Q: What is a Martini? (1.1)
A: Do you want the short answer or the long answer?
Q: The short one first, please.
A: A Martini is a cocktail containing unequal portions of gin and dry vermouth (in a ratio of somewhere between 2:1 and 15:1, inclusive) served chilled, in a conical stemmed glass, garnished with either a green olive or a lemon twist.
Q: OK, I'm ready for the long answer now.
A: A highly vocal minority of Martini drinkers, the Prescriptivists,1 insists that the short answer is in fact the only answer. Any deviation from this definition may produce an enjoyable cocktail, but it will not be a Martini. (There is a single exception: one may use less vermouth.)
Strict adherence to the Prescriptivist position brings with it several undeniable benefits. Foremost among these is the quality of the drink itself: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to truly improve on the classic American Dry Martini. There are also practical benefits, since the Prescriptivist has no need to stock an elaborate bar. Give him an ample supply of the two base ingredients and a fresh stock of garnishes, and he's set. Finally, there is the bracing sense of keeping the barbarian at the gate, of shielding a flickering flame of culture against the gusts of fad and fashion.
In the end, however, the Prescriptivist position is untenable, because both the English language and the Martini itself are constantly evolving entities.
In truth, there has never been a single definitive version of the Martini: it was born through variations of earlier, similar cocktails; the earliest recorded recipes differ significantly from each other and even more greatly from the classic American Dry Martini; and continuous — sometimes radical — modification of the basic recipe has been a part of the drink's identity and appeal throughout its history. The rise of vodka as the most popular base spirit and the multitude of Martini variations that became popular in the 1990's are only the most recent cycles in a process of mixological experimentation and exploration that has accompanied the Martini since its inception.
The difficulty surrounding precise definition is compounded by an additional factor. In a manner shared by no other cocktail, the Martini has become an icon. For many it is a symbol, either of a certain subset of American culture, or of America itself. As Lowell Edmunds discusses in his scholarly deconstruction of the cocktail, Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail, the word "Martini" evokes not only a cocktail, but also an image and an idea. The symbolic potency of the Martini depends very little, if at all, on its ingredients. It depends somewhat on the conical cocktail glass in which it is traditionally served, and it depends above all on the name: if someone identifies a given drink as a Martini, then, for symbolic purposes, it is a Martini.
One may, however, arrive at a workable definition by setting aside consideration of the Martini qua symbol as a matter calling for scholarly exegesis rather than definition, and by adopting a descriptivist stance toward the definition itself. This is what Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown have done in Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini: "a Martini is a short drink made with either gin or vodka and served straight up, in a Martini glass" (14).2 While Prescriptivists may shudder at some of the concoctions that this definition allows into the fold, and while others may be disappointed that their favored avant garde Martini-like drink is not blessed, this definition does accurately describe the drink throughout its history, while remaining narrow enough to distinguish Martinis from other cocktails that happen to contain gin, vodka, or vermouth, or happen to be served in a Martini glass.
1 "Prescriptivist", in my usage here, is not a synonym for "Traditionalist" or "Purist." Traditionalists and Purists are those who drink traditional Martinis, made according to the short definition. Prescriptivists are those who insist that cocktails made according to the short definition are the only true Martinis, and that deviant varieties should be referred to by a different name.
2 A "short drink" is a cocktail that contains primarily spirits — such as a Martini or Manhattan. A long drink is mixed drink served in a tall glass, containing approximately eight parts non-alcoholic mixers to one part spirits — such as a Screwdriver or Bloody Mary (Miller and Brown 14).
Q: How do you make a Martini? (1.2)
A: Given that there are literally thousands of Martini recipes, as well as a considerable body of lore regarding the proper way to mix the drink, there can be no single answer to this question. Ongoing experimentation and exploration in search of "the perfect Martini" are intrinsic aspects of the Martini experience.
That being said, one must start somewhere. The following instructions should provide a good point of departure.
Preparation: First, secure your ingredients and tools. Ingredients include high quality London dry gin, high quality dry white vermouth, an ample supply of fresh ice made from good water, and a fresh lemon. High quality gin and vermouth are important because, unlike a long drink such as a Gin and Tonic or a Screwdriver, a Martini contains no additional elements to mask the flavor of the liquor. An inexpensive gin may make a perfectly decent Gin and Tonic, but is unlikely to succeed in a Martini. The quality of the ice is equally important. During mixing, the ice will partially melt, with the result that the final drink will be up to 1/4 water. This dilution is highly desirable: water is a hidden but essential ingredient in the Martini, serving to smooth and marry the flavors of the gin and vermouth. If the ice is covered with frost, or has picked up flavors from other foods stored in the freezer, or is made from poor quality tap water, the quality of the Martini will be impaired. If the tap water in your area is pure and flavorless, then the freshest ice from an automatic icemaker will suffice. Otherwise, use bottled still spring water in freshly frozen ice cube trays. The lemon will be used to prepare twists for garnish. It too should be fresh, preferably with a thick, stiff, glossy skin.
Necessary tools include a shaker, proper glasses, a measure, and a sharp paring knife. Any style of shaker is acceptable, but it should be made of either glass, stainless steel, or a combination of these. Silver may be used provided that it has been scrupulously polished and cleaned. Avoid aluminum tools. A Martini really should be served in a proper glass. For one thing, the traditional glass has functional aspects: its shallow, conical bowl forces one to sip the drink rather than tossing it back in large gulps, and the stem allows one to avoid holding the bowl, which would transmit heat to the drink, causing it to warm prematurely. In addition, style and presentation are significant aspects of the Martini experience, and a proper glass is essential for these. Martini glasses are available in a wide range of styles, sizes, and decorative motifs. Personal taste dictates here, with one proviso: the glass must not be too large. A Martini must be enjoyed fresh and cold. If the glass is too large, one will be forced to either drink too fast or find a way to deal with the tepid second half (i.e., down it with a grimace or pour it down the sink). Six ounces is the largest acceptable size; four ounces is ideal. (A four-ounce glass will look disappointingly small to an eye conditioned by modern advertising and bar practice, but one should view the matter positively: the smaller the glass, the more Martinis one can have without getting plastered.) At some point you may wish to graduate to speed pourers as a measuring method, but a traditional two-sided measure is probably the place to start. Such a measure consists of two truncated cones of unequal size, affixed to each other at the base. The smaller measure is a pony (1 oz.); the larger is a jigger (1.5 oz.). Since mixing a Martini is a matter of ratios rather than absolute amounts, it does not matter which side you use; experiment with water to see how many of each measure will fit in your glasses (allowing for additional volume from water off the melted ice) and keep the results in mind when mixing. The glasses should be stored in the freezer. (On measures, see also Question 2.6.)
Immediately before mixing, carefully cut a slice from the peel of the lemon. The resulting strip should be 1.5 — 2.5 inches long and 0.25 — 0.75 inches wide. Cut just deeply enough to include a bit of white pith to give the twist some stiffness; avoid cutting into the yellow pulp of the fruit. (Trimming the edges of the twist, giving it a tidy rectactangle shape, is very easy and quick, results in minimal wastage, and makes a surprising difference to the drink's presentation.) Set the twist aside.
Mixing: Fill your shaker 1/2 full of ice. Pour 2/3's pony (2/3 oz.) of vermouth into the shaker, coating the ice. Then pour 2 jiggers (1.5 oz. * 2) of gin into the shaker. (Again, mixing a Martini is a matter of ratios rather than amounts. These measures produce roughly a 4.5:1 ratio... dry-but-not-too-dry by today's standards. The resulting mix should just fit comfortably into a 4 - 4.5 oz. glass, allowing for melt water, but you may need to adjust the amounts for your glasses.) Affix the lid of the shaker and shake it in a vertical motion for 10 - 15 seconds. Remove the glass from the freezer, holding it in a clean bar towel to avoid spoiling the frost. Set it down and carefully strain the mixed Martini from the shaker into the glass.
Garnishing and Serving: Hold the strip of lemon peel horizontally about one inch above the surface of the Martini, yellow "out" side facing downward. Gently but firmly squeeze along its length, expressing the volatile citric oils onto to surface of the drink. Then, holding the strip by its ends, twist it into a spring or corkscrew shape. Still holding it just over the drink, briefly tug on the ends, and then squeeze it back into a compressed spring shape. Gently drop the twist into the Martini. Serve immediately on a napkin or coaster.
Venturing Onward: The Martini you have just mixed is a fine specimen of the breed, but it may not turn out to be your personal favorite. Most Martini drinkers enjoy experimentation and exploration almost as much as they enjoy the cocktail itself. This process can begin immediately.
Sound practice suggests that your first variations remain within the bounds of what we might call "canonical Martinis"... Regular, standard Martinis, as opposed to new-wave variations. The reason is not that the latter are in any way too advanced or complex, but simply to establish a baseline. When you are familiar with the tastes and virtues of canonical Martinis, you will be better able to judge the merits and weaknesses of noncanonical variants.
The most straightforward variation is to experiment with the dryness of the Martini. Try using more or less vermouth. And, of course, you can try different brands of gin and vermouth.
You might also vary the length of time you shake the Martini. There are no fixed rules here, but standard practice is to shake between 8 and 15 seconds. Your goals in shaking are (1) to lower the mixture's temperature to the ideal (about 38 degrees Fahrenheit), and (2) to achieve a pleasing level of dilution. Of these, the latter is the more complex: ideal shaking times will vary because of the proof of the gin, the intensity of the gin's flavorings, and your personal preferences. Working with a single constant ("The longer you shake, the more the ice will melt"), experiment with different durations and note your impressions.
Another simple variation is to try the other traditional garnish, green olives, in place of the twist. Any good brand of pimento-stuffed Spanish olives such as you would find at the grocery store is fine, but be aware that a range of alternatives exists: olives stuffed with garlic, cheese, jalapenos, almonds; olives that have been marinated in vermouth rather than brine; etc. A single olive may either be placed by itself in the glass, or skewered on a toothpick or bar pick. If more than one olive is used, they should be skewered. NB: High tradition dictates that you must use an odd number of olives. One olive is fine; so are three (five is excessive). Using two or four olives is a faux pas.3
Or, you might try cocktail onions in lieu of olives, in which case your drink is known a Gibson rather than a Martini. (The proper number of onions in a Gibson is two.)
Next you may wish to try stirring rather than shaking your Martini. To stir a Martini, you need either a large mixing glass (such as that provided by one half of a Boston shaker) and a bar spoon, or a Martini pitcher and its matching glass rod. A mixing glass and spoon are ideal for making Martinis one at a time; a pitcher is the best way to prepare several simultaneously. In either case, use the same proportions of gin, vermouth, and ice as described above. Stir briskly-but-not-violently for 27 seconds, in a conventional circular motion (if a circular stirring motion feels "cramped" or "crunchy," take advantage of the tool in your hand: twirl the bar spoon between your fingers and move it up and down in the mixing glass while stirring... imagine that you are "caressing" the drink), and then strain the mixture into the glass. If you are using a mixing glass, you will definitely need a strainer for this (either a coil-rimmed Hawthorn strainer or a spoon-like julep strainer). Most Martini pitchers have a sharply pinched spout to allow pouring without a strainer, but even here a strainer will help. (In the main, informed bartenders agree that clear drinks such as Martinis should be stirred, rather than shaken. For this FAQ, I have chosen present a shaken version first, since James Bond's signature phrase, "Shaken, not stirred", has probably done more than any other single factor to introduce new cocktail drinkers to the Martini, and it's likely that they would want to start with a shaken cocktail.)
To round out your first experiments, try a Vodka Martini. Actually, you'll need to try a great many, varying the dryness, brands, garnish, and mixing method in the same way you did for gin Martinis. The preparation of a traditional Dry American Martini and a Vodka Martini are exactly the same, with the one obvious exception: vodka is used in place of gin.
NB: Prescriptivists strenuously object to Vodka Martinis being called Martinis. Very few object to the drink itself; they simply object to it being called a "Martini" rather than a "Vodka Martini" or "Vodkatini".4 "Martini", they insist, denotes a drink made with gin. This FAQ acknowledges and records their objection, but nonetheless accords the Vodka Martini canonical status and condones use of the term "Martini" for such a drink. It is the standard Martini of the 1990's and 2000's. That is, for most Martini drinkers of today, the word "Martini" denotes a short drink made with vodka and vermouth.
3 One reader of this FAQ — a long-time bartender at Lusardi's, 2nd & 78th in Manhattan — related a delicious tidbit of lore. According to the old hands at Lusardi's, who remember the bar's "glory days" as a mafioso hangout, there was a time when "three olives" was more than simply a matter of ettiquete and style: all bartenders were to use three olives, religiously; serving a martini with two olives was understood by all patrons (or, all connected patrons) as a signal of danger: "someone in the bar is a threat to you."
4 A Vodka Martini may also be called a "Kangaroo."
Q: What is gin? (1.3))
A: Gin is a neutral white spirit, usually made from wheat or rye, that has been flavored with various "botanicals" (herbs and spices). While most gins contain a variety of botanicals (the exact recipe usually being a closely guarded secret), the most important is juniper berries: the distinctive "resiny" taste of gin derives in large measure from these berries. In fact, the name "gin" itself derives from the French word for juniper.
Distillers make use of a variety of flavoring methods. On the low end of the spectrum, botanical extracts are simply mixed with the base spirit. Most producers of mass-marketed gins steep the botanicals in the base spirit, and then redistill this infusion. High-end gins are sometimes made by redistilling the base spirit in such a way that the vapors slowly pass through a chamber in which the botanicals are suspended. This latter method purportely produces a more delicately and complexly flavored spirt.
The most popular and widely known gins are classified as "London dry gin". This phrase refers simply to the style of gin: London dry gin may be made anywhere in the world. Other signicant varieties of gin include Plymouth Gin (a pleasant, "low impact" gin made in Plymouth, England), Genever (a sweeter gin produced in Holland, Belgium, and Germany), and Old Tom Gin (a sweetened gin no longer available; it figured prominantly in the early history of the Martini).
A thorough and well written discussion of gin is available at Tastings.com.
Q: What is vodka? (1.4)
A: Vodka is a neutral white spirit, originating in Eastern Europe, usually made from either grain or vegetable matter, such as beets or potatoes. U.S. law requires that vodka be "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." As a result, vodkas sold in the United States vary only subtley, with the most pronounced differences being a matter of "mouth feel" rather than taste. Vodka is often infused with flavorings such as lemon, pepper, cranberry, etc.
A thorough and well written discussion of vodka is available at Tastings.com.
Q: What is vermouth? (1.5)
A: Vermouth is an aromatized wine made by adding ingredients such as alcohol, sugar, caramel, and water to white wine and infusing the resulting mixture with a variety of herbs, with wormwood (or Artemisia) being the most important of these (the name "vermouth" derives from Wermutkraut, the German word for wormwood). Dry vermouth is also known as white vermouth; sweet vermouth is also known as red vermouth (red vermouth is produced by adding caromel coloring to a white wine). Contemporary Martinis are invariably made with dry vermouth.
There's also Bianco vermouth, which is a sweeter white vermouth. For some inexplicable reason, it has always been totally ignored by the Martini community, but it provides an excellent way for the Martini mixologist to expand his palatte.
Q: Shaken or stirred? (2.1)
A: Shaking versus stirring is one of the great theological debates surrounding the rite of Martini preparation. The answer, too, is theological: "These are great mysteries."
Martini luminaries have weighed in on both sides of the debate throughout the drink's history. The two most famous pronouncements have literary sources. Author W. Somerset Maugham declared that "Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other." Ian Flemming, speaking through James Bond, required that a Martini be "Shaken, not stirred." Why not stirred? "It bruises the gin." (qtd. in Conrad 107; the second Bond quote appears to be apocryphal).
Maugham's description of sensuously lounging molecules is certainly a poetic attempt to describe a phenomenon arising from other physical causes, and while we should all defer to the inimitable Mr. Bond on matters such as high-tech spy gadgets, impromptu hand-to-hand combat, and retrograde seduction techniques, his reasoning on this matter is specious. To "bruise" a wine or spirit means to take some action that changes its taste. Agitating and therefore aerating a gin or vodka martini changes its taste: it makes it taste "sharper". It imparts a certain bite or zing. Given this, and given his dislike of a bruised spirit, Bond should insist that his drink be "Stirred, not shaken," since shaking "bruises" the gin more than stirring does.
Here are the facts:
So, shaken Martinis and stirred Martinis are different, but they are also equivalent, in that neither has a firm claim on being "better." Each Martini drinker will have to decide for him- or herself whether one method is "more equal" than the other.
Q: Can you really "bruise" gin? (2.2)
A: If by "bruise" you mean "take some action that changes the taste," yes.
Q: Why do people say to use "fresh ice"? (2.3)
A: As mentioned above, a significant amount of the ice melts during mixing. Typically, a Martini will consist of 1/5 to 1/4 water. This dilution is highly desirable, serving to smooth and marry the flavors of the spirits. If the ice is covered with frost, or has picked up flavors from other foods stored in the freezer, or is made from poor quality tap water, the quality of the Martini will be impaired.
Q: Which gin/vodka/vermouth should I use? (2.4)
A: It's totally up to you. Again, though, one must start somewhere. The following non-exhaustive lists suggest good brands to try.
Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay, and Boodles are all reliable, worthy London dry gins. Try Booth's, Gilbey's, or Gordon's if you're in the mood to experiment. Tanqueray No. 10 and Bombay Sapphire are both premium gins: they both cost more, and they're both very good. Plymouth Gin is not a London dry gin, but it is steeped in history as well as botanicals, and makes a damn fine Martini. Tastings.com (a solid source) rates Fleischmann' s as a "Best Buy".
Then there's Hendrick's, from Scotland (yes, Scotland!) which has cucumbers (yes, cucumbers!) as a leading member of its botanicals bill, and seems to be on the verge of gaining a cult following among Martini aficiannados (ca. 2010). The cucumber note in Hendrick's pairs wonderfully with olives (and lends itself to Dirty Martinis), while Hendrick's with a twist rates alongside orange juice and toothpaste.
You won't go far wrong beginning your exploration of Vodka Martinis with Stolichnaya, Star of Russia, Smirnoff, Fris, Finlandia, Absolut, Tanqueray Sterling, or Skyy. Grey Goose, Belvedere, and Van Gogh are premium bottlings; each has ardent devotees. Three Olives is a relatively recent release that has enjoyed considerable marketing success. Then [unjustifiable editorial insert] there's Ketel One, the one vodka with character and body.
Since the turn of the century, flavored vodkas, made by mixing or infusing vodka with natural ingredients such as orange, pepper, cranberry, et alia, have become quite popular. Thorough consideration of these is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but it is clear that they offer the Vodka Martini aficiando a great range of experimentation and variety,
Noilly Pratt, Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, and Stock are all good dry white vermouths.
The crucial point to keep in mind is that Martinis do not contain mixers. The flavors of the base ingredients you choose will come through unmasked. If you don't enjoy their flavor when they are served neat, you probably won't enjoy them in a Martini.
The marketing success of Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray No. 10, Grey Goose, and Belvedare has (ca. 2005-6) inspired a wave of new high-end "hand crafted" white spirits. If this trend continues, the lists above may need to be categorized as "old standards." (So far, vermouth has not been subject to a wave of boutique branding, though there are some high-end, worth-trying vermouths on the market: King Eider, Vya, Carpono.)
Q: Should I keep my tools and ingredients in the freezer? Or the refrigerator? (2.5)
A: Although they disagree on any number of obscure fine points (Should the gin enter the shaker first, or the vermouth? Should one stir clockwise or counterclockwise? How many olives?), and sometimes seem in danger of coming to blows over the "serious" questions (Shaken or stirred? Olive or twist? And, above all, gin or vodka?), all Martini devotees agree on one thing: the drink must be cold.
You can only get a drink so cold by shaking or stirring — about 38 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Gary Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology (84). Once you have shaken a drink for 10 - 15 seconds, or stirred it for 21 - 30 seconds, it's about as cold as it is going to get. Further shaking or stirring will increase the level of dilution, but won't make the Martini any colder.
One can, however, slightly alter the parameters of this equation by taking special measures. Setting aside fetishistic extremes, these include:
Each of these techniques will enable you to chill a mixture to approximately 38 degrees more quickly, with less dilution. The last two techniques can enable one to chill to slightly lower temperatures.
However, extremely rapid chilling and extremely low dilution are not necessarily hallmarks of the best possible Martini. Some dilution is essential, and less is not necessarily more. A Martini connoisseur will approach this issue as a matter of finding the best balance among a set of considerations:
Given these considerations, this FAQ recommends the following:
Q: What kind of measure should I use? (2.6)
A: The goal of this FAQ is to help interested readers get up to speed quickly, mixing and drinking top-grade Martinis and learning by experience rather than reading as soon as possible. For that reason, I have left the traditional two-sided measure in place in the discussion above, on "How do you make a Martini". The two-sided measure is cheap, serviceable, and easy to find. A neophyte can read this FAQ, go buy the essentials — including a two-sided measure — and start his Martini adventure tonight.
But, a better measure exists: the OXO Mini Angled Measuring Cup.
It is marketed as a very small measuring cup, but in recent years, cocktail doyens such as Dale DeGroff and Robert Hess have — with good reason — touted it as the perfect bar jigger. This 1/4-cup measuring tool is convenient, stable, precise, and very versatile. You may have to scout a few high-end kitchenware stores to find one, but when you do, it will likely become your most frequently used bar tool. It costs less than $4.00 US. Get one.
Q: How much vermouth should I use? (2.7)
A: You know what I'm going to say, right?
Q: Yeah, yeah... "personal taste", "great debate", "experiment and find out". Blah blah blah. That's a cop out. I'm asking for some guidance and discussion. You're a FAQ author and it's your responsibility to provide this.5
A: OK, OK...
First, recall the short definition of a Martini with which we started this FAQ: "A Martini is a cocktail containing unequal portions of gin and dry vermouth (in a ratio of somewhere between 2:1 and 15:1, inclusive)".
This spread includes the extremes. Most early Martini and Martini-like-drink recipes put the ratio at something like two-to-one, but this was essentially a different drink, made with sweetened gin and red vermouth (i.e., it was something like a "White Manhatten", if there were such a thing). On the other end of the spectrum are the modern (ca. 1940 - 1965) Dry Fetishists. Consider Hemingway, with his "Montgomery Martini": Montomery supposedly preferred to go into battle with a 15-to-1 numerical advantage (and, in all fairness, what general would not prefer this?; it is in fact an earlier version of the Powell Doctrine). Hemingway liked to order Martinis with a 15-to-1 ratio of gin-to-vermouth, presumably as a dig against Montgomery and the Brits. Speaking of Brits, Sir Winston Churchill comes to mind. He liked his Martini quite dry indeed. During WWII, when French vermouth was hard to obtain, he reputedly made do by simply bowing across the Channel in the direction of France while mixing his drink.
The new-fledged Martini aficiando, though, will do well to start off somewhere between the extremes. Say, somewhere in the three-to-one to seven-to-one range.
A truly well mixed Martini will have a "bright" taste. If there's too much gin (in relation to vermouth and water), the drink will taste a bit "thin". If there's too much vermouth, it will taste "soggy". If it has been stirred or shaken too long, and has too much water, it will taste "flat". So... how much is enough? How much is too much?
The answer depends on the relationship between three factors: the gin, the vermouth, and the palate. Accordingly, this FAQ recommends the following: start off at either end of the "normal" range (8-to-1 or 3-to-1), and — over a period of several days — mix a moderate number of Martinis, moving toward the other end of the range (i.e., if you start off at 8-to-1, make the next one 7-to-1; if you start off at 3-to-1, make the next one 4-to-1). Taste and savor. Fiddle with it. Note your impressions. In all likelihood, you will at first experience the change as adding something to the taste of the drink. If you start out on the dry end, using more vermouth will add depth and roundness to the taste; if you start out on the wet side, using more gin will add crispness and zing. Then, at some point, further adjustments will take away more than they add. Find that point. Find the point where -- with your gin, your vermouth, your palate -- the drink starts to lose some of its "bright" taste. Then, scale back to just short of that point, and experiment with mixing times and methods (shaken vs. stirred), to correctly calibrate the amount of water with the other two ingredients.
Statistics and good judgment suggest that you will come up with a ratio somewhere between four-to-one and seven-to-one, that marks your preferred, examined answer to the question, "How much vermouth should I use?" You may decide to use more or less. Just be aware that you are somewhat of an extremist if you do so.
5 I had qualms about including this Q&A, because it really is a matter of personal taste and preference, and experimentation really is the best way to establish one's position. But, at the same time, this really is a Frequently Asked Question. In fact, I would hazard that it is The Most Frequently Asked Question. The intention of this FAQ is to help new Martini drinkers enjoy the drink, and quickly get to the point where all the lore and mystique surrounding it are a source of interest and amusement, rather than a barrier to entry. So, this section is my best effort to articulate a reasonable default position on the "how dry?" question, so that people can begin their Martini experience "in the ballpark", and find their preferred position from there.
Q: What is a Dirty Martini? (2.8)
A: A Dirty Martini is an otherwise traditional, olive-garnished Martini that includes a certain amount of olive brine. Here, "a certain amount" equals "not too much". As Gary Regan says, "This is probably one of the worst drinks when made incorrectly, but when properly prepared, with not too much olive brine added, it can be a sterling potion" (248). Try it first with a very moderate amount of brine (six drops, say), and gradually increase the amount. As with vermouth, above (2.7), it is likely that the first few increases will seem to add to the drink, giving its flavor greater dimension and presence. Then, after a certain point, more brine will take away more than it adds: it will undermine the signature "bright" taste of a good Martini. Find that point, and stay short of it.
Q: What is an "In and Out" Martini? (2.9)
A: An In and Out Martini is quite dry: it is mixed by rinsing either the glass or the ice in the shaker with a splash of vermouth, and pouring out any remainder. Only the small amount of vermouth that clings to the glass or to the ice and shaker will make its way into the drink.
Q: If I order a Martini, and am expecting a gin drink, but it's made with vodka (or vice versa), is it appropriate to send the drink back? (2.10)
A: This is as actually a somewhat unlikely scenario (but readers of this FAQ have emailed about this question... so). There are so many Martini variations, and people use the term so loosely, that ordering "a Martini" does not give the bartender or waiter much more guidance than ordering "a cocktail" would. He or she would almost certainly ask how you would like it, at which point the burden of specification falls on you. If you specifically order a gin drink, and receive vodka, then yes, of course it's appropriate to send it back.
But let us suppose the unlikely happens. If you don't specify which base spirit you want, and you were expecting vodka, but got gin, then it would clearly be inappropriate to send the drink back: you got what you ordered.
The situation is essentially the same in the opposite case: you wanted gin but got vodka. However, if you are a card-carrying Prescriptivist, and believe that Martinis are — by definition — made with gin, and adulteration and perversion of the sacred elixer is a prime symptom — nay, cause even! — of the decline of American culture, you might choose to take a stand, draw a line in the sand, and put your finger in the dyke (all at the same time) by delivering a diatribe on the subject and then sending the drink back. The waiter or bartender would probably decide you're a crank, but you would probably be oblivious to this.>
A more plausible scenario (in fact, an unfortunately common scenario) is that the drink is not well prepared and you cannot enjoy it: it's been shaken so long and with such abandon that it's really gin-flavored ice-water, or the olive is so rancid it taints the whole drink, or the twist is not a twist but a pulpy wedge of lemon, or the waiter presents the drink as a Martini but you cannot distinguish it from two ounces of tepid gin in a disposable plastic cup. In these cases, you have not received value for your money, and it is appropriate to send the drink back.
Q: Who invented the Martini? (3.1)
A: No one knows.
Q: Well, are there any plausible theories?
A: Yes, several.
Perhaps the most frequently cited theory is that Jerry Thomas, a famous and influential 19th century bartender, invented the drink at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, sometime in the late 1850's or early 1860's. As the story goes, a prospector, about to set out on a journey to Martinez, California, put a gold nugget on the bar and asked Thomas to mix him up something special. Thomas produced a drink containing Old Tom gin, vermouth, bitters, and Maraschino, and dubbed it the "Martinez," in honor of the customer's impending journey.
His recipe as published in the 1887 expanded edition of The Bar-tender's Guide is as follows:
Use small bar glass
One dash bitters
Two dashes Maraschino
One wineglass of vermouth
Two small lumps of ice
One pony of Old Tom gin
SHAKE up thoroughly, and strain into a large cocktail glass.
Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass, and serve.
If the guest prefers it very sweet, add two dashes of gum syrup
It should be noted that this recipe did not appear in earlier editions of Thomas's book (even though they were published after he left California for New York), nor did any other bearing the name "Martini" or "Martinez." Further, while there are certain similarities between this and a 20th-century Martini, it would have tasted quite different. Old Tom was a sweetened gin, quite unlike the dry London gin of today, and the vermouth used was most likely the sweet variety. The Maraschino and optional gum syrup would have further sweetened the drink (Conrad 20-22).
Citizens of Martinez, California, seem to favor the theory that the journey took place in the opposite direction: sometime around 1870, a San Francisco miner stopped on his way home at Julio Richelieu's saloon in Martinez, and used a sack of gold nuggets to pay for a bottle of whisky. The miner complained that this wasn't quite enough for the amount of gold he had given, so the bartender made up the difference by mixing up a small drink of gin and vermouth, garnished with an olive. The miner inquired about the drink and was informed that it was "a Martinez cocktail" (Conrad 22).
While the Martini is considered a quintessentially American drink, another plausible theory puts its origins in Europe. A German musician, Johann Paul Aegius Schwartzendorf (1741-1816), emigrated to France in 1758. Acting on a friend's advice, he changed his name to Jean Paul Aegide Martini, at least in part to capitalize on the vogue then enjoyed by Italian composers. According to one biographical account, his favorite drink was a mixture of gin and white wine. Martini's popularity ensured that others would request the same drink, using his name. Some of these French musicians may have emigrated to the United States, bringing the drink they called a Martini with them (Miller and Brown 30-31).
A dubious but widely cited theory places the drink's origin in Britain, with the name being a sort of homage to the drink's "kick," reminiscent of that of a Martini & Henry rifle, the primary tool of the British infantryman. We may also discount that the drink's name refers to Martini & Rossi vermouth, since this brand was not available in the United States when the first Martini recipes were published (Conrad 24-25).
Another published account of the drink's origin — that it was invented by Martini di Arma di Taggia at the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1910 — is problematic in that numerous published references to the drink occurred before this date, but it is possible that di Taggia was the first to use dry white vermouth (an essential ingredient in the modern Martini) in place of sweet red vermouth (Conrad 22-23; Miller and Brown 34). Dale Groff's excellent book, The Craft of the Cocktail, supports this theory (p. 142).
Q: Why is it called a "Martini"? (3.2)
A: It's hard to say, since the answer is intimately related to the drink's origin, which is unknown (see above). The name is most likely a permutation of "Martinez," or a reference to the first or last name of the drink's inventor.
Q: Have there been any famous Martini drinkers in history? (3.3)
A: Yes. They include Kingsley Amis, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Benchley, Humphrey Bogart, George Burns, George Bush Sr., James Carville, Sir Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, W.C. Fields, M.F.K. Fisher, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ian Flemming, Gerald Ford, Jackie Gleason, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, William Holden, Herbert Hoover, Jack London, Dean Martin, H.L. Mencken, Richard Nixon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, James Thurber, Mae West, and E.B. White.
Q: Who said "I never go jogging, it makes me spill my Martini"? (4.1)
A: That was George Burns. (qtd. in Miller and Brown 54).
Q: Who said "Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other."? (4.2)
A: W. Somerset Maugham. We're still not sure what he meant, but it sounds really good (qtd. in Conrad 107).
Q: Who said "Shaken, not stirred."? (4.3)
A: Thousands of people, but you're probably thinking of James Bond.
Q: Who said "I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini."? (4.4)
A: Ah, now that's a toughie. It may have been Robert Benchley, or Mae West, or Charles Brackett, or Charles Butterworth, or Alexander Woollcott.
Q: Who penned the lines, (4.5)
I love to drink Martinis,
Two at the very most
After three I'm under the table,
After four I'm under my host.
A: That was Dorothy Parker. She said a lot of good stuff (qtd. in Miller and Brown 44).
Q: Who called Martinis "the elixir of quietude"? (4.6)
A: E.B. White, master prose stylist (the Charlotte's Web guy) (qtd. in Conrad 11).
Q: And who said that the Martini is "the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet."? (4.7)
A: That was H.L. Mencken, a prominant American reporter, critic, commentator, and curmudgeon of the first part of the 20th century (qtd. in Conrad 10).
Q: Did someone really say that the Martini is the "supreme American gift to world culture"? (4.8)
A: Yes, actually. It was Bernard DeVoto, a well known 20th century American literary critic (qtd. in Conrad 10).
Q: Who said "A man must defend his home, his wife, his children and his Martini."? (4.9)
A: Jackie Gleason, a.k.a. "The Great One" (qtd. in Miller and Brown 123)
Q: Who are you? (6.1)
A: Just someone who likes to mix, drink, serve, and read about Martinis. I have never worked in bartending or the distilling industry (I'm a college administrator and intellectual jackdaw). Please feel free to contact me regarding this FAQ: bradgad at gmail dot com . (This is probably a good spot to thank the many kind people who have written with suggestions, questions, and kudos.)
Q: What kind of Martini do you drink? (6.2)
A: I'm a Traditionalist: Beefeater gin and Stock vermouth, 6-to-1, with a trimmed twist, stirred counter-clockwise while mentally humming the first movement of The Blackhawk Waltz (works out to about 22 seconds). For variety, I sometimes go with Tanqueray 10 or Ketel One. Or with an olive. And I do get what all the fuss is about, with Hendrick's.
Q: Did you come up with all this on your own? (6.3)
A: No, of course not. In addition to the sources listed below, I owe a great debt to the insightful criticism of the regular participants of the discussion board for Zigy's Martini Lounge, one of the first Web sites to give the Martini sustained and intelligent consideration.
Q: Shouldn't this FAQ have one of those "You must be of legal drinking age" disclaimers? (6.4)
A: I wouldn't think so — it's just information. But, I have it on good authority that the law is a ass, so who knows? Let's see what happens.
Conrad, Barnaby III. The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995.
Edmunds, Lowell. Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998.
Groff, Dale. The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender, with 500 Recipes New York: Clarkson Potter, 2002.
Miller, Anistatia R. and Jared M. Brown. Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Regan, Gary. The Joy of Mixology: Including the History of Mixed Drinks; Compleat Instruction on the Methodology of the Cocktailian Bartender; A Thorough Explication of the Theory of Mixed Drinks; A Compleat Glossary Including All Categories of Spirits and Liqueurs; A Veritable Baedeker of the Bartender's Tools and Glassware; Prescriptions for Garnish Preparation; Recipes for the Preparation of, and Discussion on, the History and Makeup of All Manner of Popular Cocktails, Martinis, Highballs, Snapers, Sours, International Sours, New Orleans Sours, Sparkling Sours, Milanese Drinks, French-Italian Cocktails, Julups, and Many Other Recently Created Cocktailian Masterpieces; Various Charts and Tables; and a Bit of Attitude. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2003.
Tastings: The Beverage Tasting Institute. Eds. Laverick, Charles, and Marc Dornan. 25 May 2004. <http://tastings.com>.