Hemingway said that he favored the “15 parts gin to 1 part vermouth” Dry Martini ratio, calling that the “Montgomery” – supposedly, that was the drink Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery favored before going into battle. As for you, what is your Dry Martini recipe? Follow the Gentleman’s Gazette in this excursion to the history of the most famous cocktail.
Martinis are undeniably associated with James Bond. Any Bond fan will have his or her own impression of Sean Connery, the best 007 ever (disagree if you must, but don’t tell me), with his unmistakable Scottish intonation, saying “shaken, not stirred”.
What few James Bond fans know is that the original drink recipe described by Ian Fleming in his famous spy character’s voice was not your regular gin-and-vermouth combination. In the first 007 novel, Casino Royale, Bond orders the drink like this: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.” Our favorite fictional agent dubbed this cocktail The Vesper, after Vesper Lynd, played by the lovely Eva Green in the 2006 movie.
Shaken or Stirred?
However, Bond would drop the Vesper in later novels, preferring the standard vodka martini. But why shaken and not stirred? Does it make a difference? Believe it or not, the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario found that a shaken gin martini had more antioxidants than a stirred one. A point for Bond.
On the other hand, shaking the drink will cloud it, which is an undesirable characteristic of any proper drink. Besides, shaking will also break the ice cubes and produce shards, which melt faster and dilute the martini. A point against Bond.
In a test designed to check for tasting differences between a shaken and a stirred martini, the author of The Love of Alcohol blog said that “The stirred one had a much stronger taste of gin. This wasn’t completely unexpected. Shaking dilutes the drink more.”
Science apart, I like Somerset Maugham’s tongue-in-cheek quip: “A Martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.”
The Invention of the Martini
The origins of the name (and of the drink itself) are lost in the shadows of history, but some authors have assembled a few alternatives. The most probable one is a reference to the Italian vermouth producer, Martini, dating back to 1863. Even an indifferent drinker may know this brand from its famous posters.
Some say that the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco served a cocktail called the Martinez (after the nearby city).
Another version of the origin story claims that the drink was invented by a bartender in the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York in 1911 or 1912.
An intriguing source states that the name comes from a rifle called Martini-Henry used in the English army during the 1870’s due to its “kick”.
However, the book Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, by Stuart Thomas and published in 1904, describes a primitive form of a dry martini, “a 2:1 mix of Plymouth dry gin and dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters.”
The Elements of a Martini
The classic dry martini is made with London dry gin, dry vermouth and a garnish (lemon peel, olives, onions, etc.) Some – like the Spanish director Luis Buñuel – add bitter Angostura for a different finish.
What is gin? It is the short form of the word genever, related to the Dutch jenever, derived from Juniperus, Latin for juniper. Besides juniper – its main ingredient – gin is a clear distilled alcohol containing herbs and floral ingredients.
When Wilhelm III, Prince of Orange invaded Britain in 1688, he allowed the production of distilled beverages, stimulating the genever from his homeland as a replacement for the brandies made by his enemies, the French. It was then that the poor Londoners began to create their own version of genever, calling it gin. In 1721, the British drank 14 million liters of gin; in 1726, there were 1,500 distilleries in London and over 6,000 stores selling it.
In the next century, the quality of the gin improved dramatically when it began to be produced in professional distilleries; Gordon’s, for instance, was founded in 1769.
Harry Johnson’s 1888 Bartender’s Manual has the oldest Martini recipe in print, and he used Old Tom gin, somewhat sweeter than the regular gin.
Vermouth is an aromatized and fortified wine “flavored with various botanicals (roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, and spices)”. The grapes used to produce the base wine are French and Italian, such as Clairette Blanche, Piquepoul, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Catarratto, and Trebbiano. The fact that you have botanicals in the vermouth and in the gin make their blend in a cocktail such as the dry Martini much more sensible than the alternative, vodka.
Noilly Prat is a standard favorite vermouth among dry Martini fans, but there are some new vermouths around that may also be great partners to your gin.
Also French, the Dolin Dry Vermouth has gained a following as of late: it mixes very well with London Dry gins such as Boodles and Tanqueray.
Another vermouth to gain attention is the Italian Cocchi Americano, that pairs well with gins like Hendrick’s.
As to the gin, there are some subtleties that need to be taken into consideration. Juniper and its presence is the main factor, and in this sense, the old-school styled gins such as Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, or Plymouth are better for a dry martini.
If you want something slightly out of the box, try the Dorothy Parker gin, for a lighter and more tart drink. By the way, Mrs. Parker was a poet, journalist, and writer with a very good sense of humor and some attribute this poem to her:
“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
Vodka as a substitute for gin in the recipe will change the drink’s name to “Kangaroo”, with a lemon rind as garnish. But remember what Mittie Hellmich writes in the Ultimate Bar Book: a martini is “structured on the perfect botanical balance between gin’s juniper berry and dry vermouth’s herbal qualities,” and so vodka, which is a neutral spirit, brings nothing to the mix.
When you use cocktail onions instead of olives, you have a Gibson.
Oh, I almost forgot: the ideal glass is this shown above, called – sorry, it is obvious – a Martini glass.
A ferocious discussion among bartenders, customers and dry martini lovers in general centers around proportions: the proportion or ratio between gin (which I personally prefer to vodka) and vermouth.
In Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, he tells this story (which some attribute to Ernest Hemingway):
Jones, preparing for a safari in the deepest Africa, was going over the list of supplies he had ordered, and his friend Smith, who was present, clucked disapprovingly over it.
“No good,” he said. “You’ve left out the most vital item.”
“What’s that?” demanded Jones.
“Vermouth. You’ve got to have vermouth in case you get lost.”
“What good would vermouth do in that case?”
Smith shook his head at the other’s ignorance. He said, “Listen, suppose you’re a thousand miles from any outpost of civilization. Your bearers have all deserted and you’re alone, surrounded by trackless jungle. So you sit down and start making a dry martini for yourself while you collect your wits – and that’s where the vermouth comes in. You just add a good shot of vermouth and from all over the jungle people will spring out at you shouting, ‘That’s no way to make a dry martini.’ And you’re rescued.”
In 1922, the proportion was 2 (parts of gin):1 (part of vermouth), but over the course of the 20th century, the amount of vermouth dropped visibly. Interestingly, during the 1930s it was 3:1 and in the 1940s, 4:1.
And you will find radical extremists advocating the abolition of the vermouth. Noël Coward, for instance, said that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy,” in deference to the Martini factory.
Churchill, always the witty causeur, used to prepare his dry martini with ice-cold gin and a bow in the direction of France – a tribute to Noilly Prat, considered by some as the best vermouth for a dry martini. His compatriot Alfred Hitchcock would not go near a vermouth bottle, either.
Lyndon Johnson would prepare his “In and Out Martini” filling a glass with vermouth, throwing it out and filling it with gin.
Roosevelt was more conservative and would carry a “martini kit” around to prepare his own drink with two parts gin, one part vermouth, some olive brine, a lemon twist and an olive. After revoking the Prohibition, the first thing that he did was to prepare a dry martini! Some say that he made one for Stalin at the Livadia, in Crimea, and said to the Soviet leader that “a good martini has to have a twist of lemon”. The next morning, Stalin gave Roosevelt a lemon tree from Georgia with over 200 lemons.
To confuse the drinker, you may have a wet martini (which contains more vermouth than usual), a dry martini (with less or no vermouth at all) and a perfect (ha! they wish) martini, with equal parts of dry and sweet vermouth to the gin. If you want to keep it under control, experiment with the classic ratios: 3:1, 4:1 and 5:1. However, the International Bartenders Association (IBA) manual states a 6:1 ratio.
Cocktail Trends & Artisanal Distilling
In the last few years, interest in cocktail crafting and artisanal distilling has reached a new fever pitch. A visit to a well-stocked liquor store, in many places, reveals many new international and locally distilled alcohol. Gin is particularly popular as the flavor profile is a bit more flexible than a neutral vodka and it’s relatively easy to distill; no aging is required.
Britain has seen a renewed interest in gin in the last few years, and this interest generated many new distilleries, some with artisanal production. Today, places such as the Portobello Star Bar Ginstitute dedicate themselves to study gin and its history. (By the way, it was listed as one of the 50 best bars in the world in 2016.)
World Martini Day
Yes, it exists: June 19. (Don’t ask me why this day.) Have one!
You may have noticed that we did not come to any definitive conclusion as to the best Dry Martini recipe. And there is a reason for that; as with so many other things in the world of gastronomy and drinks, it is a matter of personal taste. Thus, my suggestion is that you experiment with different gins and vermouths to find not only your own favorite brands but also the proportion that best suits your taste. Try garnishing your dry martini with lemon peel, olives, or cocktail onions for effect, and don’t forget to try a drop or two of Angostura. One of my style mentors, Marcelino de Carvalho, suggested a special trick for the best dry martini ever: after you prepare the cocktail, strike a match and squeeze lemon zest over the flame, letting the burnt drops give your martini a unique finish.