Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Right Way to Make a Martini (The Long Version)

Can you believe there are respected mixologists and cocktail enthusiasts who don't have the Martini at the top of their favorite cocktails list? Whenever I discover this, it makes me wonder about the credibility of that bartender. WTF is wrong with people.

The reason the Martini is the one drink that brings up such passions is because, correctly made, it tastes like nothing else on this earth, in an amazing way, and so many have fucked up the recipe for so long.

I'm downstairs here next to my wall-mounted Chesapeake map scattered with red pins marking the places I've been, and my over-sized bitters collection. I am enjoying what I consider the cocktail that should be on everyone's favorite drink list -- topping the list, or coming no further down than second. The only reason this cocktail is likely not on the top of your list is because you've been served it wrong.

What follows are my instructions and opinionations on how to make a real Martini. I'm going to spare you the side picture of the cliché glimmering martini glass sitting on a dark bar. I'm giving you no picture at all. This type of post has been made by hundreds of blogs and journalists throughout history so this is not much new, but I want to do it justice in writing alone.

First and foremost, a Martini should never include vodka. They should call a "Martini" made with vodka something else, and I'm sure people more clever than me have put together such names in the past, but frankly, I'm not spending even a half ounce of time on vodka, so from the get-go, a Martini does not have vodka in it. Leave vodka to drunk Russians, floozies, frat boys, and the cast of Jersey Shore.

Second is the choice of vermouth. I've gone over this with the best of Washington DC mixologists, and we've got disagreements here and there, but my personal choice for vermouth is boring: Martini & Rossi "Very Dry" Vermouth. I've sat at my home bar on multiple occasions and sipped various vermouths from brandy snifters side-by-side and M&R wins out -- yes, even better than Dolin.

A word about Dolin vermouth: this is a very small company that has been producing small batch vermouth from France apparently since 1821. In a side-by-side taste test, Dolin is clearly the one you want to drink straight or on the rocks with a lemon twist rather than M&R, but in a Martini, Dolin cannot stand up to any decent London Dry Gin. It's just too light. I swear -- if you do numerous side-by-sides like I have, you will (or should) agree.

As for other vermouths, some people have a Noilly Prat fetish but this is just silly. Christ, the producers recently changed their recipe for the American market -- no sense of history, just marketing. I've always found NP boring. I suppose people like NP because it was supposedly -- and I emphasize the supposedly -- the first vermouth ever used in a Martini. Probably pure bunkum. As for Stock vermouth, Cinzano, and whatever else is out there, I haven't done extensive taste tests but judging from the low price and mass-producers who put out that shit, it's not worth my time.

Again, my choice is the humble Martini and Rossi -- and let's be done with it.

All cocktail ingredients need to be measured. Can you imagine constructing anything of quality without measuring? For the best Martini, the proportions have got to be Three To One -- gin to dry vermouth. I'd strongly suggest small proportions of 1.5 ounces of gin to 1/2 ounce of vermouth; anything more than around 2 ounces of cold liquid served straight up will nearly be the temperature of dishwater for the last sip. Smaller cocktails go quicker, but you'll never skimp on taste.

I could go off on a rant about the ridiculousness of making a "Martini" without vermouth, or any proportion less than 3:1, and I will do so now. The first damage done to putting the correct amount of vermouth in a Martini was during Prohibition. Who the fuck wanted to sneak in a cheap fortified wine during Prohibition? They wanted the hard spirits, not wine. Stuff was hard to get, but gin was cheap to make. So vermouth got neglected, which, in previous years was called for at like equal proportions to the gin in the cocktail. Then, people like Ernest Hemingway wanted to prove how manly he was to be drinking basically cold gin and calling it a Martini -- ooo, that's so tough. This was copied over and over until a Dry Martini (which originally meant just using dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth) was assumed to mean that you should add so little vermouth in with the gin that it didn't add anything to the drink. Think about it: vermouth is not a strong substance. Gin is. Vermouth needs to be at least one part to three of gin to make any dent in the sting of the gin -- ahhh, and what a perfect marriage those two flavors are. I'm so sick of the super-duper-duper "dry"Martini bullshit that nowadays when I hear of someone still talking this nonsense I instantly think of that person as a fairly uncultured rube.

To summarize, don't put less than one part vermouth to three parts gin.

I put orange bitters in my Martini -- usually just a few drops of Regan's Number 6. I've always done it this way, and it adds a nice citrus sharpness to the cocktail. This is a very old tradition, dating to the very origins of the cocktail, which by definition must contain bitters.

When deciding which gin to use, ask yourself: would my grandmother have drunk this gin? If the answer is no, don't buy it. Yes, I'm thinking specifically of that new category of gins target-marketed to people who don't actually like gin -- the cucumber-tasting Bombay Sapphire or ridiculously-priced Hendriks. These things shouldn't be called gins (perhaps "Cucumber Liqueur"?). I can't believe I need to elaborate on the obvious here, but gin should taste like juniper -- that's the dominant flavor. If it doesn't taste like juniper, don't make a Martini of it. If it doesn't say "London Dry Gin" on the bottle somewhere, don't make a Martini of it. My choice: Beefeater. Let's move on.

You need to use ice made from bottled water in ice trays -- the bigger cubes, the better. Pour your 3:1 gin-vermouth-plus-orange-bitters into a clear mixing glass (not into the metal shaker cup). Then fill it with cubes. These cubes must be filling the glass to the point of sticking out over the rim. Never put cubes in halfway; that's just unprofessional. Let all that sit, while you prepare the garnish.

I go for olives, onions or lemon twist equally; it just depends on my mood. I understand those who slam the olive as muddying up the drink with saltwater, but I think it's fine. The Dirty Martini is generally bullshit, but I can see why people want it. If you use olives, just buy the expensive ones, put no more than two on the metal pick and let them drip-dry across the olive jar. I'd say the same about pickled onions: buy the larger more expensive sour ones. Never use sweet onions. A lemon twist is the garnish that fits best with the balance of the vermouth-gin-bitters combo, but I'm usually just not in the mood for it. I have to be in a very rare mood to use a lemon twist. Note: 95% of bartenders can't cut the fucking lemon rind correctly. There should be no pith (white stuff) in a properly-cut lemon twist. I prefer a wide swath cut with a knife, and given a gentle twist over the surface of the liquid. Using a channel knife for the twist is fine, but it always looks a bit too girly for me.

Having let the liquid stand in the ice for a minute while you get the garnish ready, begin to stir with a long barspoon. I bend the handle of the bar spoon so it easily stirs with one hand. This guy does it right (but not for long enough), but that bend I'm talking about makes it even easier. I could list all kind of clever quotes from long-dead drunk writers here about how you never shake a Martini unless you're the fictional character James Bond. I won't. The quotes here are mine. You need to stir a Martini for at least a full minute. Actually, stir the cocktail until it seems like you're stirring a ridiculously long time; at that point, keep stirring. Your hand should be getting a bit tired before you're done. Stirring gets the drink cold longer than shaking, but stirring is important for drinks with mostly spirits because it doesn't cloud it up or add a lot of tiny ice chips therefore watering it down and ruining the whole thing.

A word on location: a Martini is strictly an urban drink. Never consider drinking a Martini in a city or suburb with fewer than 100,000 people and never ever drink a Martini while camping or boating. Good lord.

That's it. Some people get fancy like that stirring bartender in the video and strain with a julep strainer but as long as it's a quality stainer that filters out the god damn tiny ice chips, you're fine. Oh yea, you should let the cocktail glass chill with ice and water before you start any preparation. This really makes a difference, trust me.

This elaboration is necessary. Anything worth doing, is worth doing correctly and in excess.
Dude, this post makes you sound like a real badass. I'm not trying to be cute or sarcastic, I'm being sincere. Let's move on.
Badass indeed. This belongs on the blog's "best of" list. I've read quite a few essays over the years on how to make a proper Martini, and this is the first one to actually get it correct; right down to the choice of ingredients, vermouth ratio and details of preparation. I can only find two minor quibbles:

First, the number of olives in a Martini must be, as the saying goes, "an odd number less than three." This is especially true if you're using small proportions.

Second, the Martini is not an "urban" drink, but rather a civilized one. I might even go so far as to call it a civilizing drink. The location where one drinks it doesn't matter so long as it's made properly and enjoyed in a matter respectful of what it represents.

The inclusion of orange bitters sounds interesting. The only alteration that I've ever allowed to the cocktail (while still calling it a Martini) is the addition of a dash of green chartreuse, which lends an herbal spiciness to the drink. Forgo the olive and stick with a lemon twist if you go this route.

Olives -- yes, you're probably right on that one. I just like the taste of them so much, so I add 2. I do agree that more than 1 makes the drink look closer to salad.

"Urban drink" -- you are correct. I guess I meant that a Martini isn't proper while camping, sitting on the beach, in a log cabin without running water, or on a small sailboat.

Orange bitters -- the Martini originally had orange bitters in it when the Dry Martini evolved some time in the 1890s. This is a very old way of doing it and it's coming back into fashion.

Lemon twist -- you're right. The lemon twist is really the best garnish and fits well with the balance of the drink as a whole. Judge Robert Bork was technically correct in his famous letter to the editor of the Wall St. Journal years back. Bork: "The correct response when offered an olive is, 'When I want a salad, I’ll ask for it.'" I just like olives, even though I agree that it muddies up the cocktail a bit. I try and shake off any olive juice before they go in.

Green chartreuse -- if I could afford the stuff, I would definitely try that. Why don't they sell it in small bottles?
Amen about the vodka! that really chaps my ass. Also, correctly transporting and constructing a martini, hammock camping in WV is a science. When you lay in your hammock under the blacked out WV sky, just memorized by the incredible amount of stars you are lucky to see once a year, being a Baltimore city native, THAT'S LIVING! Living Civilized in fact. The only downfall to this is that you have to use a snifter, because a traditional martini glass is impossible to relax with in a hammock.

Good read, love the blog!

Justin- True Baltimoron
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