Martinis: A Primer

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September 1, 2012 by Steven

Yes, please.

“Shaken, not stirred.”

Any movie fan worth their salt will instantly recognize the cocktail referred to in that quote. The martini. A mainstay of both cinema (James Bond) and television (Brian on Family Guy), it’s the drink of choice for any true silver screen socialite. It has also given us the single funniest moment in movie history in Charlie Chaplin’s The Idle Class.

As the mason jar is to country beverages, the martini glass symbolizes a level of supposed class and sophistication above a simple glass of wine or beer. It’s also usually a great deal more expensive. Just a few weeks ago while watching Goldfinger at the historic Paramount Theatre, I bought one $10 martini that tasted like a solid three bucks. Granted it came in a plastic martini glass, but I’d like to think I was supporting the arts.

Sadly, the simple and sophisticated martini has fallen from grace in recent decades. Walk into any hip, uptown establishment and you’ll often see a “martini menu,” a number of near-confectionary concoctions that are as much a true martini as Peter Sellers was a true James Bond. Seriously, if you are the person who thinks your apple-chocolate-strawberry-tini is in any way shape or form a martini I hope the corpse of F. Scott Fitzgerald rises from the grave and beats some sense into you with your own shaker.

Let’s start with the basics: What is a martini? The martini is as iconic as it is contested.

A martini, as defined by Wikipedia is “a cocktail made with gin and vermouth, and garnished with an olive or a lemon twist. Over the years, the martini has become one of the best-known mixed alcoholic beverages. H. L. Mencken called the martini ‘the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet’and E. B. White called it ‘the elixir of quietude.'”

That’s an awful lot of big words, and honestly it’s a bit more verbose than need be. Let’s break it down to the most absolute, simple elements.

A martini is a cocktail (a term which, admittedly, has taken on a negative connotation in popular culture) that is made up of primarily gin or vodka, less than half an ounce of dry vermouth, and then one garnish that is added in-glass.

We’ll start at the top and work our way down:

The Liquor

A martini is traditionally made with gin, but could also be made with vodka. The very same wiki calls that a “vodka martini” to differentiate it from the traditional gin, but most establishments these days would likely consider it interchangeable. Gin is essentially a neutral spirit that has been infused with botanicals, so vodka is an acceptable second as it’s simply the spirit alone.

Why not other clear liquors? Why not silver rum or tequila? Well, you could. This is America after all. But you won’t have the same product in the end, much like how a Sidecar or an Alton Brown Margarita share a similar assembly, but come to very different conclusions. Honestly, you’re doing a disservice if you try to make a martini out of a different liquor, because a martini is designed for gin specifically. You wouldn’t make a whiskey sour with gin, would you? (It’s gross. Don’t ask.) Of course not. Let’s move on.

The Vermouth

Vermouth is a fortified dry white wine steeped with botanicals.  Very similar to gin, it is the compliment to many cocktails, however, it’s role in the martini is key.

This is possibly the trickiest area in the world of martinis. The basic idea is that the vermouth is supposed to quietly play support in the background of the gin or vodka, so how to achieve the perfect amount of dry vermouth is an area of much debate. Some say to pour it over the ice or into the glass and then pour it out, letting the residual carry over. Some say a splash at the beginning or end. Amazon even sells a vermouth sprayer just for making martinis.

Admittedly, it was my mother who taught me how to make martinis, and she was a student of the Winston Churchill school of martinis. He was famous for saying when he prepared a martini, he would pour the gin into the mixer, then look towards France before pouring the gin into the glass. That was all the vermouth he cared for. My mother would at least waive the still-closed bottle over the mixer, Tucson being quite a bit farther from France and all. I credit her with thinking that a martini was a cold glass of gin until I was well into my twenties.

Noilly Prat Dry VermouthRegardless of what method you use, you should generally use less than half an ounce total. And whatever you do, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT use Martini and Rossi vermouth. All respect to the folks at Martini & Rossi, but honestly their vermouth is disgusting. Once my liquor sage DrinkHacker wrote a review of Noilly Prat vermouth, I was sold. Honestly, this stuff is great. You know in all those 20’s novels where people say they’re drinking glasses of straight vermouth? This was the stuff they were drinking.

Most martinis will use dry vermouth as opposed to sweet vermouth, but both can be used in the same very limited quality. There are plenty of sub-categories of martinis that use sweet vermouth or some combination of the two, but it’s up to you to develop your own preference.

Which brings us to the final element:

The Garnish

While still an ingredient, the final element has to be considered a garnish as it is the first and only non-liquid element that should go into your martini. To my parents, it was a “twist,” a large section of lemon peel. To my brother, it was always olives. To those that prefer a Gibson that I’ve yet to ever meet, it’s a small cocktail onion. It’s unwise to stray from those three options.

Like a sprig of parsley on a finished steak, the final element is one part decor and one part flavor. It is placed in the glass itself, not part of the mixing process, and is usually consumed separately from the bulk of the drink itself. Granted, there is a “dirty” martini, which will have a splash of olive brine, but it’s a finishing element, window dressing to an already complete drink.

That’s it. A martini and any sub-class of martini is and can only be made up of those three elements in the same proportions. Adding in other things puts you in Cosmopolitan or Screwdriver territory, which are another discussion entirely. They’re not bad, they’re just not a martini. They’re martini-based cocktails.

The great battle: Shaken or stirred?

This is where things get messy. The actual assembly of the two core elements. Ian Fleming would say you must shake them. Alton Brown says you stir them. James Bond doesn’t get a vote because by definition his Vesper is not really a martini (it has two core liquor elements and Kina Lillet, making it a completely different cocktail), but this once again is a matter of preference.

There is one thing worth mentioning that is fundamental. This is something that my father, an M.D., a decorated military officer and staggeringly well-read gentleman, did not even realize until I explained it to him less than three months ago: the gin or vodka must be at room temperature.

I don’t know what happened in America that made everyone think that vodka must be kept in the freezer. I think the rise of shots and college culture must have a hand in it, but the point of both shaking and stirring is to slightly dilute the liquor while dropping the temperature. If your liquor is already freezing when you put it over the ice, you’ll end up with a cup of gin and no matter what Churchill says, that’s not a martini. That’s a shot of unhealthy proportions.

Seriously. You’re not in college anymore. Take your vodka out of the freezer.

Shaking or stirring actually has a distinct effect on the chemical make-up of your finished cocktail, according to an interesting test done by Gizmodo. Stirred keeps more potency in the final product, while shaking dilutes slightly more but renders a colder drink due to the increased exposure to the surface area of the ice.

Both methods are still perfectly valid and only true aficionados will be able to tell the difference when it ends up in a glass in front of you. Far more rests in what liquor you choose to start and the supporting vermouth and garnish than the method of assembly that I personally think shaken or stirred is really a matter of how much cold your hands can tolerate.

The martini is as much a mainstay in my beverage arsenal as any good movie is on my Netflix queue. It’s the sort of thing one sips and enjoys over the course of a good film or within the first five minutes of a bad one. Just be careful! Martinis are pricy when you are dining out, and two martinis can easily end up being between $20 and $30 at the end of the night. Meanwhile, $30 worth of martinis at home might land you in the hospital before you’re finished with your movie!


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