, but it grows a little tired after a while and I do like to taste the vermouth sometimes.
In recent years there has been a reaction among the professionals and, if nothing else, this opens up more variety. One of my favourite contemporary drink writers, Michael Dietsch, put it like this:
I insist that vermouth is necessary in a martini. Otherwise you may as well just throw a bottle of gin or vodka into the freezer and pour off a glass when you’re ready to drink. Vermouth and gin are better together than Sinatra and Crosby; the botanicals in each harmonize perfectly. A martini without vermouth is a sad thing.
An exceptionally dry martini by historical standards would be Hemingway’s 15:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, and although this became more mainstream, now many professional mixers are returning to proportions that are more typical of the first half of the 20th century, i.e. between 4:1 and 2:1. Of course, much depends on the gin and vermouth being used, and the drier/more juniperish they are, the wetter your martini can be, while a wet martini also needs the freshest vermouth.
The Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 uses the following proportions, which can be taken as being fairly orthodox for that time:
- dry martini: 1⁄5 dry vermouth; 4⁄5 dry gin
- very dry martini: 1⁄7 dry vermouth; 6⁄7 dry gin
It also has recipes for medium and sweet martinis that use a mix of dry and sweet vermouth, which would have the ultras dashing their olives and cocktail onions to the floor and stamping on them.
Various bars and celebrity bartenders have their own, sometimes very precise, ratios and methods, right down to fractions of fractions. If that’s what you like, go ahead. I’m not going to tell you what proportions to use, that’s for you to work out if you make your own, and for your bartender to work out otherwise. If you always like it the same way—which is partly a matter of temperament—then be as exacting and unvarying as you like, but otherwise why not mix it as the circumstances and ingredients suggest to you at the time—or even leave it to chance and drink someone else’s style?
Aside: there is no vodka martini
There is a perfectly agreeable and respectable drink that is now usually called a ‘vodka martini’. It isn’t in any meaningful sense the same drink as a gin martini. Look at it this way, in microbiology, strains from the same microbial species might share >95% average amino acid identity. The martini and vodka martini will share somewhere between <1% and 50% ingredients. The overwhelmingly dominant ingredient is different in a drink with two or possibly three ingredients. In the cocktail taxonomy, they aren’t kin.
The ‘vodka martini’ needs a name for itself. It was originally called the kangaroo, but that doesn’t seem very expressive. On the analogy of the martinez, perhaps it could be called the martinski, or, for its pale and dangerous coldness, you could call it the Jadis, after the White Witch of Narnia, or possibly just the white witch.
Tools and techniques
A martini has to be very cold, and it should achieve coldness with the least dilution possible. However, coldness is more important than purity. It’s possible to enjoy a somewhat dilute martini, but it’s not possible to enjoy an incompletely cold martini.
Do you stir or shake with ice, or neither?
For a long time the consensus has been that you stir. This is because shaking is said to ‘bruise’ the gin (almost certainly wrong, even if you can explain what bruising means); because it dilutes the drink more than stirring (not necessarily true); because it aerates the drink (undoubtedly true); and because it leaves tiny shards of ice in the drink (also true).
However, shaking or stirring, don’t use bought ice, because it’s a hollow charade that melts and dilutes ultra-quickly; it’s only fit for ice buckets or mojitos.
Anyhow, the question then comes down to much aeration vs less aeration and ice shards vs no ice shards.
Aeration can be good for flavour, think of allowing wine to ‘breathe’, especially through decanting, but it does also lead to a cloudy martini. The question of ice shards is also one of aesthetics; do you prefer shimmering opacity or brilliant clarity?
There are arguments on both sides, but most purists take Gandalf’s line over Saruman’s:
‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
‘“I liked white better,” I said.
‘“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
‘“In which case it is no longer white,” said I.’
For myself, I’ll happily drink a shaken and shimmering martini without fearing being cast into the abyss, but most of the time I’ll drink it unshaken and clear.
If you’re stirring, fill a mixing glass (or a jug if you don’t have one) with plenty of large, good quality ice cubes fresh from the freezer and stir the gin, vermouth and bitters (if required) for ~60 seconds and then pour immediately. Proceed similarly when shaking, except crush the ice and limit yourself to 10–20 seconds; after 20 s you won’t get much further in terms of cooling.
The best way to minimise dilution is to have everything cold to start with, right down to the glasses and the garnish. This reduces the amount of equilibration required (talk to your physicist about thermodynamics again). It takes foreknowledge and prep and isn’t always possible, but it’s worth doing.
This brings me to the third way, what you might call the Dukes Hotel method. Roughly, freeze the glasses and gin and refrigerate the vermouth; add a teaspoon or so of vermouth to the glass and slosh around; add the gin; garnish. You get a wonderfully cold and strong martini.
None of this will benefit you much if you then drink huge glasses of cocktail that warm in your hand. Use a small glass that you can hold by the stem; think of the size of the old cocktail glasses. A typical serving includes around 2 oz of gin.
Some final barcraft from Tristan Stephenson:
- shaken martinis are quicker to make if you’re in a hurry
- shaking only really suits dry martinis; wetter ones are better stirred
- don’t express too much lemon at the end, a postage stamp-sized strip is plenty
And one last thing: don’t feel obliged to mention James Bond every goddamn time you talk about shaking and stirring.
My standard martini
This isn’t just the martini I like to drink best at home, it’s also the one I like to make best, which is subtly different.
- around 2 oz Fords gin, straight from the freezer, usually poured by hand
- a brimming teaspoon or more of Dolin Dry/Wine Society Chambéry, usually poured by hand and varying quite a lot
- a dash of orange bitters (a little more than half the time)
- a small twist of lemon peel (occasionally an olive)
I like to pour by hand because it allows for the influence of mood, chance and circumstances; let the gods jog or hold back my pouring elbow. Plus, the drunker you are, the clumsier you are, and in most cases this means a wetter and weaker martini, which is probably for the best.
I use the iceless Dukes Hotel method whenever possible, as it’s the quickest, coldest and laziest way to produce a good martini.
The way I like best is to add a lemon peel garnish and then eat olives and other salty kickshaws alongside; a good combination and one that can slow down your accelerating drunkenness.
There’s no beating small antique martini glasses (see below), but I don’t have any so am forced to use inferior modern ones that are quite similar to champagne coupes. Watch out for thick glass on new ones, as a fat rim does your drink no favours at all.
Cousins and variants
The martinez: the prototype martini. A mix of sweet (genever or old tom) gin, sweet and dry vermouths, maraschino liqueur and orange bitters. The original martini was probably fairly close to this, and the martini could well have taken its name from the martinez.
The dirty martini: made with olive brine.
The gibson: a martini garnished with cocktail onions.
The vesper martini: an Ian Fleming/James Bond original, packing a huge wallop of alcohol: “A dry martini … in a deep champagne goblet … Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon peel … If you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.” (Kina Lillet is no longer made and I use Cocchi Americano instead.)
The espresso martini: a sort of milkless, sickly variant of the white russian that has nothing to do with the martini and includes neither gin nor vermouth.
Kingsley Amis 2008 Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis (London: Bloomsbury)
Michael Dietsch, various online
Philip Greene 2015 To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion 2nd revised edn (New York: Perigee/Penguin)
Michael Jackson 1979 Michael Jackson’s Pocket Bar Book: A Drinker’s Guide to Good Drinking (London: Mitchell Beazley)
The Savoy Hotel 1930, 2014 The Savoy Cocktail Book (London: Constable)
Tristan Stephenson 2013 The Curious Bartender (Ryland, Peters & Small)
Paul Fishman (Windermere, May 2018)
* The narcissism of small differences: Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents: “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”
** The poet: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils Himself in many ways,/Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
*** Gandalf vs Saruman: J R R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, obviously.