There’s No Wrong Way to Drink a Martini, Depending on Whom You Ask

Art Deco-style illustration of martini glass and shaker
Illustration by John Mattos

The iconic Martini, a bracing mix of gin and vermouth, seems like it ought to be the most straightforward drink in the world. Yet, it’s often misunderstood.

Even the most rigorous historians can’t pinpoint the Martini’s conception. Did it first show up at New York’s Manhattan Club or Turf Club? Or in Martinez, California, with sweetened Old Tom gin? And when did it start spawning so many variations? Most agree, however, that its heyday began in the 1880s, which coincides with the advent of the “Dry Martini.”

Today, “dry” is code for “minimal vermouth,” says Robert Simonson, author of The Martini Cocktail (Ten Speed Press, 2019). But that’s not how it was first interpreted.

“In the drink’s early years, ‘dry’ meant a Martini made with dry French vermouth, as opposed to sweet Italian vermouth,” he says. “Or one made with London dry gin rather than Old Tom gin. Or both.”

After World War II, the Dry Martini enjoyed a second wave of enthusiasm. By then, it was codified into juniper-forward London dry gin mixed with a small amount of dry vermouth. Fast forward to the 1950s, and the vodka version would also become commonplace.

And now, following the often oversweetened, oversized ’tinis of the 1980s and ’90s, a third Golden Age has arrived. The clean, crisp lines of the Martini are embraced once again. The dry style remains ubiquitous, but “wet” versions with plenty of vermouth abound as well. What hasn’t changed is the delight in endless tweaks to customize this singular cocktail. Read on for all the details to design your favorite version.

History in a Glass

At first, Simonson says, the drink didn’t have an official glass. It wasn’t unusual to receive one in a small wine glass, a coupe or even a flat-bottomed tumbler.

The iconic V-shaped glass likely predates the Martini and wasn’t originally associated with it. In 1925, Austrian glassware company Lobmeyr unveiled its Ambassador glasses at a Paris exhibition, and they were brought later to New York.

“All the glasses had a severe conical aspect, very much in keeping with the voguish Art Deco lines of the time,” says Simonson.

The shape was adopted widely in the decades that followed. Between 1950 and 1970, a number of bars and restaurants hung neon signs that depicted the familiar V-shaped glass adorned with a glowing garnish. Turn the page to read up on other popular glasses.

Gibson

In mixing glass, stir 2 ounces gin and ½ ounce dry vermouth with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cocktail onion.

Martini

In mixing glass, stir 2 ounces gin or vodka and ¾ ounce dry vermouth with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist or olive.

Alaska

In mixing glass, stir 2 ounces gin, ¾ ounce Yellow Chartreuse and 2 dashes orange bitters with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

Vesper

In mixing glass, with apologies to Casino Royale, stir 1½ ounces gin, ½ ounce vodka and ¼ ounce Lillet Blanc with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

Shaken or Stirred?

Ever since fictional spy James Bond famously ordered his drink “shaken, not stirred,” confusion has reigned. For a traditional Martini, which contains spirits, vermouth and no fruit juices, bartenders say that stirring is the way to go.

“What happens when you shake a Martini is this: Dilution happens rapidly,” says Ryan Gavin, beverage director at New York City’s Gran Tivoli, which offers a full menu of martini variations. The drink will get cold, he says, but “the result is often weak and insipid.”

Art Deco-style illustration of martinis with Tanqueray, Absolut and Lustau Vermut
Illustration by John Mattos

Bottle Picks

See winemag.com/ratings for full tasting notes and other recommended spirits bottles.

Gin

Beefeater London Dry: A versatile pick that balances juniper and citrus

Tanqueray London Dry: Clean and classic, with strong juniper and faint floral notes

Plymouth: Soft and relatively neutral; won’t fight with strong-flavored ingredients

Citadelle: Brisk, clean and pleasantly citrusy

Aviation: Robust and flavorful, with hints of grapefruit and caraway seed

Vodka

Absolut Elyx: Clean, soft and mildly sweet

Hangar One: Distilled from a mix of grape and grain; overall neutral, with a fruity-floral hint

The Street Pumas: Full-bodied, accented by almond sweetness

Vermouth

These are listed from most to least dry. Sweet vermouth is also great, but since it’s rarely used for a Martini, it’s skipped here.

Mancino Vermouth Secco: Bone dry; racy lemon peel acidity plus sage and lemongrass hints

Cinzano Extra Dry: Versatile and crisp, with a whiff of stone fruit

Dolin Blanc Vermouth de Chambéry: Herbaceous, fresh and faintly bitter, in a good way; Dolin makes an excellent dry version, too

Lustau Vermut Blanco: Fino Sherry-based vermouth sweetened with Moscatel; grassy and mild

Alessio Vermouth Bianco: Fresh and breezy, with a hint of ripe pear

Art Deco-style illustration of martinis with Nick & Nora glass
Illustration by John Mattos

Entertaining with Martinis

Don’t make guests wait while you mix at your next party.

Option #1

Pre-batch. A growing number of bartenders use this technique. At Sauvage in Brooklyn, New York, Bar Director Will Elliott pre-mixes 5½ parts gin, 1 part vermouth and 2 parts water, plus orange bitters. He decants the mixture into bottles and stashes them in the freezer. This technique creates a luxurious, almost syrupy texture and “absolutely frigidly cold” temperature. That said, Audrey Saunders, the famed owner of New York City’s Pegu Club, has tweeted that she’s no fan of batched Martinis. To stir and serve “should remain [a] sacred ritual,” she says.

Option #2

DIY. Some people have very specific preferences, so why not encourage guests to mix their own? This can also be a good ice-breaker. Set out a card with one or two classic recipes alongside a few bottles of gin, vodka, vermouth, some bitters and plenty of garnish options like lemon, grapefruit and orange twists. You can also add savory options like olives, onions and caperberries, or even fresh herb sprigs or edible flowers.

V-shaped

Pro: It offers plenty of room for extra olives to nestle at the bottom.

Con: The wide-mouthed top makes it easy for the drink to slosh over the rim.

Fact: An oversized ’90s-style glass holds a double, so sip slowly.

Coupe

This saucer-shaped glass, once claimed to be formed in the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breast, can typically hold 4–6 ounces. The small size is an advantage. A larger glass means the drink may warm up before it’s finished.

Nick & Nora

This is named for hard-drinking sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, featured in Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 detective novel The Thin Man. It has a deeper bowl with a more pronounced curve and thinner lip than a coupe, which makes for easy sipping.

Rocks

Served with ice, a “Martini on the Rocks” is a casual option popularized in the late ’50s and ’60s. Today, it’s seen mostly at old-school restaurants and bars. The ice keeps everything cold and also dilutes the drink as it melts, ideal for those who find “up” Martinis too potent.

Glassware Guide

“Cocktail glass” can refer to a variety of stemmed glasses. The ones listed above, stemmed or not, are all Martini-appropriate. Stash one in the freezer for 20–30 minutes; a chilled glass keeps a drink cold longer.

50-50 Martini

Accessories

You don’t need much equipment to mix a Martini, but here are a few tools to make the job easier, more precise or simply more fun.

Mixing glass or tin

As functional or decorative as you please.

Barspoon

To stir (not shake).

Jigger

Most have a dual-measure design, like measuring 1½ ounces on one side and 1 ounce on the other.

Strainer

A Julep strainer, with a perforated bowl, should fit neatly in your mixing glass to hold back ice. A Hawthorne strainer, which has a coiled spring, is meant to strain citrus pulp in shaken drinks, but it works here, too.

Cocktail picks

Optional, but handy for spearing olives, onions and other garnishes.

Published on December 19, 2019
Topics: Cocktails


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