It’s one of the most time-honoured classic cocktails, but there’s more to the deceptively simple martini than meets the eye. Here’s what you need to know.
In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re fans of well-made classic cocktails, but few libations divide the drinking masses quite like the martini. Do you have it with gin or vodka, with a twist or an olive? What’s the difference between a Vesper and a Gibson? Relax fella, all you need is to work on your Silver Bullet vernacular.
Gin or Vodka?
This really falls on personal preferences. Some people love the complex botanicals of a gin martini and others enjoy the silky simplicity of a vodka martini, and that’s ok. The original martini, which traces its origin to the sweet Martinez of the California gold rush era, was always made with gin, but despite the fantastic diversity of gins and the flavour combinations they offer, gin can get a little heady after a few rounds (not to mention the myth of juniper tapping into our hidden emotions) so vodka martinis have become the global staple.
When you’re ordering a martini, be sure to stipulate which spirit base you prefer – don’t assume the bartender or server knows what you want – as you would with the garnish (we will get to that later). And if you’re not sure which you prefer, we suggest you try both.
Shaken or Stirred?
One of the oldest debates when it comes to the martini is if you order it shaken or stirred, a decision made famous by Ian Fleming’s protagonist James Bond in the author’s first spy novel, Casino Royale, and one Daniel Craig famously discards during a particularly trying hand in the film.
“I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything.”– James Bond in the original novel Casino Royale.
So what’s this all about? Once upon a time martinis were stirred in a shaker with reverence for the dilution process – shaking the drink creates too much dilution and allows too much air into the drink, creating a cocktail that probably has ice shards floating on the top and which then needs to settle – you’ll notice this when your martini arrives and looks strangely like a Lemon Drop (this effect is called ‘bruising’).
Ginophiles will also testify that shaking gin drinks dissipated the crispy top notes, which add freshness to the drink. However, Bond prefers his martinis shaken so as to better mix the oily vermouth and today, martinis will likely be shaken, if only to save time, unless you intervene.
Straight Up or On the Rocks?
This isn’t a question you’ll hear so often in Asia where martinis are always served “up”, as in strained from the shaker into a (preferably) chilled martini glass. However, in the US it’s common to find martinis poured from the shaker into a tumbler filled with ice, a la on the rocks. Again, this is all about personal preference; served up looks the part but doesn’t handle Asia’s warm weather as well, while serving on the rocks means you’re going to have more dilution, which might be good for sippers who find the martini to be too strong. However, it’s important that the bar is using good, dry ice otherwise you’re going to end up with a very watered down libation.
Olives or a Twist?
This is another hotly debated topic – what do you garnish your martini with? – and it’s something that some of the gin and vodka brands have contributed to (ever seen a Hendrick’s martini with a slice of cucumber?)
Now, sometimes this is fairly obvious: if you like your martinis “dirty”, then you’re naturally going to have a couple of plump (and preferably Spanish Queen Olives or Spanish Manzanilla) olives thrown in for good measure, and there are even some gins, like Four Pillars Navy Strength (this distillery even does a gin specifically for dirty martinis) or the spectacular Westwinds Cutlass, that are perfect for dirty martinis.
If you’re drinking a martini made with a light, citrus-forward gin like Bluecoat American Dry Gin or Nikka Coffey Gin (which has nothing to do with your caffeine addiction), then it’s a smart idea to accentuate that freshness with a lemon twist (and if you’re trying this at home, remember we only want the peel, where the citrus oil is, not the white zest).
If you’re mixing things up with an unusual gin or one that has a particular flavour profile, like Tanqueray’s Flor de Seville Gin then perhaps let your bartender make the call – for example, standard Tanqueray goes well with a twist but Tanqueray Ten begs for a touch of pink grapefruit peel.
When it comes to vodka you have a lot more flexibility as vodka goes great with both brine, olives and citrus, or even cocktail onions (but we’ll come to that in a minute). When it comes to vodka martinis, it’s often about your mood and the weather – a citrus twist keeps your martini light and floral, which is great if it’s hot, while a touch of saltiness from an olive (you can even try olives stuffed with anchovies) gives an additional depth that’s great if you’ve had a day from hell or are trying to stay toasty.
Dry, Extra Dry, Bone Dry and Wet
These terms refer to the amount of dry vermouth in the drink; each has its meaning which might be different from what the name suggests. It is worth noting that the ratios in every martini will vary by bar; the original iteration of the martini called for a 2:1 ratio of gin to dry vermouth. However, the cocktail has evolved over the many decades it has been around – as have people’s tastes – and martinis are now more commonly served at a 5:1 or 6:1 ratio. Each bar will have a slightly different standard recipe for its martini so make sure you order yours the way you like it.
Dry – Ironically Dry means less dry vermouth. Usually, the amount of vermouth is halved, and the quantity of gin remains the same.
Extra Dry – Extra dry means almost no vermouth at all – some bars use aeresol sprays to reduce the amount.
Bone Dry – A Bone Dry martini has little to no vermouth at all and is perfect for people looking for a very clean, crisp cocktail that is citrus forward.
Wet – With Dry being less dry vermouth, it stands to reason that Wet means more dry vermouth. This can range from just doubling the amount of vermouth to making a 50:50 martini, half spirit, half vermouth; this may also be known as Extra Wet.
Dirty, Extra Dirty and Filthy
These all include the addition of olive brine or olive juice, usually from the jar in which the olives are stored. Unlike with dry, extra dry, bone dry and wet, these martini modifiers mean exactly what you expect them to mean. Dirty means a small addition of olive brine – usually half the amount of vermouth used, while extra dirty usually means equal amounts of brine and vermouth, and a filthy will use even more than that! Some places will replace the dry vermouth with olive brine whilst others will add it into the cocktail; make sure you know what is the practice at your bar.
A sweet martini simply swaps out the dry vermouth for a sweet red vermouth, creating a mellow, sweeter cocktail akin to a vodka or gin manhattan.
A perfect martini means equal parts dry and sweet vermouth. Don’t add extra vermouth for this, simply halve the amount of dry vermouth you’d usually use and add the same amount of sweet vermouth.
A Gibson martini is identified by its pickled onion garnish and there are no differences – besides the garnish – between this and a regular martini. Gibson martinis are usually served dry. Alternatively, replace your onion with a dill pickle for a true flavour punch.
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