The Perfect Martini – Both of Them

A philosophical guide to (and recipes for) the most sophisticated, sublime, and American of cocktails

martini-19324_1280There are probably as many perfect martini recipes as there are martini drinkers—an unusual state of affairs when you consider that the drink has only two basic ingredients. It is hard to imagine that something so simple could have such a wide range of outcomes—from nearly divine to truly appalling.

Conceptually, the perfect martini is a fairly static and well-established thing. In execution, however, perfection becomes mercurial, ethereal, elusive . . . impossible even.

Two bartenders with the same recipe, the same utensils, and identical ingredients will invariably produce noticeably different results. I believe that a martini in the making is capable of absorbing the philosophical and cultural sensibilities of the maker, and that the flavor of the finished product is as dependent on these as it is on chemistry.

For this reason it is important to make a martini with love in the heart. One should neither make nor drink a martini when one is feeling the slightest tinge of self-loathing. Neither should one ever offer a martini to someone for whom he or she does not feel the highest and purest affection.

Another important point to consider is that the modern martini has lost its cache of sophistication. It has come to be regarded as a catapult to oblivion rather than a culturally refined beverage. For the uninitiated the martini has come to symbolize the problem-drinker’s drink—a brutish concoction whose purpose is to rocket the imbiber to a whole other galaxy of reality. This appears to have started with the misguided attempts of wags and sots to humorously portray vermouth as an enemy of the “dry” martini. In a strange twist of events that have ruined the classic martini and very likely contributed to the decline of civilization, these unfortunate witticisms have, over time, become cocktail gospel.  You’ve no doubt heard some. Here are two:

  • Fill a glass with gin and wave the cork from a bottle of vermouth over the surface
  • Fill a glass with gin and whisper the word “vermouth” to it

Vermouth is not the enemy. In fact the martini is meant to be a marriage of gin and vermouth—a harmonious union that recognizes and celebrates the contributions of both ingredients, the enjoyment of which is greater than the sum of its parts. The gin imparts notes of juniper and pine and strength of character to the drink, while the vermouth refines and civilizes it, knocking the rough edges off the gin and producing a result that a friend of mine once described as “the best thing I ever put in my mouth.” The martini is all about sophisticated flavor, not stupefying potency. That it is ultimately capable of knocking you on your backside is a quality that adds to the drink’s mystique. It should be taken into account and respected, but not surrendered to.

The real secret to a perfect martini: don’t be afraid of the vermouth . . . and don’t forget the love.

Here are my two favorite recipes:

Martini with Olive

This is my usual martini as I like something a little savory—especially before dinner.

  • Fill a martini glass with cracked ice and water
  • Fill a cocktail shaker with cracked ice
  • Add 2 oz. of gin (I prefer Bombay Sapphire) and ½ to 2/3 oz. dry white vermouth. Note this is a ratio between 3 to 1 and 4 to 1.
  • Cap the shaker and shake vigorously until the cold begins to make your hand ache
  • Empty the ice water from the martini glass
  • Spoon three small or one large pimiento stuffed olive(s) into the glass
  • Strain the martini into the glass
  • Enjoy responsibly

Martini with a Twist

I love this one on special occasions. It is nuanced with sweet citrus notes, and has a clean and exceptionally refreshing finish.

  • Prepare sufficient lemon twists to garnish all the martinis you intend to make. I use a potato peeler to get paper thin slabs of peel with none of the white pith that imparts a disagreeable bitterness to the drinks. I then use a sharp paring knife to cut the slab into long thin strips—about 1/16th inch wide and as long as you can make them. This makes an elegant curl of peel in the glass, and does not overpower the drink with lemon oil. You can’t get this kind of twist at most bars, and the result is generally a ruined drink. Once I remarked to a bartender who gave me a big, inelegant slab of lemon rind that if I had wanted lemonade I wouldn’t have ordered a martini. He wasn’t very sociable after that, but then neither was his martini.
  • Fill a martini glass with cracked ice and water
  • Fill a cocktail shaker with cracked ice
  • Add 2 oz. of gin (I prefer Bombay Sapphire) and ½ to 2/3 oz. dry white vermouth. Note this is a ratio between 3 to 1 and 4 to 1.
  • Cap the shaker and shake vigorously until the cold begins to make your hand ache
  • Empty the ice water from the martini glass
  • Add splash of Triple Sec, Cointreau, or Grand Marnier to the martini glass, swirl it around to coat the inside of the glass, and discard
  • Strain the martini into the glass
  • Garnish with a twist of lemon peel. I like to tie mine into a loose knot and make up an appropriate metaphorical backstory according to the occasion. Rehearse your story and time your telling so you don’t get called out for a bullshit artist—always a danger where gin is involved.
  • Enjoy responsibly

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