For a cocktail with only two ingredients, the martini receives a hell of a lot of airtime. Churchill’s daily consumption is well documented; Bond guzzled them like water. Mad Men’s Roger Sterling took his with vodka, while Hemmingway favoured The Montgomery. Although these men were very particular about how they ordered theirs, the everyman voice comes – as it so often does – from Homer Simpson, who asks for his “full of alcohol”.
When the first martini recipe was jotted down by Jerry Thomas in his 1887 book A Bartender’s Guide, gin was the spirit he used. As gin is made using an infusion of herbs and botanicals, it’s often considered to have more depth and intrigue than vodka. Having said that, many prefer vodka for its clean, crisp, smooth flavour.
“Try both and see which you prefer,” suggests Mia Johansson, co-owner of London’s multi-award-winning bar, Swift. “I drink both in a slightly different way but they are equally tasty. I take my vodka dry and my gin wet.”
Don’t order vodka just to follow Bond. It’s a common misconception he only drank his vodka martinis. In the Ian Fleming novels, his character orders 19 vodka martinis and 16 gin. Which brings us on to…
What’s In A Martini?
The classic martini has become a drink that transcends bartending. It’s made with either gin or vodka, plus a serving of vermouth and ice with a garnish of lemon rind or olives. With so few components, it’s the ultimate test of a mixologist’s skill and there is absolutely no margin for error.
How To Make A Martini: The Classic Recipe
60ml gin or vodka
Twist of lemon peel or three olives
Evenly-sized ice cubes
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and pour in the wet ingredients. Using a bar spoon, stir in the same direction for 20 seconds. No more, no less. Strain the liquid into a frozen martini glass. Add your garnish of choice and little brine from the olives if you’re feeling dirty.
Shaken Or Stirred?
The classic martini is stirred for 20-30 seconds with ice, then strained into a frozen martini glass. Stirring ensures even dilution of the liquid as the ice melts and is easier for bartenders to quality control. The ideal martini has around a 20 per cent dilution. When a martini is shaken, it makes it colder more quickly but is far harder to regulate how diluted the spirit gets. It also adds small shards of ice to the drink – favourable to some; blasphemy to many.
What Makes A Good Martini?
While the favoured technique can vary, all bartenders agree on one thing: the drink must be served ice cold. “You need good-quality ice, completely frozen glassware, high-quality spirit and proper technique,” says Alex Lawrence, co-founder of Porter’s Gin and head of bars for Mr Lyan. “But the most important thing is that it’s served cold for it to be enjoyable. We’re essentially talking about drinking a neat, clear spirit so temperature and dilution rule above everything else.”
How Do I Order It?
“Follow the three easy steps: style, spirit, garnish,” says Lawrence. “For example: ‘dry, gin, with a twist’ or ‘dirty, vodka, with an olive.’ Obviously, making sure you ask politely not only demonstrates good manners but means the bartender will probably care more about your drink.”
If you know the brand of spirit you want, better still. “It always sounds impressive if you know which spirit you prefer,” says Balazs Nagy head bartender at the excellent London cocktail bar Anthracite. “For example, ‘please may I have an extra dry Beluga vodka martini with olives?’ If you’re not sure on the brand or type for you, then it’s best to describe your favourite flavour notes, such as classic, dry, or spicy.”
What Does Dry, Wet And Dirty Mean?
It all refers to the vermouth: “Dry means very little vermouth, wet means a lot of vermouth and dirty means we add a bit of the brine of the olives in the drink, which makes it a little cloudy, or dirty-looking,” says Alessandro Palazzi of the Dukes Bar, which serves arguably the best martini in London.
The Best Gins For A Martini
With this, you’ll pick up lots of coriander, juniper and citrus notes. It complements a martini with a twist of lemon.
This works best in a dirty martini mixed with olive brine. There’s huge rosemary flavours which give a delicious, savoury flavour.
This is perfect for a lighter-style drink that’s big on juniper. It has elegant floral notes that are complex. Take this one with a twist.
A classic expression of a British gin without any overpowering botanicals. This is your pick if you’re serving friends a mix of standard and dirty martinis.
The Best Vodkas For A Martini
Reyka Icelandic Vodka
The citrus notes here work really nicely for a martini that’s smooth and served with a twist.
A great-value pour that creates a martini that’s as smooth as freshly spun silk and responds brilliantly to ultra-low temperatures.
You’re almost guaranteed that any bar that knows how to mix a proper martini will stock this. Works perfectly with either olive brine or lemon.
Product placement or not, this has been Bond’s vodka of choice for his last few outings. It’s crisp and smooth and its light herby notes work well in a dry martini with a twist.
The Best Vermouths For Martinis
Noilly Prat Extra Dry
The classic French vermouth that was used in the original martini recipe. Light with a little spice, it allows the gin or vodka to shine.
A fortified Italian wine made with Italian Moscato d’Asti grapes. Great for a martini that has hints of fruit as the underlaying flavours with a bitter finish.
Cinzano Extra Dry Vermouth
The cheapest on the market, available everywhere and also very good. It’s infused with 35 botanicals indigenous to the Italian Alps, including marjoram and yarrow, which gives a heavy savoury flavour ideal for dirty martinis.
Vermouth Routin Dry
This is a twist on the traditional French vermouth made with blend of Sauvignon Blanc grapes and Jacquère wine, plus 17 other botanicals. Perfect with vodka.
When Is A Martini Not A Martini?
Any number of bastardised martinis have cropped up over the years using ultra-sweet fruit, egg whites and other aberrations that result in a cocktail that’s as much of a representation of a proper martini as a high street suit is to Savile Row. Avoid these at all costs.
The only exception to this rule is the espresso martini, invented by legendary London bartender Dick Bradsell when he was working Fred’s Club in the late 1980s. Legend has it that Naomi Campbell came in one evening asking for a drink that would “wake me up and fuck me up”. Bradsell’s response was a shot of chilled espresso, vodka, coffee liqueur and sugar syrup. Drink with caution. Any more than two is never a good idea.