The Martini was invented in a time when cocktails were simple, subtle concoctions; the work of alchemists rather than acrobats. Few drinks can match either its strength or sophistication. One martini and all the worries of a stressful day have dissolved. Two and you’re James Bond, getting ready to fleece SMERSH operative Le Chiffre at baccarat. Three and, well, gentlemen do not speak of what happens after three Martinis. Except to say, it’s never pretty.
In moderation the humble Martini remains the king and queen of cocktails. There are only two real ingredients; gin and vermouth. And it all begins with finding the right gin…
Look at the labels
With gin and tonic, a heavily flavoured spirit like Bombay Sapphire will shine through the fizz. With a Martini, you can afford to go for a gin that’s less crowded with big flavours; something more subtle.
You can get a good idea of what flavour to expect from the labelling. London gin is a spirit distilled with a selection of natural botanical ingredients. There are up to eight of them and one of them must be juniper berries. It can’t have anything added after the distillation process expect for pure water or the tiniest amount of sugar. Common examples are Gordon’s Dry London Gin and Tanqueray.
Distilled gins are produced in essentially the same way, but may have natural flavour added afterwards. Hendricks and Bombay Sapphire both fit this bill with some (natural) flavour added post-distillation.
Then there’s just “gin”, which can be any old lighter fluid with essence of juniper and other flavours added after the fact.
We’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that London gins are the top choice for a martini base. They’re less fruity, more subtle and infinitely more drinkable than their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cousins.
The bottom line is this. The best Martinis taste of gin, so regardless of what others tell you (including us) the best approach is to just choose a gin you really like.
Choosing the right vermouth
There are two alcoholic ingredients in a perfect Martini and the other is dry vermouth. This is a fortified Italian wine that’s also flavoured with natural botanical ingredients. The classic choice of cocktail experts is Noilly Pratt; a vermouth with a sticky feeling in the mouth and a flowery, spicy taste.
If you’re after the vintage Martini flavour, pair Noilly Pratt vermouth with a vintage London gin brand like Beefeater.
For a cleaner, more contemporary Martini that lets the gin shine through, use Martini Bianco vermouth. Yes – the stuff your grandma drinks with lemonade at Christmas. It has a pleasant, grassy lightness and you’ll have less oil floating around in your glass.
Marrying the ingredients
The earliest versions of the Martini – back in the late 19th century – had equal amounts of vermouth and gin. The ratio has evolved over the years, with less vermouth favoured as our palates evolved towards more savoury tastes. The classic ratio now is the 1950s version; six parts gin and one part vermouth. Even that’s too much vermouth for some.
Ernest Hemingway preferred the “Montgomery” ratio of fifteen to one – after Field Marshall Montgomery whose troops were outflanked fifteen to one in WW2. Alfred Hitchcock said he made his Martinis with “five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth”.
To make the martini, partially fill the bottom half of a cocktail shaker with ice. Add six measures of gin and one of martini, then take a long spoon and stir the mix. James Bond prefers his Martini shaken – but that method “bruises” the gin and disperses the vermouth. Stirring gives you a smoother cocktail.
Finally, attach the top half of the cocktail shaker and pour into cocktail glasses, fresh out of the fridge.
Garnish and variations
For a classic Martini there are only two possible garnishes. A twist of lemon peel is old-fashioned and classy. For the full Mad Men effect, though, the only possible garnish is a stuffed olive or two. Spear them on a cocktail stick and lean them drunkenly in your drink. After all that preamble – here’s our recipe for the perfect Martini; a mixture of modern (with a relatively new organic gin) and 1950s hey day (with Martini Bianco and olives) :
- 6 parts Juniper Green Organic London dry gin
- 1 part Martini Bianco
- Stir over ice
- Garnish with 2 stuffed olives in a chilled cocktail glass
That’s it. Perfection in a glass. There are variations you can try… For example, a spoonful of olive brine in the mix is a “dirty martini”. Plop a silverskin onion into the glass instead of an olive, that’s a gibson.
And, by the way, James Bond’s classic Martini isn’t even a Martini. It’s made with vodka rather than gin. The closest thing to a real martini that Bond drinks in the books (and the movie Casino Royale) is his own invention – a Vesper.
‘Three measures of Gordon’s; one of vodka; half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel.’
Kina Lillet is a dry vermouth, difficult to get hold of in the UK, so if you want to try a Vesper, you can substitute Martini Bianco. The result? The vodka dilutes the botanical flavours in the gin and the lemon peel gives it a clean, more citrusy finish. The ratio of spirit to vermouth is eight to one, so it’s subtle all round.
And it tastes even better when you’re at the card table, in black tie.