One of the greatest cocktails of all time isn’t as simple as it appears. We deconstruct this vodka or gin-based classic drink to find the perfect martini recipe.
The classic martini is one of the most iconic cocktails in history. On paper it’s a simple double act of spirit and vermouth, however when you delve a little deeper it’s anything but straightforward. Wet or dry? Shaken or stirred? What does it all mean, and how do you make the best martini? We asked the experts…
What is a martini?
The basic building blocks of a martini cocktail are spirit (gin or vodka) and vermouth, which is a fortified wine flavoured with botanicals. The original martini was made with gin, which is why Mr Bond always specifies a ‘vodka martini’ in his order. Both gin and vodka martinis are equally delicious, but you’ll find vodka variants more clean, neutral and less botanical. Whichever you use, make sure that your spirit has an ABV of 40% or higher so that its characteristics shine thorough in your finished martini.
Which vermouth to choose
Once you’ve chosen your spirit, it’s on to the vermouth. There are many different brands of vermouth, and it’s the dry variation you’re looking for to make a classic martini. Some are drier than others and some bring a more floral or fruity flavour to the final cocktail. Trial and error is the best way to decide what to use.
Some classic cocktail books talk about 'French' and 'Italian' vermouth, which can be a little confusing, however French refers to dry vermouths, whereas Italian refers to sweet. You can use a sweet vermouth for a martini, but modern versions are always made with dry vermouth unless specified.
For London Dry style gins, such as Portobello Road or Beefeater, Tom Proud of Pleased To Meet You in Newcastle suggests a French vermouth like Noilly Prat (generally his go-to vermouth). For more complex gins like Monkey 47 from the Black Forest of Germany, he reaches for Belsazar Dry, which not only shares a country of origin, but the gin can handle the sweeter notes of the Balsazar, creating a more rounded martini.
When it comes to vodka martinis, Chris Dennis of Disrepute in Soho, London, suggests looking to Lillet Blanc, which is technically an aromatised wine and not a vermouth at all. However, it shares a lot in common with a classic vermouth, and adds more character and subtle sweetness to a vodka martini than dry vermouths would.
Wet or dry?
The next decision is whether you want your martini ‘dry’ or ‘wet’. This relates to the proportion of spirit to vermouth. Trends over the years have seen the martini become drier and drier as less vermouth is used; however, a wet martini can be the perfect rookie’s choice – vermouths have a lower ABV than the spirits used so it can help to soften the ‘edges’ of the final cocktail.
A 6:1 martini (6 parts spirit to 1 part vermouth) is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to play around with the proportions until you find your perfect ratio, though.
Shaken or stirred?
Never has a literary reference caused so much confusion than James Bond’s order of his vodka martini ‘shaken, not stirred’. To clarify: any martini can be made shaken OR stirred. There will be clear differences between the two, but both are damn tasty drinks, and let’s face it, that’s all that matters.
If a martini has been shaken, the liquid will have been thrown around a little more and be slightly cloudy, more aerated, and is likely to contain ice shards if it hasn’t been double strained through a sieve. You’re also going to need a cocktail shaker to make it, whereas any jar, vessel or tin can be used to make a stirred martini, you just need enough room for plenty of ice and a knife, chopstick or bar spoon.
For Felix Cohen of Every Cloud bar in Hackney, London, there is no question as to shaking vs stirring: he sits firmly in the stirred camp due to the control it gives. “Stirring a martini is great in the same way driving a manual car is; you've got control over the drink, you can see, feel and hear what's happening, and with one hand on your mixing glass or tin, you know when it's reached the perfect temperature.”
This is an important note to make when you’re making your first martinis and getting the hang of how all of the elements fit together. By stirring you can test your drink frequently, whereas when you shake it’s a bit of a leap of faith as to knowing when it’s ready and you risk over-diluting the drink.
The chill factor
There are two key things when it comes to making sure that your martini is just right for serving. The first is the temperature, the second is the dilution. These two things are linked and they are easiest to control, as Felix advocates, when you stir your martinis.
Hannah Lanfear from Jensen’s Gin says the aim when chilling is to ensure the alcohol, water and temperature are balanced to soften the alcohol burn with the meltwater from stirring with ice. If all three elements are assembled with each in balance you will fashion a martini almost viscous with cold.
Your ice should be taken fresh from the freezer, and ‘dry’, which affords you plenty of time to stir down your martini; wet, melting ice will dilute your martini rapidly and it may risk over dilution.
Always make sure your martini glass is chilled, by either storing it in the freezer or by filling it with ice while you’re stirring your drink. Another top tip from Hannah: when there is no hurry put the whole drink in the freezer for five minutes. Remember the chief objective - as cold as possible!
To bitter or not to bitter
Chris Dennis of Disrepute advocates adding a dash of maraschino liqueur or bitters to gin martinis to help to bring out some of the base botanicals from the spirit. With so many different bitters on the market, from the traditional orange and Peychauds, to ginger, coffee, peach and coriander, there are certainly plenty of options. Thought of as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world, less is definitely more when it comes to bitters – just a couple of drops to ‘season’ will suffice.
Finally, you need to decide how to garnish your martini. Depending on the gin you’ve used, you may want to add citrus, olives or take inspiration from one of the botanicals from the base spirit.
Jody Buchan of the Edinburgh Gin Journey believes that in a drink that has a maximum of three ingredients (he’s an advocate of adding orange bitters), the garnish can change the drink completely.
In a dirty martini (a martini with olives) Jody prefers to go with preserved, plain, pitted olives, rather than the ones marinated in oil or brine. With these olives you’re then able to squeeze them slightly to incorporate the natural oils into the martini without ending up with a cocktail that is too salty.
With a Gibson martini, which is served with a pickled onion, you’re not looking to splash the cash on your onions, save that for your spirits. As Jody says, “you’re looking for the ones your gran used to serve at parties next to the cubes of cheddar and chunks of pineapple.” If you’ve never tried this addition to a martini before, trust us and give it a go. Whilst it may sound a little crazy, the combination of the pickle in a crisp martini is a great example of a perfect flavour combination.
In all martinis, you're looking to complement your spirit with your garnish rather than overpower. Never is this more important than with citrus. Gin and vodka are perfect partners for citrus, the oils brightening the spirits, adding freshness and zing. To achieve this you’re going to need to hold your citrus peel skin side down over your martini and squeeze gently over the glass.
I’m a particular advocate of then discarding the zest, as I find that if the peel sits in the martini for too long some of the more bitter flavours can be extracted by the alcohol. That being said, if you’re having this problem you’re probably drinking your martini too slowly…
Ideas for adapting the classic martini…
More on cocktails…
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The definitive guide to cocktails
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A guide to classic cocktails
How to make the perfect negroni
How to make the perfect Bloody Mary
How do you make your martini? We’d love to hear your tricks and techniques…