Words by: Dick Bradsell (we first published in March 1998)
There is but one cocktail every bartender worth his salt must be able to make. It is neither complicated nor time consuming. It comes in a widely available glass and its ingredients are well known. It is at the heart of the world of cocktails and its name is a household word. So why, oh why, do amateur mixologists constantly falter in the making of a good Martini?
It contains gin and vermouth. When it doesn't it contains vodka and vermouth. You use loads of spirit and a dribble of the other stuff. You gets it cold then you sticks it in a glass (the famous glass, the one you see in the photos). It is garnished with an olive and when it ain't it's garnished with a twist. That is not too difficult is it? Well, unfortunately in many establishments for many bartenders it seems to be.
I have a theory on the failure of the British bartender in their attempts to create a decent Dry martini and the key word is 'mystique'. I think there are a lot of budding bartenders out there who think that making a Martini is actually difficult. Well if you do think this you are reading the right article. Making a Martini is simple. It might have glamour and a certain cache but it is one of the most overrated skills you are ever going to master.
A Martini can be made with either gin or vodka. Strictly speaking it should be gin, as in a Dry Gin Martini, (if someone asks for one of these and you decide to reach for the vodka bottle give up bartending...please). A vodka Martini is often called a Vodkatini although not always (if when asked for a Vodka based Martini you feel the urge to reach for the gin a similar career change is called for). To dispel any doubt about the order, ask the customer. "Gin or vodka?" They should have no problem with this (if they do tell them I told you to ask). This will also sort out those folk who actually want a glass of Dry Vermouth made by the Martini company, which whilst being a perfectly reasonable thing to order, can be the bane of any cocktail bar and the cause of much confusion. It is essential to make sure that the spirit you are going to use is of an acceptable quality. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In fact I doubt you can make anything out of a sow's ear (unless you work at St John's restaurant with Fergus). You have to employ decent ingredients to make a decent Martini. A good rule of thumb is that nothing below 40 proof is any good. If the customer has a serious preference for any particular brand then they will ask for it. Otherwise I suggest you use the best you have and charge them accordingly. Personally I do not have any vermouth preference. I normally use either Martini or Noilly Prat but as I use so little I doubt it matters.
It is nice to have the correct glass in the freezer to whip out at the last moment but if you do not simply fill a glass with either crushed ice or rock ice and water to get it good and cold. You would be surprised how much a glass at room temperature can warm a chilled drink. This is not good. Martinis must be cold, very, very, cold. They should be drunk before they get warm which is why they should not be too big. A 5oz glass is plenty big enough.
Martinis should be stirred or poured 'naked'. They should not be shaken. If a customer wants it shaken do so, but do it, I suggest, with a friendly frown. Any bullshit about shaking Martinis can be safely ignored. Only an idiot would perform this base heretical act on an aromatic cocktail but then there are, seemingly, a lot of idiots around. If in doubt ask a professional. The only real skill in making a Martini is in getting the correct minimal amount of vermouth into it. A foolproof method of doing so is to fill a mixing glass with fresh ice, then 'wash' that ice with the vermouth. That is pour a little over the ice, stir and then strain out into a sink. The ice is now coated and ready to receive its glorious blanket of spirit which will release the vermouth into the drink. The correct amount of spirit for a 5oz glass full is 75mls of gin or vodka. I normally add some more ice and stir about 15 or 16 times. Then I strain into the pre-chilled glass and garnish. This whole operation must be done speedily so as not to dilute the spirit but in a disciplined manner so as not to make an error - such as breaking the mixing glass or getting ice in the final drink.
There is another purer, more specialist way of constructing a Martini and it is practiced by many of my highly skilled peers. It is a modern method that I used to employ but have now given up in favour of the subtle art of dilution. This method is known as the 'naked' martini (mainly by those who not practice it) as the spirit and vermouth never come in touch with the ice. To make a Naked Martini you must have a freezer in which to freeze both the spirit, gin or vodka, and the glasses. Take a glass out of the freezer, add three drops of vermouth then top with the freezer chilled spirit and garnish. It is as simple as that. I can make one of these in about 15 seconds and I can do it when I am as pissed as a fart which can be both a benefit and a drawback. Some folk, such as Oliver Peyton of Atlantic fame, Gilberto Petri of Dukes bar and Salvatore Calabrese of the Library bar would never have it any other way. In my opinion it plays hell with your olives and three of these could floor an elephant.
A Martini can be served either with an olive or a twist. Ask the customer which they would prefer. In my bars the 'house' method is serve an olive with a vodka Martini and a lemon twist with a gin Martini. If the customer wants it differently they just ask.
The olive should be a washed green pitted one (with none of that red stuff in it) implanted upon a cocktail stick and stuck in the glass. You can give the punter two but then it becomes a 'Franklin' after Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The 'twist' should be a thumbnail sized sliver of freshly cut lemon peel with as little pith (the white bit) as possible. It should be squeezed upside down over the drink so that the oil in the skin sprays over the surface. This gives a pleasant aroma and helps to break the surface tension of the drink on which the vermouth tends to float. You may wipe the rim of the glass with it before you drop it in.
Sometimes customers request pearl or cocktail onions in their Martinis. This drink is entitled a 'Gibson' after Charles Dana Gibson, an illustrator from turn of the century America. The onions represent the milky white breasts of the women he drew so always give the client two.
There are many books about the Martini so reading them would be good for your education. It will also give you lots of silly little stories and theories about its invention to bore your customers and annoy your colleagues. The one by Barnaby Conrad the 3rd is a masterpiece although I somehow sense the author is a prize twit. The fantastic non-twit John Doxat wrote another good one called 'Stirred not Shaken' (see...told you so). Hard to find but worthy.
The man who taught me the trade, Ray Cook, said there was but one way to make a Martini "How the customer likes it"! In all humility I have taken that lesson to heart.