The best known of David Embury’s six basic drinks everyone should know (the others are the Jack Rose, the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, the Daiquiri, and the Sidecar), the martini is synonymous in the public imagination with cocktail culture. Neon signs depicting cocktail glasses and olives advertise cocktail lounges, and the drink is so strongly associated with that distinctive long-stemmed glass that to many people it’s “a martini glass,” and by extension, anything that goes in it can be called a martini. We suffer the tragedies of appletinis, Cosmotinis, Cowboytinis, and the like — but the true martini hasn’t been forgotten.
The martini is probably the offspring from the wrong side of the sheets of two older drinks, the Martinez (named for Martinez, California) and the Manhattan. A sweet drink for its time, the Martinez used sweet vermouth instead of dry, maraschino liqueur, and Old Tom gin; the Manhattan uses whiskey and vermouth in a 4:1 ratio and a dash of bitters. The melding of the two sometime in the last couple decades of the nineteenth century gave way to a sweetish gin drink built to the Manhattan’s proportions, one which became less sweet when dry vermouth was adopted instead.
The drink probably takes its name from Martini & Rossi vermouth, which in most of the world is branded simply as Martini. The classic martini is gin and dry vermouth, stirred in a shaker of ice and strained into a cocktail glass. The proportion of gin to vermouth varies — classically it ranged from 2:1 to 6:1, and there is a good drink to be had in the “Fifty-Fifty,” which is half of each. Although everyone’s heard “shaken, not stirred,” remember that the reason 007 has to state his preference is because that’s not the standard way to make a gin drink, which is typically stirred; many people believe shaking bruises the gin.
The penchant for exceptionally dry martinis was, in hindsight, part of the 20th century trend of dismantling the martini entirely. First, martini lore began to minimize the vermouth while ritualizing the drink itself, calling for a wet vermouth cork to be rubbed along the rim of the glass, or for the unopened bottle of vermouth to simply be displayed to the martini. Atomizers are still available for spritzing the glass with just enough vermouth to coat it. This results in a drink that is little more than cold gin — which, while a good way to enjoy the right gin, is just not the same thing.
Next came the vodka martini. Vodka gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, and its sales were soon boosted by the public preference for sweet drinks; since the law requires unflavored vodka to be tasteless, it’s the ideal ingredient for adding alcohol without flavor. That makes it remarkably poor for a dry martini, and in fact the vodka-and-vermouth drink already existed in the form of the Kangaroo. But vodka producers, seeking to establish inroads in the American market, latched onto the popularity of the martini in order to hawk their wares.
On rare occasion, something may be substituted for the vermouth. Lillet Blanc is a common example — both vermouth and lillet are fortified white wines, though that’s like saying both Riesling and Pinot Grigio are white wines: they’re similar but not synonymous. James Bond’s famous Vesper martini, introduced in Casino Royale, uses both gin and vodka (3:1) and a measure of Kina Lillet, which is no longer produced but included quinine as an ingredient. Quinine is the same bitter root that gives tonic water its bite, so it’s no surprise 007 enjoyed it with gin.
In the classic era of cocktails, the smallest change to a drink led to a different name, and so some near-martinis are christened accordingly. The Gibson, probably named for Charles Gibson (the illustrator whose “Gibson girls” were the height of glamor at the turn of the 20th century), uses a cocktail onion as its garnish, instead of an olive. A dirty martini splashes some of the olive brine in with the olive, while a Hendrick’s martini — made with Hendrick’s gin, which includes cucumber peel in its botanicals — is served very dry, garnished with translucently thin slices of fresh, cold, English cucumber. If you’re trying a new gin, especially one that prides itself on its botanicals, you may not want the distraction of the olive — a lemon twist may do, or no garnish at all. I’m fond of a peppadew — a sweet-hot South African pepper about the size of an olive — in a wet martini with a bright gin like Citadelle.
The original martini called for a dash of orange bitters. Unlike Angostura and Peychaud’s, orange bitters are harder to come by these days — but several brands do exist, and Angostura’s own orange bitters premiered in stores in mid-2007. Bitters provide an accent, like seasoning your food; the difference between a martini with and a martini without is not profound, but it is noticeable.