On Martinis

Beginning in the late 1980s/early 1990s and continuing to the present there has been a renewed interest in cocktails after many years of being snubbed as “upper-crust,” “hoity toity,” and “fancy.”

This cocktail revival has introduced thousands to the delicious and exciting world of mixed drinks and brought new popularity to some nearly extinct favorites like the Sidecar or the Bronx.

However, there have also been negative consequences of the recent cocktail renaissance that have cocktail purists (myself included, hence this article) harrumphing between sips.

The biggest complaint is that the term “martini” has become shorthand for “cocktail.” More often than not, a restaurant or bar will have a “Martini List” on their menu. However, there is only one cocktail that can properly be called a Martini.

A Martini is made with some ratio of gin and dry vermouth, stirred, not shaken, and garnished with either an olive or a twist of lemon. A standard Martini is made with 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. Decreasing the amount of vermouth results in a “dryer” martini.

The distinction between shaking and stirring a Martini, or any cocktail for that matter, has to do with the ice. The point of either method is to thoroughly mix the ingredients, chill the drink, and dilute the alcohol flavor just a little bit. Shaking, because it breaks the ice cubes and adds more water to the drink, dilutes the cocktail more than stirring does. While shaking is appropriate and necessary for many drinks, purists insist that shaking a Martini “bruises” the gin and alters the balance of flavors in the drink. (This was actually proven by Mythbusters in a blind taste test.) Because the technique and resultant flavor is different, a shaken cocktail of gin and vermouth, rather than being a Martini is properly referred to as a Bradford.

A similar emphasis is placed on the garnish. A Martini is garnished with either cocktail olives or a twist of lemon (adding a bit of olive juice to the mixture is acceptable and results in a Dirty Martini). There are a few other drinks that follow the same recipe and instructions as a Martini, but use different garnishes. The most common is the Gibson,  garnished with a cocktail onion. As the story goes, Charles Gibson, a noted graphic designer in the early 1900s, challenged Charley Connelly, the bartender at The Players Club in New York, to improve upon the Martini. In response, Connelly prepared a Martini the same way he always did, but garnished it with a cocktail onion rather than an olive. It’s debatable how true this is, but it at least makes a nice story.

The last distinction to be made is the question of gin vs vodka. Most people on the street will tell you that a vodka martini is what James Bond drinks and is called either a 007 or a Vesper. A Vesper, however, is actually stipulated by author Ian Fleming as a cocktail containing gin, vodka, and Kina Lillet (a French brand of fortified wine similar to vermouth). Neither is a cocktail with vodka and dry vermouth considered a Martini. Instead, this cocktail has been given the decidedly less sexy name, Kangaroo.

All of this may seem a bit trivial, but the Martini has, for over a hundred years been considered one of the most sophisticated and perfect cocktails ever created. Enthusiasts insist that the blend of the juniper and floral notes from the gin with the aromatic flavors of the vermouth are as near to perfection as mankind will ever get. This enthusiasm is what makes so many learned and veteran boozehounds cringe when they see a fruity, sugary concoction that has been dubbed a “Spring Break Martini” or “Flirtini” by some unknowing or uninterested bartender.

The whole confusion between the terms “martini” and “cocktail” is rather similar to Frankenstein’s monster. Though the creature cobbled together in Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel is originally known only as “the monster,” he has become so thoroughly embedded in the public consciousness simply as “Frankenstein” that going back would be impossible. And in general, people know this. They know that it’s Frankenstein’s monster and they know that they’re drinking a cocktail, but for some reason they insist on ignoring this fact.

Well I, along with many connoisseurs of the mixed beverage, remain staunch. I will refer to no drink as a Martini unless it consists of gin, vermouth, and an olive, I will order no other cocktail with the suffix -ini, and I will wave my pitchforks at no creature that is simply called Frankenstein. Harrumph.


10 thoughts on “On Martinis

  1. Colin says:

    I must say that I defend the “-tini” suffix, as long as “martini” takes on no adjectives that denature the nature of the cocktail.

    OK: Dry, dirty, Bombay, etc…
    Not OK: Chocolate, Vodka (cold vodka hardly constitutes any kind of cocktail, psshhh)

    Perhaps my opinion is a bit biased, as I’ve already ideated several drinks that incorporate the “-tini” suffix in a non-trivial manner.

    Par example:
    The Ovaltini- Rim glass in Ovaltine. Add 1 part secret Ovaltini recipe.

    The Proteini- Guillotine the very top off of an egg. Pour the white into a shaker over ice, discard the yolk (or use it in creme brulee). Add rye whiskey and shake. Serve in the niftily intact eggshell.

    The Christini- Pour an generous bath of Rye into a goblet. Pierce a eucharist wafer (or cube of very floury bread made with holy water) with a nail or cocktail garnish spear and toss into goblet. Immediately trickle sweet (red) vermouth on the garnish. Serve warm. (also called the OLASJC-tini)

    Aquatini- Turn cold water tap 90-180 degrees. Serve neat, on the rocks, or with a wedge of lemon. Order this at restaurants that have no bar. Expect the server to know what the hell you’re ordering. Prepare for lots of expiate in your food. (variation: to add some flare to the preparation, combust 1 measure of oxygen with 2 measures of hydrogen. Condense water vapor using a cold shaker and lots of time)

    (notice: the previous drinks are proprietary recipes among several that may one day be compiled in a book or something and are pending revision, … ie. I take all credit for the recipe ideas, but take no responsibility for personal injuries sustained in their preparation or consumption)


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