The Classic Gin Martini

Classic Martini Cocktail

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Today, the Martini can mean literally a dozen different things.  But should you find yourself at the bar and want a good, stiff cocktail, simply ask for a “Classic Gin Martini”.  If there is even a split millisecond of doubt or confusion on your bartender’s face, ask for a vodka on the rocks instead, or better yet, 2 ounces of gin with a dash of bitters or literally a few drops of dry vermouth, shaken hard for at least a minute.  That is all it is, that is all it ever should be, simple, strong, ice cold.

Why?  Well, the Martini was born out of necessity.  It was made with gin, bitters, dry vermouth, and NEVER anything else.  The concept is simple, it was a stiff, ice cold drink with some basic additives to make the harsh taste somewhat more easy to swallow.

Picture this, its the roaring 1920s in the United States and prohibition is in full swing (no pun intended).  Distilling, bottling, selling or serving any type of alcohol is illegal.  As is anything in life, if you want it to sell through the roof, make it illegal and forbidden.  Such is the case with cocktails in a private club which you had to have a friend or a friend of a friend to get you into.  Not much has changed in 100 years, at least not the social scene.

In order to keep up with the demand of alcohol consumption, gin was literally made in bathtubs (clean ones of course, although it would not matter as the high proof alcohol alone was enough to kill anything from simple bacteria to a healthy human’s stomach lining).  From the bathtub to the barrel, it was flavored with the traditional herbs like juniper berries, but this was still not enough to make the taste easy for one to swallow.  The answer was to mix with bitters and dry vermouth.  Vermouth has a very heavy flavor, even a splash is enough to impart a very different taste to any cocktail.

So up until the James Bond books and movies, Ian Fleming’s character James Bond was an international spy and not always the gentleman portrayed in the movies.  He was a rough and tumble guy who always went against the grain. So when James Bond asked for a Martini,”shaken, not stirred”, he was being a rebel who literally wanted to shake things up because purists insist clear spirits should be stirred.  James Bond later evolved back to the old character in the movies when the bartended asked him if he wanted his martini shaken or stirred and Bond replies “Does it look like I am a man who cares?”  This was the bond in the books that Ian Fleming wanted to embody.

So why should we get upset in the 21st century of how our martinis are made?  Well, the old school and purists will insist a martini is not a martini if its not made with gin.  If you prefer vodka, simply ask for a vodka martini.  If you don’t know what you want, and want to be classy, order a Vesper, which is simply a martini using both vodka and gin.

Every time you alter any ingredient, it becomes a different cocktail.  Here is a simple guide and rule of thumb:

  • Martini: 4 parts Gin, 1 part dry vermouth, garnish with green olive
  • Dry Martini: 5 parts Gin, 1 part dry vermouth
  • Vodka Martini: just replace gin with vodka, add lemon rind garnish instead of olive
  • Vesper: use equal parts gin and vodka with 1/4 part of dry vermouth
  • Gibson: classic martini using a pickled mini onion instead of an olive
  • Buckeye: vodka martini garnished with a black olive

These are acceptable martini options.  Anything else is not a martini, although you might see a Cosmopolitan. A Martini is simply Gin, never vodka or anything else like lemons or chocolate to make a Lemontini or Chocolatini. However, you will see a long list of concoctions under the martini section of a cocktail menu, simply because they are served in a martini glass.
Now that you are educated, move on, enjoy, drink and don’t get caught up in too many details.  Just order what you like… when you approach a bartender, ask him or her for a classic gin martini, a vodka martini, or if you are partial to your brands, ask for a Tanqueray Martini or Stoli Martini – just be prepared to pay more for these premium brands.  But for most purposes, today a gin martini is made with bottom shelf (lowest quality) gin, no bitters and probably more vermouth which is probably not fresh. Just beware, getting a really good classic martini, as simple as it is, is no easy task today because of lack of knowledge.  So if you are in a bar that looks like they might not know how to make a martini well, just order a known brand which is safe, but not sorry.  London Dry Gin works well. If they get it right, order another with premium gin like Hendricks, Monkey 47, or even any from the Bombay line.

I leave you with this recipe, considered to be perfect, at least according to Alton Brown, and I can’t disagree:

  • 60ml or 2 ounces gin of your choice
  • 15ml or .5 ounce or fresh dry vermouth
  • Plenty of clean, fresh ice (not the cubes made from tap sitting in the freezer for a month or more)
  • Drop of bitters, perhaps Angostura, but literally one drop

Add ice to a shaker, pour in vermouth, shake hard for at least 15 seconds, and using the strainer, pour all the vermouth out.  The vermouth is so strong it will cling to the ice and that is all you need.  Add gin, perhaps a dash of bitters, shake hard for another 30 seconds or 30 shakes and pour into a martini glass and garnish. A garnish is very important. Its visually appealing and they are cheap, plus they scream a well-made cocktail. Enjoy,

Cheers!

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