Thursday Night Loaded: The Martini

This is the premier post in what I hope will be a series on cocktails, spirits and the inebriate arts. I was going to kick it off last Thursday, that being the final day of International Cocktail Week. But as these things go, an Alamagoozlum led to a Bronx with Bitters that led to a Corpse Reviver and a Derby. Somewhere round about the Gibson, all thoughts of writing had vanished.

Here we are, a week later, and it seems only appropriate to focus this first installment on that most iconic of cocktails: The Martini….

2oz Gin
1/4 oz Dry Vermouth
Lemon Twist or Olive

Stir gin and vermouth well with ice. Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist or olive.

Of the martini, historian Bernard DeVoto wrote, “It is the supreme gift of American culture to the world,” while H.L. Mencken famously called it, “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” No other cocktail is as famous. None as storied. Indeed, it has become so prominent among mixed drinks that the word martini has all but replaced cocktail in the lexicon of drinking.

For those who care about the taxonomy of mixed drinks, a martini is a species of cocktail though many a drink menu may suggest otherwise. The synecdoche can perhaps be forgiven as the martini is very likely the perfect expression of its family. Specifically, a cocktail, in its simplest form, is a base spirit enhanced by a complementary spirit then touched off by a grace note.

That means, that as the paragon of cocktails, there are no extra splashes of fruit juice in a martini. No creamy liqueurs. No coffee beans. No topping up with soda water. Nothing sprinkled on top. Nothing lit on fire.

Gin. Vermouth. Garnish. Simplicity itself. Alchemy!

That said, there is nothing simple in it origins. A martini in a glass may embody clarity but the early history of the drink is lost to the fogs of time. Many have claimed its invention but all we can say for certain is that it appears in the earliest cocktail menus of the 1880s — although back then it was a very different drink (the ratio of gin to vermouth was one to one).

Over time, as the recipe was perfected, the recommended quantity of vermouth dwindled to the absurdly minute. To maximize a martini’s dryness, some mixologists have been known to employ pharmacist’s droppers, perfume atomizers and, on occasion, the electromagnetic equipment of the particle physicist to reduce vermouth’s contribution to the positively homeopathic. Others will merely whisper the word vermouth into the shaker or wave a portrait of Antonio Benedetto Carpano, its inventor, over the glass.

Filmmaker Luis Bunuel, trumping all, speaks of martini mixing transformed into an ecclesiastical ritual:

“Connoisseurs suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window —leaving it unbroken.’”

But Thomas Mario, a legend among bartenders and one of that fraternity’s most articulate scribes, in his Playboy’s Host and Bar Book has this to say on the subject:

“It would be unfortunate if the use of vermouth in the martini became extinct, for its bite, however faint is trenchant. It turns cold gin into a civilized cocktail.”

Inspired by Mario, I spent some time experimenting with my martini proportions, rejecting my former excesses of diminution, and settled upon the eight-to-one ratio presented in the recipe above as my favourite. You can see what best suits your own palette.

While you do, I will carry on typing and argue that it is this popular obsession with dryness that has led to the classic martini losing favour with the public and being edged off the nation’s drink menus by debasements such as the crantini, the chocotini, the fantatini. The martini’s golden age was during Prohibition in the United States, a time when gins were brewed in cellars and were harsh and unforgiving in the throat. A pairing with vermouth was intended to soften the savage flavour of these counterfeit gins. Nowadays, unless you ask specifically for a premium brand, most bar patrons are subjected bargain gins that, while an improvement on their bathtub forbears, are nearly as barbarous.

Ironically then, by cleaving to fashion and requesting that our martinis be dry, the vermouth is too diffuse to do its job and we subject ourselves to an excess of bad gin. It has left many scarred for life, sending them into fits of terror at the mere mention of the words “London Dry.” A pity.

Of course, why rely on the mediating powers of vermouth when the world is awash in so many marvellous gins?

The world, that is. Saskatchewan, sadly, is rather constrained where good gins are concerned.

I will write in more detail about gin in an upcoming post, so for now I’ll just point you towards the two best bets the SLGA has on offer. Bombay Sapphire is a solid workhorse of a gin, not too expensive but also rather pedestrian in flavour. Hendrick’s gin, on the other hand, if you can afford it is one of the best gins available anywhere. It’s my favourite gin and for a time it was delisted in SLGA stores and that was nearly enough to convince me to move away.

Before I wrap this up, I want to make mention of garnish. In popular culture, the olive is the traditional grace note on a martini. Here again, though, quality is everything. Even with the finest gin and vermouth imaginable, a martini will be ruined if you finish it off by dumping in a few squalid orbs from a tin.

Personally, though, I prefer to garnish a martini with lemon. You will want to use a thin strip of the rind — just shy of a centimetre wide and about as long as your thumb — then twist it over the glass, yellow-side out, so that the fruit’s oils will spray across the drink’s surface.

Oh, and one last thing. A martini must be very, very cold — antarctic in its chill — so, be sure to stir it well before serving and when possible, keep your cocktail glasses in a freezer until just before you are ready to pour.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

6 thoughts on “Thursday Night Loaded: The Martini”

  1. Fantastic write up. I was once turned off by the mouth puckering dryness of martinis, but yet I knew something amazing was in that glass.

    For anyone new out there looking to become acquainted with the classic martini I suggest aiming towards a 2/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth. Once you fall in love, the vermouth can be dropped away.

    Also, I have to agree that Hendrick’s is one of the best gins out there.

  2. Ah, the gin martini… I like mine dry, dirty and very very cold. When I used to live at the Bartleman, when I’d had a few too many and was ready to retire, I would just throw the glasses out the window into the snow bank on the fire escape to keep them cold for the next time.

  3. Ok, gin loving martini lovers stop reading here.

    Everyone else, I prefer mine with half vodka half gin (1.5 oz each) mixed with about 1/2 oz vermouth. Shake hard to ensure ice fragments and add a leamon twist. Then drink fast since I can’t stand a warm martini.

    Excellent write up by the way.

  4. Thanks a lot, TS. Glad you enjoyed it.

    But, HAVE YOU COMPLETELY TAKEN LEAVE OF YOUR SENSES, SIR?!

    Vodka? Mixed with gin! In a martini?! And shaken, no less! Are you mad?! That’s not a cocktail, that’s a liquor salad!!

    I’m sorry, I kind of lost it there for a second. I know it’s early but I think I’m going to have to fix myself something to calm my nerves.

  5. Ahhhh…. Much better.

    Sorry to fly off the handle like that, TS. But I’ve had a drink and gained some perspective.

    And while I may consider your vodka-gin martini an abomination, I have to confess, it isn’t the weirdest concoction to carry the name.

    Actually, the martinis of the 1890s (often called a martinez until the name martini takes over around the turn of the century) included sugar syrup, curaçao and bitters. The gin used was Old Tom (which was sweetened) and the vermouth was sweet Italian (instead of dry French).

    Of course, that was a primitive time for mixed drinks.

    But if you want to try an approximation of a true cocktail dinosaur, here’s an adaptation of the martini recipe from Harry Johnson’s 1888 bar guide, “New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style”.

    THE PRIMITIVE MARTINI
    1 1/4oz Old Tom Gin (you’ll probably have to substitute Dutch Genever gin here in Saskatchewan)
    1 1/4oz Sweet vermouth (the red Italian kind)
    3 dashes sugar syrup
    3 dashes Angostura bitters
    1 dash Cointreau

    Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

  6. Paul,

    “But, HAVE YOU COMPLETELY TAKEN LEAVE OF YOUR SENSES, SIR?!” No, I’m not that drunk.

    “Vodka? Mixed with gin! In a martini?! And shaken, no less! Are you mad?! That’s not a cocktail, that’s a liquor salad!!” Actually it’s called a Vesper Martini, so do you feel a bit better as I’m not dishonoring the martini name entirely? I’m not completely mad…yet. Besides you should see some of the drinks in my book at home…850 recipes and some of them are a liquor salad. God, who needs six different types of booze in one drink. My poor tongue doesn’t know what to start tasting first.

    God, now I need a drink too. Thanks Paul.

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