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.
In mixing glass, stir 2 ounces gin and ½ ounce dry vermouth with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cocktail onion.
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.
In mixing glass, stir 2 ounces gin, ¾ ounce Yellow Chartreuse and 2 dashes orange bitters with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.
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.”
See winemag.com/ratings for full tasting notes and other recommended spirits bottles.
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
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
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
Entertaining with Martinis
Don’t make guests wait while you mix at your next party.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
To stir (not shake).
Most have a dual-measure design, like measuring 1½ ounces on one side and 1 ounce on the other.
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.
Optional, but handy for spearing olives, onions and other garnishes.