Martinis for beginners. In the world of cocktails, the martini holds a special place. The mention of its name conjures its distinct glass and garnish, as well as images of its distinctive drinkers. People of influence casually saunter to the bar and say, “Martini, please”: businessmen and women, well-to-do housewives, and, of course, James Bond.
The martini, however, is more than just a pretty face. It’s a cocktail of substance; each variation possesses unique, and, you might even say, magical qualities.
In this article, I’ll describe six different martinis, what you should know about them, and what occasions to make them for.
The Introduction Martinis
Meet the ‘introduction martinis.’ These cocktails best suit two types of drinkers:
- Those who haven’t developed a taste for spirit-driven cocktails (cocktails made up only of booze — no citrus or added sugar).
- Those who think that vermouth in a martini is gross. These drinkers are stuck chillin’ in the 90s, when bartenders would leave bottles of vermouth (a fortified wine that is NOT shelf stable) on the back shelf for years. Old vermouth is gross.
The introduction martinis are:
The Fifty-Fifty Martini
A.k.a The pre-prohibition martini or the original dry martini.
The recipe for the fifty-fifty was most common prior to prohibition. As the name suggests, the fifty-fifty contains equal parts dry vermouth and london dry gin. The fifty-fifty also contains some citrus influence via orange bitters and a lemon twist.
I made this for a novice drinker a few years ago. When he tasted it, he exclaimed, “I’d always order a martini if it tasted like this!”
I don’t think he said this because I did an amazing job mixing the drink. I think it was mostly a matter of priming his palate by giving him an idea of what he was going to taste. Don’t get me wrong; formula and execution matter. But so does priming a guest’s brain and palate.
With the fifty-fifty/pre-prohibition martini, guests will smell a very pronounced lemony-freshness on the nose followed by clean, cold, and strong juniper. The drink finishes off with subtle orange-bitter notes. The equal measure of dry vermouth significantly softens the punch of the gin.
1.5 oz gin (preferably Plymouth gin)
1.5 oz dry vermouth
2 dashes of orange bitters (Regan’s or Angostura Orange)
Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.
Garnish with lemon twist — be sure to express the oils over the drink.
The Vesper Martini
Created by Ian Fleming in James Bond, 007.
The vesper martini provides a fantastic introduction to mixed drinks because its origin story is steeped in pop culture. First, it’s directly connected to James Bond, 007. Second, the vesper is kind of like James Bond took the traditional martini and said “I’m gonna do it my way!”
James Bond’s martini sticks it to the traditional in 3 ways:
- It mixes gin AND vodka (wtf?).
- It adds Kina Lillet, which is in a family of fortified wine that is different from vermouth (the primary difference is quinine in Kina Lillet versus wormwood in vermouth). The closest approximation to Kina Lillet widely available today (2017) is Cocchi Americano.
- It’s shaken, not stirred!
Bond also made up his own ratio of 3 parts gin to 1 part vodka to 1/2 part Kina Lillet. And since it’s 007 we’re talking about, he probably considered 1 part equal to 1 ounce.
While folks often refer to the vesper as James Bond’s martini, Ian Fleming actually only had 007 order it once in all of 14 Bond books. Most of the time, Bond would order a vodka martini (which is technically a kangaroo cocktail) with an olive.
In 1986, the makers of Kina Lillet removed quinine, which made the Kina Lillet a completely different product — Lillet Blanc. These days, the ingredient that most closely approximates the original kina lillet is Cocchi Americano.
Drinkers should find the vesper’s taste and experience extremely accessible. Vodka softens the juniper punch of the gin and the Cocchi Americano sweetens the drink up a bit.
1.5 oz london dry gin
3/4 oz vodka
3/4 oz Cocchi Americano
Just do it — shake it — or at least ask the guest what they prefer, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Most fancy cocktailers will insist you stir this, but there are never hard and fast rules.
Garnish with a lemon swath and be sure to express those oils over the drink.
The standard martinis either come with a savory garnish — usually olives — or a twist of citrus zest. While the formula for the cocktail itself may not change, the type of garnish used can radically change the drinker’s experience. Use a standard martini with one of the following drinkers:
- The hungry drinker. A standard martini makes a perfect palate cleanser. The citrus twist imparts fresh aromas, which combine with the clean texture of the gin and vermouth. The booze-soaked olives, on the other hand, are the perfect savoury snack to whet the appetite. This martini will never make a guest feel too full for food, unlike beer.
- Due to the martini’s versatility, drinkers can add their own creative flair. They can choose ANY citrus zest, and ANY olive. Because a standard martini is a very ‘clean’ canvas we’re painting on, the garnish will definitely have a dramatic effect on the experience.
2 oz of gin
1/2 oz dry vermouth
Either a twist OR olives
In my opinion, a london dry style gin will work well with a twist or olives because: a) the bright and sharp juniper works very well with the clean fresh aroma of a twist. B) Juniper and coriander, often the prevailing botanicals used in gin, are originally pickling spices. We all know that olives pair fantastically well with pickles!
The Dirty Martini
A dirty martini is a martini that contains olive brine. Gin and olives accentuate any martini, and olive brine takes the flavors and mouthfeel even further. Note, however, that martinis without olive brine make better palate cleansers.
When I make a dirty martini, I use gins with pronounced notes of Grains of Paradise (which, to me, smell like some kind of mechanic’s grease), or Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, thyme, etc.). Respective examples are Aviation, and Gin Mare.
The amount of brine I add varies depending on the type of brine. We’re only trying to add a bit of sodium and mouthfeel, so usually about a quarter of an ounce will do.
A note on extra, extra, extra dirty martinis: while guests can order whatever they want, I find that a martini with tons of brine is a strange thing. They’re basically saying to me: “I want to drink alcoholic saline.” Weird, no? Excess brine totally covers up the gin. You could probably make the drink with absinthe and the guest wouldn’t know the difference.
The Gibson Martini
As is the case with all great cocktails, the gibson and its pickled onion garnish tell an awesome story.
Charles Dana Gibson created America’s first national standard of feminine idyllic beauty in his satirical drawings of Gibson Girls. Gibson Girls were characterized by both fragility and voluptuousness.
A real-life portrayal of a Gibson Girl
You could say that the gibson martini embodies both of these qualities. The gibson garnishes the martini’s delicate body with TWO cocktail onions. The number of onions represents a Gibson Girl’s two voluptuous breasts. The gibson is the only cocktail in the common repertory that calls for an even number of garnish. Tradition would generally call this bad luck.
2 oz gin of guest’s choice
1/2 oz dry vermouth
Stir, and strain in a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with TWO cocktail onions
The Dry Martini
The dry martini we know today differs significantly from the original (see the fifty-fifty above). If a guest asks for an ‘extra dry’ martini, they often just want a very cold glass of gin with a twist or with olives. Originally ‘dry’ meant substituting sweet Italian vermouth for dry french vermouth , NOT using less dry french vermouth.
Nonetheless, I generally use a 1/4 oz of dry vermouth when guests ask for a dry martini. A 1/4 oz of dry vermouth added to a punchy London dry gin, though, honestly won’t change the drink very much.
2.5 oz – 3 oz of gin.
0.25 oz Dry Vermouth
A challenge that often comes up with dry martinis is a low ‘washline’. The washline refers to where the drink comes up to on the glass, and is a very important subconscious indicator of the value that the guest is getting. A low washline causes the guest to say “hmm..that is a small drink” even if there is the same amount of alcohol. We never want a drink that is dwarfed by the glass.
People are conditioned to expect that they receive a full glass, so it is in your best interest to ensure that you exceed their expectations on first glance.
This being the case, you may need to bump up the amount of gin you put in a dry martini to make up for the lack of dry vermouth.
Martinis That Aren’t Quite Martinis
These relatives make an excellent choice for guests who want something a little different.
The martinez is the modern martini’s granddaddy. The modern martini (along with the Manhattan, Rob Roy, and others) all descend from the vermouth cocktail (sweet italian vermouth, bitters, ice, twist).
So the vermouth cocktail was a great mid-day, low-octane cocktail that wouldn’t muddy the waters too much. But eventually drinkers longed for a bit more booze in their vermouth cocktails. So imbibers began adding all kinds of spirits to vermouth — gin, brandy, whisky, etc. As a result, we now have cocktails like the manhattan, martini, and Rob Roy.
Note the use of sweet italian vermouth in this recipe instead of dry french. The italian vermouth exploded in popularity in the 1880s. In fact, all extant print recipes prior to 1931 used italian vermouth.
So, when it comes to today’s common repertoire of drinks, the martinez is actually the closest thing we’re making on a regular basis to the original martini: gin, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a twist).
3/4 oz london dry gin
3/4 oz old tom gin
1.5 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur
2 dashes Boker’s Bitters
Note: I’ve adapted this recipe to suit my own palate. The original actually calls for 2 oz of italian sweet vermouth to 1 oz of old tom gin. This proportion, with the maraschino liqueur, makes for a very sweet drink. I add old tom gin to bring down the sweetness of the italian vermouth. Then I bolster the two with a nice london dry. This combination, I find, attains a better balance.
The Arsenic and Old Lace
In Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, the protagonist, Mortimer Brewster, must contend with his maniacal family. This family includes two homicidal aunts who enjoy murdering lonely men. The aunts feed men a concoction of elderberry wine (often floral, like the violette in this cocktail) laced with “arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide.” In the non-fatal version of this cocktail, we substitute the arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide with absinthe.
Poor lonely old man
1 3/4 oz london dry gin
3/4 oz dry vermouth
1/3 oz violette liqueur
3 dashes of Pernod
Stir, strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with a lemon twist or something floral
Well, there you have it. A guide to six magical martinis and stories to go with them. Have a taste, serve them up, and don’t forget to prime your guests with their peculiar histories.