Meditations on the Martini

IMG_20150609_172925The Classic Martini is the godfather of cocktails. Although other drinks, including its cousin the Manhattan, predate it, the Martini is a yardstick by which we measure virtually all other drinks. It is likely that no other cocktail has been so misunderstood by history and bastardized by misguided trends. And yet no other cocktail shines with such simple elegance. I will first tell you how to make a proper martini, and then I will discuss the merits and demerits of its many variations.

First, a recipe:

  • 2 ounces of Plymouth gin
  • ½ ounce of Dolin Blanc vermouth
  • 1 dash of Regan’s orange bitters

Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir about fifty times, until at least 1/3 of the ice has melted. Strain into a coupe glass or small martini glass.

Cut a generous slice of peel (careful to avoid pith) from a fresh lemon, and rub the outside of it over the edge of the glass. Then squeeze the lemon over the glass so that a few drops of lemon oil float on top of the drink. Discard the peel, or twist it into a spiral to use as a garnish.

This is a proper Classic Martini. Note that it uses gin, not vodka. Note that it uses lemon peel, not an olive or an onion. Note that it uses a brand of vermouth that costs more than six dollars. Note that it uses bitters. These are all necessary to provide the crisp, clean, complex, refreshing beacon of light that the Classic Martini represents. When we want to enjoy a classic cocktail, it is like stepping into a time machine. The ingredients above are the best modern representations of the ingredients that would have been used when the martini was at the pinnacle of its fame, in the years just before Prohibition.

If you prefer a martini on the rocks rather than straight up, that’s your business. It isn’t our preference, but it’s acceptable in polite society.

Perhaps the most common variation is the “dirty” martini, which uses olives as a garnish and a splash of olive juice to give the drink a briny flavor. Unlike the erstwhile fictional detective Stone Coldwater in our serialized novel, this is not an abomination to us. It has its time and place. We are tempted to say that the time and place is in the 1970s at a golf resort or yacht club. Though not entirely offensive, it is rare that we are in the mood for a dirty martini these days, especially at a bar, where the state of the olives and olive brine may be questionable. Even at home, we have strayed away from this variation of late, although we used to enjoy them from time to time in the early days of our cocktail explorations. That being said, done well, a dirty martini can be reminiscent of a beautiful day at the beach, the salty scent and soothing roar of the waves, the clean air, the sand between your toes. Gaze through the haze of olive brine at the refracting light of your bar-side lamp, and you can imagine the sun setting gently behind the ocean.

Another variant is the Gibson, which uses a small pickled onion instead of an olive. We have never had any use whatsoever for this drink.

A variation that took hold in the late 20th century is the vodka martini. Vodka lacks the depth that gin gives the drink. The herbal and floral notes of gin play well with the herbal and floral notes of the vermouth, and the bitters tie it all together in a nice, clean package. The key word here is clean. We don’t mean to denigrate vodka, generally, but we respectfully don’t think it belongs in a martini. We especially don’t agree with the idea of an “extra extra dry vodka martini” which is really just chilled vodka in a glass. If there is no vermouth and no bitters, it isn’t a cocktail, and if it isn’t a cocktail, it isn’t a martini.

We will not speak of “fun”-tinis. Those really are an abomination, and we have already said too much about them by even mentioning them by name.

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