A Proper Martini?

The book has been written on the martini. Actually, several books. But today I found myself shocked by the number of drinks being called martinis in Slate’s recent martini brackets a la March Madness of martinis.

martini march madness
In an alternate world, this could stand for Martini March Madness.

Interestingly enough, I came to wonder at which point do I draw the line when deciding to call a drink a martini. Surely, the line is far away from the Applebees/TGIFriday model of serving adult koolaid in a martini glass spiked with vodka and calling it a “rocking-TINI” [or something similar]. But some of the drinks challenged me. Is a “perfect martini,” as in a Perfect Manhattan a Martini? Sure, I’ll buy that. But what about half a shot of St. Germain? What about dashes of Absinthe? Then what about a dash of Absinthe and Maraschino? 

I mean this is hotly contested ground we’re entering. I know, I’ve always stood by the idea that adding a couple dashes of orange bitters made a martini [and a good one]. I’ve always believe a dash or two of something aromatic and you’re still in martini country. But Grapefruit Juice? Sure, it can be delicious but it’s not the same cocktail anymore.

not a martini
Call it what you want, but this is NOT a martini.

All of this got me to the point of wondering, what would be my signature martini? Gin and Vermouth is a heavenly, and flexible combination. But given that I believe you have at most, 2-3 dashes of something else to distinguish yourself, it’s going to be a challenge. But fear not, because it’s two decisions before your dashes that really set apart the players from the wannabes. Let me explain.

Which Gin goes in your Martini?
There’s a wide variety of styles to choose from. There’s capital “s” Styles like Old Tom, Barrel Aged, Classic or Contemporary. But to be a martini pro you need to play with the small “s” styles. Take some Dorothy Parker Gin, mix it 3:1 with Vermouth. Is that a martini? Yes. Now take some Big Gin and mix it 3:1 with Vermouth. Wildly different, no?

Some cocktail recipes might have you believing that this is the same drink no matter which gin. But we’re talking martini here, and when you talk martini, you’re trading in nuances. So don’t punt on this decision. If you’re going to make a martini which makes a bold statement. The gin choice has to be part of the recipe.

What kind of ratio do you prefer?
Vermouth choice is secondary to the gin choice, but I don’t think you can entirely cast this aside. Fresh Vermouth is always going to taste better. But when you’re getting into the specifics of a martini this is where you make all of the difference. 3:1? That’s a cocktail and your vermouth is important. 8:1? I think you’re losing some of what makes the martini and cocktail. This ratio, and striking the balance between the notes of the vermouth you’ve chosen, without overpowering the gin is crucial.

Thirdly, and perhaps least important, the dashes.
This is where most of the emphasis will be placed. But this is the least important. You only get 2-3 dashes here, so make them count. Choose notes which aren’t in your gin or vermouth. Choose notes which will stand out even to be palates that aren’t used to picking out the subtle hint of coriander in that gin. Choose notes which are unique. But don’t choose too many. 2-3 dashes or no more than 2 ingredients.

Any more ingredients and you’re not going to be able to tell what your novel notes are. Any more of a pour and you’ve made another cocktail, time to turn in your martini card.

Making up a martini
Making up a martini

The Martini Is In
Let me tell you about my martini variation. Don’t be put off by the ingredients on the left, this is all about what’s on the right. But primarily the gin.

I’m a martini purist and really enjoy a Plymouth or Martin Miller’s in a 3:1 ratio with a simple lemon twist. But this isn’t about tradition. This is about pushing the envelope just a tad.

I chose Few American Gin. It uses a white whiskey at its base, but it still had the essential gin like character. Warm juniper, a couple hints of citrus and vanilla. Very inviting, but unmistakably gin but with a hint of white whiskey.

Noilly Prat Vermouth is doing fill in duty because I was out of Vya. But I’m not going to say anything bad about it here. It works well in the context of this drink.

And for my novel notes I’m adding a dash of Maraschino and a dash of perhaps my favorite bitters in the world, Fee Brothers’ Walnut Bitters. I chose Maraschino because of the way it works with the vanilla notes and the warm white whiskey taste of Few Gin. The Walnut was chosen for a similar reason. It’s a bright distinctive nutty note, that even in a single dash gives a faint warm caramelized nut note. Both the cherry and the walnut come through, but the drink is still about showcasing the gin.

My ratio is 3:1, gin to Vermouth. I really want to get that herbal and sweetness from the Vermouth to shine here. Few Gin can be a little rough around the edges, but here it is supremely balanced.

Shake or Stir? Folks, I’m not even going to get into this. You can do whatever you would prefer. The final drink’s essential character is preserved in either situation [the taste, really].

The Martini is In

The Martini is In Cocktail Recipe
3 parts Few American Gin [or other gin with a similar whiskey style base. Smooth Ambler’s Greenbrier Gin, Ingenium Gin are among those that work well here.]
1 part Dry Vermouth [Dolin, Noilly Prat, Martini and Rossi, or Vya all work. If pressed, I prefer Vya’s Dry Vermouth]
A dash of maraschino. Do it as if you were doing a rinse. Drop it in, swish it around the glass, pour our any that remains [I said dash! if any comes out, you dashed too much!]
A dash of walnut bitters [one dash is enough to give it that distinctive amber hue.]

Stir with ice, strain into a cordial glass. Or martini glass is you have one around.

Final Cocktail
Small portion is because I was experimenting. These drinks are potent, you know?

Overall? This drink is a supremely balanced cocktail that calls to mind hints of a Manhattan and Martini simultaneously. It’s a play on the idea that a martini can not taste exactly as a martini, while still being a martini at its heart.

Play with the gin. Don’t play so much with other ingredients. There’s so much diversity in the flavor of gins these days that if you want a martini that tastes like there’s a tablespoon of Elderflower in it, you can find it. Want a martini that tastes like you’ve used some Creme De Violette in it without adding any? I think you can find that one too.

In conclusion, to make the perfect martini here are my steps:

1) Let the Gin do the heavy lifting. Consider your gin choice.
2) Pick a ratio that highlights the gin but doesn’t drown it. Somewhere between 3-5:1 is usually the sweet spot. Any less and you’re the kind of person who might be looking for a gin old fashioned. Again, sorry Mr. Churchill, but that’s not a martini.
3) Add a dash of something to stand out. But not so much a dash that what you added a dash of stands out. You’re adding a triangle player to the band, not a cowbell.

I’m not a purist. But I do think its important for the sake of discussion to understand what’s a martini and what is not. A martini should come with expectation- just as any other cocktail- the gimlet for example- you know what you’re getting and you should expect to get that when you ask for it.  It’s not okay to use lemon in the gimlet. Or add a barspoon and a half of Mezcal. It might be great, but we’re communicating here and we should communicate that “hey, umm our Mezcal Lemon Gimlet, really isn’t a gimlet at all.”

Of course, please feel free to disagree with me or take sides.


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2 thoughts on “A Proper Martini?”

  1. 5 Parts Navy Gin ( Plymouth or Royal Dock), 1 Part Dry Vermouth (Dolin or Noilly) – make sure it’s not oxidised. Chilled glass – small twist of lemon. Stir.

  2. My gin of choice for a dry martini is always Bombay Sapphire. I will use other gins for other cocktails (Greenalls is good for an Eastside or example because it has less of a juniper bite than the Sapphire).
    The vermouths are so important as I have discovered, almost as important as the gin is. I’m still getting my head wrapped around them. I generally use the Martini and Rossi extra dry. The Noilly Prat is a close second. I found that I don’t like the Cinzano much at all, though I’ve only tried it once at a bar where I’m not sure the bartender really knew how to make a good martini, so it may simply have been a bad gin that made the vermouth seem unappealing.