“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”
– Ernest Hemmingway, A Farewell to Arms
Of all the drinks in all the land one stands head and shoulders above the rest in almost every category. No other cocktail conjures the images of grace and elegance. None spurs as much fevered debate as to its proper construction and few, if any, have as murky a backstory regarding its history and creator (if there even is one). I speak of the martini.
The martini has been in our pop-culture vernacular since at least 1887, the earliest known date of its printing in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and I’m about to tell you why you’ve been drinking yours all wrong up until now and furthermore, why that doesn’t matter.
We’ve probably all heard one story or another of the martini’s inventor. Some claim it’s attributed to a Bavarian composer living in France, some say it’s the brainchild of Martini Vermouth (or Martini Rossi for us Westerners), some claim it’s creation has something to do with side-stepping English drinking laws. I can tell you with certainty that these are all wrong; what I can’t tell you, exactly, is what story is right.
Most of us self-appointed cocktail historians seem to agree that its birth is, in one form or another, the result of an evolution from the Martinez cocktail. Despite that fact, people still insist that drinks like the ‘Turf Club’, ‘Marguerite’, and ‘Fancy Gin Cocktail’ all have legitimate claims to having birthed the Martini. My money, however, is on the Martinez.
The Martinez is a mixture of Old Tom Gin (much sweeter than the London Dry we’re used to), Sweet Vermouth, Maraschino Liqueur and bitters. It was created somewhere in California for a miner who was either on his way to, or coming back from, Martinez, CA and San Francisco. Both cities still argue over their role in the creation of the Martini.
What’s important to us is that at some point, somehow, the “Martinez” morphed into the“Martini” and its recipe was first published in 1888 by a barman by the name of Harry Johnson.
Harry, however, gives us another head scratcher by naming the drink “Martini” in the recipes section and “Martine” in the associated image plate; could this simply be a misprint of the actual Martinez cocktail?
This 1888 version of a Martini is much different than the one we’re used to today (and A LOT closer to a Martinez), being comprised of Old Tom Gin, Sweet Vermouth (that’s the red one), Absinthe, Curaçao, gomme syrup (simple syrup with gum arabic added for a silky texture) and (the now obsolete) Bokers Bitters. Not exactly what everybody at Rick’s was drinking around Bogie and Ingrid while Sam tickled the ivory. Don’t fret if you’ve never had this version. For one, many established, senior bartenders don’t know this exists, and secondly, you can’t really replicate it exactly without being able to access a remake of original Boker’s Bitters (a discussion for another forum). I myself had never tried this until I ran a seminar on the martini a few months ago, but I will say after a bit of tweaking the drink is quite delicious.
How’d we get from there to here? Well, a series of misadventures, misprintings and misunderstandings. Throughout the next seven or so decades, bartenders and marketing departments took it upon themselves to add, change and subtract ingredients at their leisure. Even the term “Dry” doesn’t have a solid definition, throughout the ages it’s come to attribute the style of Gin (London Dry as opposed to Old Tom), the type of Vermouth (the French ‘Dry’ over the ‘Sweet’ Italian style), the removal of gomme syrup and the amount of vermouth added. The first written reference of a dry martini from 1903 calls for the same amount of the sweeter style Old Tom Gin as French “Dry” Vermouth.
By the middle of the 20th century things had settled somewhat and a Martini became, almost exclusively, London Dry Gin, French ‘Dry’ Vermouth and Orange Bitters.
But then a Montrealer stepped in and mucked the whole thing up. Ted Saucier was a Canadian born socialite who worked as a publicist for the Waldorf-Astoria. He was said to be a “bit of a pervert” and in 1951 he published a cocktail guide under the title Bottoms Up. The book was a collection of (for the period) soft core porn and cocktail recipes, and to this day regarded as an important historical reference for bartenders and imbibers worldwide.
Of all the things this book brought to us one stands apart from the pack as creating the greatest miscommunication in the bar tending world: The Vodka Martini. You see, until 1951, a Vodka Martini had a perfectly suitable name of it’s own, the ‘Kangaroo’, with a history and story unique unto itself, but once people caught wind of the ‘Vodka Martini’ the Kangaroo was discharged to the island of misfit cocktails rarely to be heard from again.
As bartenders around the world were left helpless to assume the drink a guest expected when they ordered a “Martini” (was that Gin or Vodka? How much Vermouth? With an olive, lemon twist, pickled onion or candied walnut?) a character came to the big screen with a product placement like the world had never seen before.
In 1962 Dr. No served James Bond a martini with the line “A medium dry martini, lemon peel. Shaken, not stirred.” Collectively our minds absorbed the information immediately, and spread it like wildfire, “shaken not stirred” became drink dogma the world over.
Flash forward more than 50 years and it’s still the most well known recipe for any cocktail (probably ever), children know it, tee-totaling church wives know it, everyone knows it… and most bartenders HATE it. If you read my piece on stirred cocktails you’ll know that there’s no need for shaking a drink that’s comprised of easily soluble ingredients, and shaking will do a disservice to the mouthfeel of such a drink. There’s also the fact that a 2015 MIT study that shows you’re losing about one-third of flavour and aroma from such agitation. Listen, I get it: James Bond’s a rad guy, he knows women, and suits, and guns, and cars, but he knows little if anything about how to drink. I’m not one to tell you to stop drinking something the way you like it, but I will tell you to choose better imbibing idols.
The word “Martini” has evolved beyond it’s original intended use – a process we see far too often in the cocktail world – and the question remains: what exactly is a martini and how does one go about making it? When discussing the Martini it’s easy to get into a Theseus’ Ship-like discussion, but at the end of the day does it really matter?
I can tell you right now that making a Martini the original way, with unspecified brands Old Tom, Vermouth, Curacao and Absinthe from the 1880’s as well as an obsolete style of bitters, is all but impossible. I can also tell you that you shouldn’t be embarrassed if your favorite martini is an Espresso Martini, Pineapple Martini or Breakfast Martini as these drinks all have their merits and a noble history; even the Rat Pack deviated from vermouth when they drank Vodka martinis with Fino Sherry at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills.
For me, a martini is defined as a drink composed of clear spirit and fortified wine, often with bitters served up (unless of course some prefix or modifier is requested.) Not a concrete answer but one that helps me sleep better at night.
- 2 oz Ford’s London Dry Gin
- 1 oz Maidenii Dry Vermouth (hard to find but worth the hunt, sub the more easily found Vya should you need)
- 3 Dashes of Scrappy’s Orange bitters
- Lemon Twist
- Pick your favourite crooner (Sinatra, Sammy, Mel Tormé, etc) or Primer’s Intro to Blues playlist and use it to drown out all other noise
- This first step is often disregarded but very important
- Take a stemmed cocktail (martini) glass or coupe and chill it with ice and water
- Using a mixing glass, add the Gin, Vermouth and Bitters then fill with ice
- Stir the drink for 30-45 seconds
- Dump the ice water out of the glass and strain the cocktail into it
- Zest the Lemon Twist over top and rim the edges with it, then toss it out. It’s a sacrifice and I personally don’t want any more than a few drops of oil messing up that crystal-clear goodness
- Smell, sip and pause. This treat is best enjoyed at a relaxed pace, and try not to spill any on the tux.