Perhaps the most quintessential cocktail (its signature glass and garnish being the international symbol denoting a bar), the martini is also possibly both the simplest cocktail and the one that generates the most debate. Despite consisting of just two ingredients and a garnish, arguments abound and these only add to the martini’s mystique and status as a sign of style and sophistication.
“Where mystique and simplicity collide, you get religion. Everyone swears their proportion of gin to vermouth, their choice of garnish, is the only true one; all others are in the way of heresy.”
A classic martini balances the juniper-led notes of gin with the herbal tones of vermouth in a single, cold, glass; it is a botanical balancing act.
The forebears and earliest examples of martinis which date back to the late 1800s were far sweeter concoctions, with a 2:1 or even equal parts mixture of gin and red (sweet) vermouth as featured in the earliest published martini recipe from Harry Johnson's 1888 "New and Improved Bartenders' Manual", which also added sugar syrup and bitters. In the early 20th century white vermouth replaced red, and the martini began to “dry out” over the course of the first half of the last century with some advocates, including Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcok and Ernest Hemingway, going so far as to nearly discard the vermouth altogether.
“I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.”
To save the drinking public from sipping a glass of notionally diluted ice-cold gin that’s been called a cocktail, the accepted ratio for a martini now sees most barmen pouring four or five parts gin and one part dry vermouth into a shaker or mixing glass filled with ice, and stirring to chill before straining into a martini glass. Not shaking. That part is important, and something for which Ian Fleming’s James Bond has much to answer for; only cocktails containing fruit juice should be shaken, and the revised edition of the classic The Savoy Cocktail Book suggests that best practice is to “stir a clear mixture and shake a cloudy one.”
There is then a choice of two commonly accepted garnishes for a martini: a twist of lemon peel or a green olive on a cocktail stick. The zested lemon peel (the yellow part, trying to avoid the white pith) is squeezed over the martini (to release its essential citrus oils) and sometimes wiped around the rim of the glass, before being twisted and dropped into the glass. The addition of a green olive imparts a savoury, almost salty flavour to dry martinis.
“It’s a purist’s drink. It doesn’t need much, just the correct twist to complement the style of the gin.”
Here’s how we mix this classic aperitif behind the Bella Luce bar: