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Cocktail 101: How to Make a Martini

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

How many ways are there to enjoy a martini?

Over at Slate, Troy Patterson has given a lot of thought to this question. He staged a Tournament of Martinis, in the pattern of the NCAA basketball tourney. Starting with 80 recipes (yes, 80), he invited readers to submit even more variations and then to also help him winnow the field down. Once he had 64 recipes, he paired them up and let them battle for supremacy.

Along the way, he explored the many possible ways to mix a martini, devoting a series of posts to the ratio of gin to vermouth, the garnish (lemon twist, olive, onion), the dry martini, the sweet martini, and the dirrrrrrrrrrrty martini. Then he concocted his bracket and began the drink-off.

Patterson includes martini variations that I don't think of as such: for example, martinis with Chartreuse, Scotch, elderflower liqueur, or lime juice. Patterson's path is fun to read, but I have no intention of duplicating his work.

Instead I want to strip the discussion down and focus on just a few elements of the martini: the ingredients, the ratio, the preparation, and the presentation (this last part includes the garnish). But first, let me get a few definitions and a bit of history out of the way.

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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

The Martini in Space and Time

No one can trace the exact origins of the martini; its history is lost to us. As Patterson discusses, though, the modern martini derives at least in part from the Martinez. If you've never tried one, you may be surprised by how unlike the martini it is. The Martinez calls for Old Tom gin, which is mildly sweet (unlike the London Dry style used in the martini), sweet vermouth, a teaspoon or so of liqueur (usually maraschino or curaƧao), and orange bitters. The Martinez called for Old Tom simply because that's the gin that was available to bartenders in the 19th century.

Toward the end of that century, as I mentioned in my guide to gin, a new style of gin was developed: a drier style made possible by the widespread adoption of the column still. This style allowed the juniper and other herbal flavors to come to the fore.

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[Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

What We Mean When We Talk About the Dry Martini

By the tail end of the 19th century, Old Tom gin was falling out of favor in American bars, and London Dry took over. And this newer style, it turned out, didn't mix well with sweet vermouth. At some point, the Martinez morphed from a cocktail with sweet Tom gin and sweet vermouth to one with dry gin and dry vermouth. This was the origin of the dry martini.

Don't be fooled. The "dry" martini was initially simply a way to distinguish it from a cocktail with sweet ingredients. It wasn't the arid cocktail of today, with merely a nod in the direction of a vermouth bottle. Some iterations of the "dry" martini included as much vermouth as gin! Today, of course, a fifty-fifty ratio is uncommon, to say the least. You can find this recipe mainly at craft-cocktail bars, usually under such monickers as the "Fifty Fifty," or "Fiddy Fiddy," depending on how hip-hoppy the bartender wants to pretend to be. It's a fine drink, but nothing that anyone today would consider dry.

I wouldn't try this drink anywhere other than a craft-cocktail bar, though. You want to be sure the vermouth is fresh. If you're in a place where you suspect the vermouth has been around since either of the Bush administrations, I wouldn't bother.

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

What We Mean When We Talk About the Martini

Okay, let's get down to it and start talking about ingredients. What's in a martini, anyway? Patterson right away disposes of the vodka martini; this is understandable considering that he wound up with dozens of recipes simply with gin as the base. I will not. I'm going to be a little more catholic here and include vodka martinis in the discussion. (I won't even be pedantic and insist on calling it a Kangaroo.)

I will even confess to sometimes enjoying vodka martinis, but only with a vodka with some character. Tito's is good. Russian Standard is better. Karlsson's is excellent.

I'm going to define the martini thusly: A martini is a cocktail made from gin or vodka and dry vermouth. You might disagree and want me to limit the martini to gin only. That's what the comments are for. Sound off.

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.

Ratios

If we're not already arguing over vodka versus gin, we may well come to blows over the proper ratio of a martini. You see all sorts of lunatic ideas out there. There's the guy who says it must be 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth (how does someone measure that?). Hemingway liked 15 parts to 1. Some bartenders use atomizers to spritz vermouth lightly atop the surface of the drink before service. Then there are the drinkers who expectorate on the vermouth bottle before flinging it out the window onto a passing cat.

I insist that vermouth is necessary in a martini, but beyond that I make no claims. My own tastes vary from martini to martini. Sometimes I like a lot of vermouth; sometimes less. For me, much depends on the gin. A high-proof, junipery bottling such as Tanqueray or Beefeater will stand up to as much vermouth as you want to use. Some of the modern releases, though, dial back on juniper in favor of flowery and citrusy flavors. These gins tend to be sweeter, and so it's appropriate to dial back on the vermouth.

And sometimes, it's all about my mood. I might want a stiff, bracing glass of barely-vermouthed gin, or I might decide I want something lighter and easier to linger over. The martini's good that way; you can mix it differently according to how you feel. Not all cocktails reward such tinkering.

Preparation

Shaken or stirred? I'm going to take a step back and say, That's your call. But here are a few things to think about before you begin.

First, let's toss out this notion of bruising the gin. Shaking a martini doesn't harm the spirit. (As Patterson said in one of his many posts at Slate, "There's nothing you can do to gin that's worse than what it can do to you.")

So, why prefer stirred over shaken? Simple. When you shake a martini, you do two things: first, you aerate it, which introduces tiny bubbles into the drink and makes it cloudy. Second, you break the ice into tiny shards, which float on the surface of the drink when you pour it.

Most bartenders and martini drinkers prefer an unclouded drink without an ice floe atop it. Others, my wife included, like the little shards of ice; they reflect the room's lighting and make the drink sparkle, so I can see the point.

I prefer a stirred martini, cloudless and unsullied by ice chips. It's the closest thing in the world to perfection.

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Presentation

Drinkers for a time (in the 1950s and 1960s) flirted with the idea of eschewing the stemware and drinking martinis from a rocks glass. You can understand the impulse. It's pretty easy for a bartender to fill a glass with ice, pour in some gin or vodka, splash in a small amount of vermouth, stir, and serve. To my shame, I sometimes get lazy and serve my own martinis that way -- although I'd be loathe to serve them that way to anyone else.

But properly, a martini is served up, without ice, in a stem glass. Although I prefer curvy coupes for most of my cocktails, I still love V-shaped stem glasses for martinis.

After that, though, it's a question of garnish. The simplest is the lemon twist, and it's my preference these days for nearly every martini I drink. The gin already contains citrus, and so the lemon oils from the twist enhance the fruit and help it rise up alongside the juniper.

Hemingway liked freezing cocktail onions and tossing one or two into his Gibsons. It's a nice practice. The frozen onion helps keep your drink cold and it doesn't lend as much allium flavor as do room-temperature onions. If you like Gibsons and you haven't made your own onions, try buying frozen pearl onions at the grocery and adding one to your drink.

My least favorite garnish these days is the olive. I still like them sometimes in vodka martinis, but in gin martinis, I feel like they overpower the drink. This is especially true when they're stuffed with blue cheese, almonds, anchovies, cicadas, or whatever. I'm especially turned off when the olive was oil-packed and leaves a slick of oil on the surface of the drink. Gross.

Finally, an idea I never understood: the dirty martini. Think about what happens when you order one from most bars. The bartender spoons a bit of olive brine from the garnish tray into the shaker. You know, the same garnish tray that's been sitting out at room temperature all night. The same one that some jerk sitting at the bar has been dipping his filthy fingers into, to pilfer olives while the bartender's otherwise busy.

I did try one, once, that I kind of liked. One night at Drink, in Boston, I watched a bartender prepare the house's version of the Dirty Martini. He took olives that were brining in a homemade liquid of vermouth and fresh herbs. He muddled the olives into the vodka, splashed in a bit of the vermouth brine, and prepared the drink. He double-strained the drink, discarding the olive pulp before garnishing the drink with fresh olives. The martini was savory, subtly salty, rich-tasting, and lightly greenish from the muddled olive.

I've thrown a lot at you here: history, ingredients, ratios, preparation, and presentation. Now it's your turn. How do you like your martini?

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He lives with wife, son, and cats in Brooklyn. You can berate him on twitter at @dietsch.

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