By Jesse Buchter
There’s really only one cocktail that opens bar patrons up to an interrogation. Gin or vodka? Dry or wet? Dirty? Olives or twist? Shaken or stirred? There are nearly an infinite number of ways to make a Martini and still call it such. Set aside the classic variations – Martinez, Gibson, Vesper – and definitely set aside all of the modern variations – Espresso Martini, Appletini, or whatever fruit, confection, or flower-based concoction someone decided to chill, serve up, and call a martini. Even then, you’re still dealing with a nearly infinite matrix of ratios, spirits, and garnishes. So, what exactly is a Martini?
Before opening myself up to criticism from cocktail enthusiasts and bar aficionados, I should clarify that I am not qualified to, nor will I try to rewrite the martini taxonomy here. However, I think that bartenders like myself and patrons alike could all benefit from a parsing down of the varied definitions and clouded history of this cocktail.
At its core, a martini is gin and vermouth, chilled, and served up in a stemmed glass without ice. The drink’s exact origins are about as ambiguous and disputed as its recipe, and probably best left to cocktail historians. Early martini recipes date back to the late 19th and early 20th century and often included a couple of dashes of bitters (usually orange bitters) or even a splash of orange liqueur such as curuçao. Gin and vermouth were rarely substituted for. However, what was, and continues to be, highly debated is the ratio of gin to vermouth. Early recipes tend to call for between two and three parts gin to one part vermouth. Some recipes even call for a one to one ratio, which later became known as a Fifty-Fifty Martini. Over time palettes favored drier cocktails with less vermouth. Thus the ever-popular Dry Martini was born, typically using around a six to one ratio. It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that the Vodka Martini came into vogue followed by its sweeter, twice-removed cousins like the Appletini, Chocolate Martini, and many, many more.
As a result of this century-long game of martini telephone, just about every bartender has a different idea of what to make when someone orders a Martini without further specification. For me, it’s a three to one ratio of gin to dry vermouth– perhaps out of reverence for the classics, or perhaps because I just prefer gin and a bit more vermouth. For many, it’s a dry vodka Martini, because throughout much of the 80s and until very recently, that was arguably the dominant preference of Martini drinkers in the U.S. While not quite as common, there is also the option to “dirty” your vodka or gin martini with a splash of olive brine, resulting in a salty, savory, and equally potent drink (my personal favorite). Further, you have a choice of garnish, the standard options being olives or a twist of lemon for a cleaner, brighter version. Lastly, there is the renowned question of whether this cocktail should be shaken or stirred. While 007 may have swayed the public towards having their martinis shaken, many cocktail buffs advocate for the stirred version. This results in a silkier consistency and a crystal-clear presentation with no shards of ice floating about on the surface.
Shaken, stirred, or something else altogether, the goal is to get a drink that you enjoy. If you’d prefer a big, icey glass of vodka or a glorified, spiked chocolate milk, then you deserve one judgement-free, but to call either a martini is a bit more dubious. I’d prefer to leave the classic be. Gin or vodka, at least a splash of vermouth, and served cold. Very cold.