In Search of the Perfect Martini
Perhaps no drink in the annals of, well, drinking, has inspired such experimentation as the simple martini. Its origins are hazy. Somewhere back in the 19th Century—perhaps in San Francisco; perhaps in New York City—there are rumors of a drink made with "half a wine glass of Gin, half a wine glass of Vermouth." This, of course, is a half century or so before the iconic “martini glass” was even created, which now at times defines the drink itself over its contents.* (More about this in a moment.) But then sometime around the 1920s or 1930s, the “dry martini” began to be defined by famous urbane alcoholics such as Winston Churchill and H.L. Mencken. Churchill was said to “whisper the word Vermouth to a freshly poured glass of gin.” Luis Buñuel, the surrealist filmmaker, considered it enough to “hold up a glass of gin next to a bottle of Vermouth and let a beam of sunlight pass through it.” Facetious, yes. Infuriatingly clever, no doubt. But even so, this tradition of paying lip service to Vermouth continues to this day. A current incarnation of the "dry martini" is to put the Vermouth in an atomizer and spray a few spurts onto the inside of the glass. But from another perspective, isn’t this minimizing of Vermouth a kind of backdoor disparagement of gin as well? I mean, if you like gin so much, come out and SAY IT! Don’t hide behind a whisper of Vermouth. A hint. An implication. A vestige. A scintilla. The “dry martini” has become a euphemism for a glass of cold gin straight up with an olive or two tossed in. And speaking of, in my role as student of Mixology, my first martini today followed the recipe for “Dry Martini” in one of my favorite books: Vintage Cocktails, published by Assouline © 2009 (with LOTS of great photos of the drinks). Here a “dry martini” consists of “1½ shots of dry Gin to 1½ shots of extra dry French Vermouth”, like the old days. One to one. Not three to one or five to one or ten to absolutely nothing at all except the olives. So I shook** up a drink over ice of equal parts Citadelle Gin and Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth, with two olives tossed in. And while this tasted okay, it's nothing at all like a dry martini, at least the kind we're used to today.
The second version had five parts Bombay Sapphire Gin to one part Vya Extra Dry Vermouth. Five to One—today's industry standard. Yes, this is delicious, and what we've come to expect from a dry martini. But for those modern-day Churchillites who still decry Vermouth, I present to you my own variation of a "dry martini."
Third version. Instead of Five to One (which is two and a half ounces of gin to a half-ounce of Vermouth) mine is Eleven to One (which is two and three-fourth ounces of gin to one-fourth ounce Vermouth). To me, on most days, this is perfect, with a dryness that even Churchill and Buñuel might accept. And you can still taste the Vermouth! And with a delicious, complex Vermouth like Vya, this is a good thing.
Which brings me to the omnipresent “martini bars” that seem to be popping up all over the place in America. Last week I went to a place called Bang! in Charlottesville, VA, a celebrated local martini bar. In fact, the drink menu had at least fifty or so drinks that went by the sobriquet “martini.” Perusing the menu, I was struck by the fact that, while many of these drinks seemed intriguing, and were perhaps quite tasty in their own right, they had nothing to do with a martini except that they were served in a martini glass. My first drink consisted of lychee puree, vodka, and an herbal-infused simple syrup concoction made in-house—but where in all this was a martini? Which begs the question: why couldn’t they just call themselves a “cocktail bar”? What’s wrong with that? But I guess martinis are in. So what’s next, a Manhattan-tini? A Long Island Iced-tini? A Gin & Tonic-tini? A dry martini is a bona fide classic with a sense of history that's undeniable. It is beyond fads and trends. And when you sit behind a bar with a dry martini before you, there is something comforting and satisfying about being part of the cocktail culture continuum.
**I love "James Bond", so all my martinis must be shaken, not stirred. It doesn't diffuse and dilute it that much more than if it were vigorously stirred. The point, after all, is to get it nice and cold, and shaking gets a drink colder than does stirring. (Besides, there's something about those little flecks of ice that float around, like precious jewels.) And don't believe it if they say shaking will "bruise the gin." Gobbledygook! If the liquor's taste is a bit sharper through shaking due to oxidation, then this is more than balanced out by the increased dilution of more ice becoming water. Nit-Pickers! For those of you who are Anti-Shakers, why not just mix refrigerated Gin and Vermouth and omit the ice altogether? But outside of Scaffa (see the video from KEVIN'S COCKTAIL MINUTE: "Marcello's Cigarette Hangs Just Right From His Lips"), a drink needs that dilution. So back to the ice. Why not just ask the person ordering the drink how they want it. "How would you like your martini, Mr. Bond?"
—As a post script to this entry I have since discovered sun-dried tomato filled olives. OMG. And since this discovery took place, I have barely been able to have any other kind of olives in my martini.
Sure, they're happy now. Until they find out the elevator is on the fritz.