The Tastes of Texas: The Cocktail Manifesto -- Part III, The Martini

With care, the right ingredients, and a little bit of effort, anyone can make a good drink.

I find if I stick with the clear liquors-- vodka, gin-- I know where I stand.

-- Roger Sterling, Mad Men.

Over the last several weeks, we have explored traditional cocktail making. The first post of this series looked at the Manhattan and some cocktail making basics. The second post looked at a variety of sour cocktails. Now we confront the Martini.

I have saved the Martini for last for a reason. The Martini brings up a lot of disagreement, which represents a conflict between traditional methods and our modern culture and tastes. A lot of this is just silly nonsense -- I really don't care what you drink, I just want you to be given the opportunity to find new things that you might enjoy -- but we can't ignore these little debates when discussing the Martini.

This post deals with these debates around the "proper" way to make a Martini. To set this up, here is a basic Martini recipe:

Gin or vodka

Some debatable quantity of dry vermouth

olives

You take the liquids and combine them with ice in some way. When done, you strain into a cocktail glass, and serve with olives.

That is a pretty strange recipe. Everything in italics is up for debate. So it seems the only thing generally agreed on with the Martini is that it involves olives.

Let's tackle each of these issues one by one:

1. Gin or vodka? In the first part of this series, I made some disparaging remarks about vodka. I was mostly kidding, but the fact remains that I do not drink vodka, and I am not sure what people who are drinking vodka Martinis are going for. Particularly if you like a really dry vodka Martini. That isn't really a cocktail; that is chilled ethanol and water in a cocktail glass.

But, if you dislike the taste of gin, by all means drink vodka. I can't stop you; I can only hope to contain you, and limit your damage to society.

2. Shaken or stirred? I don't think anyone would be shaking Martinis if it weren't for Ian Flemming's idiosyncratic preferences. Thanks to Mr. Flemming, and the fact that shaking makes this drink faster to prepare for a bartender, shaking Martinis has become rather standard.

Shaking has an advantage; it gets the drink cold quickly. It will save you 20 seconds that you can use for more meaningful pursuits. There is also some pseudo-scientific nonsense (*) about "bruising the spirit," which Flemming posited as desirable (others view it as bad). And that is the case for shaking.

The case in favor of stirring has multiple elements. The first is visual. I believe that it is very important that a drink look a particular way. Shaking can make the drink cloudy by introducing tiny air bubbles. A Martini is supposed to be perfectly transparent. The second advantage of stirring is that you won't be as likely to introduce those little ice shavings into your drink that float to the top. I don't want these, but you may not care as much.

By all means shake your Martinis if you prefer. I stir mine. It is the more traditional approach, and the result looks more polished. Serious snobs will be impressed.

(*I am happy to be wrong about this point on bruising gin or vodka. It could be real, but in researching this piece I was unable to find much in the way of systematic experimental data on this point. There is a fluorescence quenching study that suggests shaking does affect the antioxidant content in a Martini. Still, I am sceptical that shaking changes the chemical composition of the drink enough to substantially change the flavor, particularly when weighed against the other larger and more noticeable effects associated with shaking a drink.)

3. How much vermouth should be used? This is a matter of considerable debate. I have seen people wash the cocktail glass with vermouth and then pour it out, adding no more to the drink. I find this perplexing. While an absinthe rinse is commonly used in drinks like the Sazerac (similar to an Old Fashioned, but with an absinthe rinse and Peychaud bitters), dry vermouth isn't so strong in flavor, and this wash doesn't have much of an impact.

At the other extreme, there are Martini recipes that use as much as a 2:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, similar to the proportions used in a Manhattan. In my view, that is too much.

Embury encouraged his readers to use a 7:1 gin to vermouth ratio. That clearly gets you to the dry end of the spectrum. As a practical matter, I do all of my measuring by eye in my shaker cap, so I am not sure how exactly to get to a 7:1 ratio of anything.

When I make a Martini, I typically ask the drinker about their preferences. My personal taste is at about a 3:1 ratio of gin to vermouth.

4. A dirty Martini, that is OK, right? Sure, why not. You make a dirty Martini by adding a little bit of the brine from the jar of olives into the shaker. I advise going easy on this, and using a very small amount. Once you do this, there is probably less harm in shaking the drink, as it will end up somewhat cloudy anyway.

I don't make many dirty Martinis, but I have been known to have one occasionally. There is no problem with variety.

5. What about all these other drinks, like pomegranate or apple Martinis? These aren't Martinis. They are just named that for branding purposes. Martini sounds sophisticated and classy. Many of these drinks are little more than jungle juice served up in a cocktail glass.

If you look up recipes for a pomegranate Martini, you will find ones that look like this one:

2 oz citrus vodka
1/2 ozfresh lemon juice
1/4 ozfresh pomegranate juice
1 oz simple syrup

Let's analyze this recipe. It has liquor, lemon juice, and simple syrup. That makes it a sour. It also looks like a sugar bomb (it deviates significantly from the 4:2:1 ratio of booze/lemon juice/syrup that I have recommended). While you might actually require all that sugar to overcome the bitter taste of the pomegranate juice, more than likely it is a drink tailored to someone with Ruby Tuesday's tastes.

Additionally, this recipe uses a flavored vodka, which is a product that I can happily live without.

Google turned up many other variations on this particular drink. All were really just sours, with different substitutions made. Likewise, searches on apple Martinis also turn up things that are really closer to sour cocktails.

So what are we to make of these new Martinis? On one hand, I don't care what you call anything. Language evolves, and perhaps the word "Martini" no longer means what it used to mean. Perhaps it now means something more or less the same as the word "cocktail."

On the other hand, words have to mean something. If we start calling everything a Martini, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing to the definition of a word. And we also have to sort out what nomenclature we will use for an actual traditional Martini.

I am not the only person on to this nonsense. In my search for odd Martini recipes, I ran across thisisnotamartini.tumblr.com, which contains a list of experimental cocktails. Some, like the Chicken N Waffle Martini, sound incredibly hard to imagine drinking.

I was sad that my search for an "artichoke, kimchi, and deer sausage Martini" turned up nothing. Time to get to work.

Summary

I don't know why there is so much disagreement about how to make a Martini. There isn't a comparable disagreement on making other classic cocktails like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. I don't think that all of this disagreement is a bad thing. It simply forces us to be fairly specific when ordering the drink.

Before we wrap up, I received this tip the other day from BurntOrangeJuice, and figured I would pass it along. It pertains to some experimentation he has been doing while mixing Manhattans.

When I embarked on my first trip to get the makings of a Manhattan, which also happens to have always been my favorite cocktail, I didn’t know much about the different options available for sweet vermouth. Due to my naiveté on the subject, I ended up buying the Martini and Rossi Sweet Vermouth which made a perfectly fine Manhattan combined with the decent rye whiskey I bought. Now, though, I have been turned on to Carpano Antica, and man, I have to say the difference is night and day. Last night, I made two manhattans, one with Martini and Rossi and the other with Carpano Antica, and tried a sip of each side-by-side. The one with the Carpano was head and shoulders better than the one with M&R, so much so that I immediately poured out the Martini and Rossi version and threw away what was left of the M&R bottle. I was just stunned by how much of a difference the quality of the sweet vermouth turned out to make.

I have to be honest, I have never compared different vermouths. I typically use Martini and Rossi because it is so widely available, and makes a decent drink. Now I have something new to try.

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