Everyone’s ordered a martini at one time or another, be that as a pre-dinner aperitif or in a lounge bar in upper Manhattan.
It’s a drink synonymous with epicurean sophistication, a cool, clear, ice-cold tribute to Bond-esque style.
There’s more to the drink however than you might know; if all you’ve ever ordered is a plain martini, this article will give you a hint at what else you could be having… and nothing says drinking sophistication like dictating your order perfectly.
Just note: not everything in a martini glass is in fact the drink in question. I’m looking at you espresso martini.
The recipe for a dry martini (the most common kind) is a simple in practice as it is precise to execute. It’s either gin or vodka with no more than a few drops of vermouth. The choice between the two is entirely personal, though you’ll find most British bars opting for gin over vodka. Gin tends to have a lot more flavour than vodka; on the other hand, vodka is amazingly easy to sip at cold temperatures and the vermouth doesn’t get lost in there.
Vermouth itself is a type of sweet wine used more in cocktails than drank by itself, at least outside of France. The amount used is mostly down to the bar in question and personal taste; purists would have a few drops at most and I’ve known bartenders to use a perfume spray on the glass, rinse it out then put in the ice-cold spirit. You can up the amount in there considerably, but I’ll get on to that in a bit.
There’s no ice in the actual drink so the spirit is made cold in the shaker, though sometimes it’s kept in the freezer. Vodka and gin do not freeze. The two options in how exactly that is done are ones you’ll have heard in every Bond film pre Casino Royale – shaken and stirred.
They both achieve the same task, but shaking smashes some of the ice thus diluting the spirit a little. It doesn’t make it noticeably weaker, but if you prefer not to drink neat spirits it’s the way to go.
The final touch is the garnish which invariably comes in one of three guises. Lemon peel is the most common and livens the drink up considerably, while cocktail onions are in the minority, adding a hint of piquancy but not much else. Olives are the final common garnish and aside from a spirit-soaked snack add their own salty hint to the drink. All three have far more of an effect in a vodka martini than gin.
Once you have the basics in your head you can start having a bit more fun with your order. Martinis are meant to be ordered to taste so don’t be shy in letting your bartender know exactly what you want – which brings us to a few famous variations.
The Wet Martini
This is probably the least ‘cool’ way to have a martini but is a good deal more drinkable. The way to make it is actually simple: you just up the amount of vermouth. It gives the drink a much, much sweeter profile (hence wet, the opposite of dry) and makes it less of a hard-hitter. It transforms the martini from a good aperitif to the perfect post-dinner drink.
The only downside is that, given the extra amount of vermouth, you really need to make sure that it’s good. Most bars will have at least a couple; always insist on the better one.
The Dirty Martini
This is essentially the garnish getting out of hand. As well as putting a couple of olives on a cocktail stick, you also throw in a couple of teaspoons of the brine. It creates an intensely salty drink that you’d never have except as an aperitif and definitely stick to gin; the salt enhances the natural botanical flavours of the spirit.
This is my personal favourite, especially as I like to linger over my drink and the addition of brine keeps it drinkable for that little bit longer.
You’ll know this better as the Bond martini, at least from Ian Flemming’s version. It also has a reputation for strength which is only partly justified. The exact recipe is two parts Gordon’s gin, two parts vodka and one part Lillet Blanc (or standard vermouth if you can’t find it), shaken with a twist of lemon. It’s punchy and in my opinion the most balanced martini you’re ever going to get. If you find yourself in London, you owe it to yourself to have one at Duke’s Bar in the hotel of the same name. It is after all where it was invented.
And there you have it. Now instead of just ordering a dry martini and hoping it’s palatable you can be as specific as you want. Just remember, in the immortal words of James Thurber, “one martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”
Words by: Sam Kessler