Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Martini

Damn if I haven't tried to write this post more than once. But we all have our Things, and the Martini is one of mine. And there's a lot to be said about it.

Let's start with the recipe, because I know I have a handle on that. When I sat down to make a Martini for this post, it so happened that I could make a delicious version using just ingredients from Portland, Maine:

3 1/2 oz. Aria Portland Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Sweetgrass Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into - what else? - a Martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Note for the home bartender: "Garnish with a twist of [fruit]" means take a strip or a small medallion of the peel of that fruit, twist it over the glass to express the oils into the drink, run it around the rim of the glass, and then drop it in. It occurred to me as I was writing that that it often shows up in recipes without explanation, and could easily be confused for, "Drop a piece of lemon peel into the glass," which wouldn't be quite as effective.

Ordinarily, Martinis are garnished with a lemon twist or a cocktail olive (the latter sometimes accompanied by some of the olive brine to make a Dirty Martini). It's easy to overlook garnishes when making cocktails at home, but if you won't take my word that you should avoid doing so in general, please at least take my advice and avoid it here. The Martini is disproportionately defined by its garnish, to the point that one variation - the Gibson - is distinguished today entirely by being garnished with a cocktail onion. There's more to that story, but...well, we'll get there.

I'm a twist man, myself. That little bit of lemon sharpens and highlights the citrus notes already present in the gin; the resulting cocktail is crisp and bracing. To my tastes, the olive garnish slows down the drink - and the drinker - with that heavy, salty/savory flavor. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, and I've enjoyed an olive Martini from time to time. I recommend trying both and seeing which one you prefer. Honestly, that's a good rule of thumb whenever you have a choice between two cocktails.

I also tend to like my Martinis on the dry side, as, it seems, do most Martini drinkers. But just as it's possible to have too much of a good thing, it's possible to have a Martini that is too dry, usually by preparing one without any vermouth whatsoever.

In fact, let's take a moment to review all the ways in which people insist on soiling the Martini's good name, shall we?

The Herzog Cocktail School's Official List of Martiniological Heresies

  1. Serving a "Martini" that's just gin, or gin with a garnish. Often cutesily accompanied by a "solemn look" in the direction of France, Italy, or the vermouth bottle; equally often served on the rocks in a cocktail glass. Even worse if you do this with vodka.
  2. Failing to assume that gin is the standard base spirit unless otherwise specified. If someone asks you for a Martini, respect them enough to assume that they'd have asked for a Vodka Martini if they'd wanted one. If you ask for a Martini, respect the bartender enough to assume they'll make it with gin; if you want vodka, ask for it specifically. "Gin Martini" should be as necessary a phrase as "Whiskey Manhattan" or "Rum Daiquiri."
  3. Assuming that anything served in a cocktail glass can be called a "Martini." For pity's sake, I see menus all the time that list the Sidecar or the Cosmopolitan under the heading, "Martinis." In fact, I can't count (or conceive of!) the number of times I've seen a "Martini Menu" on which not a single drink contained gin, vermouth, or any other kind of fortified wine.
  4. Ever applying the "-tini" suffix to a drink. Ever.
  5. Shaking your Martini without a very good reason. It won't "bruise the vermouth," as is often claimed, but it will dilute the drink needlessly and take away some of the delightful crispness the Martini naturally possesses. Unless you're drinking a Vesper, can explain why I made an exception for the Vesper, or are James Bond, stir.

But why all these rules, and what's the deal with the Gibson, anyway? Well, all that history is part of what makes this such a complicated drink to write about. But with thanks and apologies to David Wondrich, who covers a lot of this in more detail in Imbibe!, I'm going to give it a shot in a second Martini post (I did tell you I had a lot to say, didn't I?). Stay tuned for Part II!