Here’s my list of five ways that bartenders have screwed up my martinis:

  1. Tasteless or idiosyncratic gins. It seems that the more expensive the gin, the less it tastes like juniper, and the more it tastes like a tarted up vodka. Then there are the gins that taste like they just came from the farmer’s market, overloaded with fruits and vegetables; these can make delightful mixed drinks, but you can’t make martinis with them.
  2. Insufficient vermouth. Gin and vermouth love each other. There was that unfortunate fashion for awhile, serving “martinis” that were essentially just chilled gin or vodka with olives; we owe this, at least in part, to that delightful Churchillian legend about just bowing in the direction of France while you pour the gin. It was supposed to validate the concept, I guess; it certainly gives it cachet. Whatever the cause, bartenders still seem to be very, very afraid to use vermouth.
  3. Crummy vermouth. This may be another reason why bartenders are afraid (see item 2). Cheap, old, unrefrigerated, or poorly formulated vermouth is undrinkable. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve seen widespread distribution of truly pleasant, or even merely palatable, vermouths in the United States. If you wouldn’t drink the vermouth as an aperitif, then don’t even think about putting it in my martini, or any cocktail for that matter.
  4. Too warm. There’s no excuse for this. A warm martini is an undrinkable mess. No bartender is too busy to properly chill a glass or a drink; a bartender who serves a warm martini is poorly trained, illiterate, or just plain lazy. (And if the glass just came out of the dishwasher, the stem is still hot, too…)
  5. Too big. Looks good on the bar, that big party glass, and they can charge plenty extra for it. Unfortunately, it will get warm before we can get through it (see item 4). And it’s at least a double; if I want that much gin, I’ll order it twice, and the second half will arrive nice and cold…

Why is it so hard to buy a good martini?

Every one of these things is simple to correct, and I wish more bars would get on with the correcting, because a properly made martini is an elegantly simple and delightful cocktail. If you find a bar where they make one properly, you’re on to a good thing, more rare than it should be. If you’re in a bar that can’t even do a martini right, it’s time to move on, and don’t look back.

The Martini cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Martini

There has probably been more historical examination, speculation, opining, and arguing about the martini than about any other drink. Every ingredient has its supporters—even the garnish can start disputes—and every step of the mixing process. And I don’t mean just stirred or shaken; Jon Bonné at the San Francisco Chronicle even weighed in recently on the advantages of stirring in beakers instead of mixing glasses.

I have something of a libertarian streak, so I am amused by the guys that go all police-state over whether to allow a vodka-based drink to be called a martini, or over the shaken-or-stirred preference. If someone just says “Martini,” I definitely think of a gin drink, but modern usage allows martinis to be either gin or vodka. The phrase “Vodka Martini” is in such widespread use that eradicating it would be a fool’s errand.

(For those who care about such things, the Vodka Martini is properly called the “Kangaroo.” See if you can find a bartender who knows what that is.)

Martini olives (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.As for the stirred-vs.-shaken question, lots of people love to see all those little ice shards—the “raft”—on a summer day, and cloudiness be damned.

I have my own stylistic preferences, and I stick to them quite strictly when I’m making my own Martinis, but I’m not going to force that on my companions. If my bride wants a vodka martini, shaken, with olive, then that’s what I’m going to make, and I will be absolutely delighted if she enjoys it.

Here at Cold Glass, we are fortunate to have a pleasant collection of gins, vodkas and vermouths, so we can make variants according to our whims of the day. My bride’s whims are invariably different from mine. She finds bitters unpleasant, so a dash of orange in my mix, none in hers; lemon expressed over mine, olives in hers. We do share a preference for London gins; the house gin is Tanqueray, with Botanist and Beefeater as standard backups.

So here’s the Cold Glass martini:


  • 3 parts Dry Gin (Tanqueray, Beefeater 24)
  • 1 part M&R Extra Dry vermouth
  • 1 or 2 dashes orange bitters (Regan’s or Bittercube)

Stir on ice until very cold, and strain into a well chilled cocktail stem. Express and garnish with lemon twist, or with one or two olives (proportionate to the glass).

When it comes to making Vodka Martinis, vodka and vermouth don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company nearly as much as gin and vermouth. That 3:1 ratio for gin—what Dale DeGroff so delightfully identifies as the “Nick and Nora” proportions in Craft of the Cocktail—is completely unbalanced for a vodka martini. This is where my complaint number 2, about insufficient vermouth, heads in to a gray area; those 10:1 and higher ratios start to make some sense with vodka, at least in the blending of flavors. I’ve even made vodka martinis with just a vermouth wash on the glass, and it has gone over well.

Martini Cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

One last thing: it used to be quite popular to serve martinis in rocks glasses, over ice. I’d love to learn the history of that, I’ve never seen it written up anywhere; maybe it’s a holdover from the cold-vodka-no-vermouth ethos of the ’80s. Or maybe even older, from the simpler times of neighborhood cocktail parties. Wherever it came from, it still seems to be the default in many bars. I’ll be glad when that style fades enough that we no longer have to order our martinis “up” to avoid the ice cube surprise.

Extra credit reading:

Camper English looks at gin definitions, at Alcademics

Blake Gray on the history of the martini and Paul Clarke on the history of vermouth, at SFGate