Five Ways to Wreck a Martini

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:

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


26 thoughts on “Five Ways to Wreck a Martini

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    1. Bruce, it’s great to hear from you. I’ll guarantee you that I would never, ever, turn down a Sapphire martini. My preference runs more to the Bombay Dry or Beefeater style of gin–a little more earthy, perhaps a little more spicy, and a little less citric than Sapphire, and not as aggressively junipery as, say, Tanqueray–but I think the Sapphire is an absolutely first-rate choice. It seems to have a fresh, slightly “lighter” presence, and mixes excellently well. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I think Sapphire might have an affinity for olive-garnished martinis; I’ve become very set in my Bombay Dry ways since I started garnishing with a lemon twist. Curious.

  1. Would love to hear what you think of the latest fashion for serving the large (and sometimes pitted) Spanish olives with martinis? I think we should start a campaign to bring back the much-derided but fit-for-purpose cocktail olive. I find one has to search out places here in the UK where martinis are served (even in London), and they are often ruined by these boulders lurking at the bottom of the glass. I have even had them served to me just freshly plucked from the condiments store with the oil still on them!

    Love the blog!

    1. First a disclaimer: I’ve pretty well gone over to the lemon twist camp, so I don’t have a lot of street cred among olive lovers (that would be everyone else I know, including my bride.)

      As for olives, I am agnostic. I enjoy and appreciate just about any kind: large, small, pitted or stony.

      And as fortune would have it, while I mainly stock the large, pitted queens here at home (because blue cheese stuffed olives are regularly requested in our house, and it is much easier to stuff those big guys,) most of my friends stock the smaller cocktail-sized ones. I sort of like the look of the big ones—a more theatrical presentation—but the small ones don’t take up as much space in the drink, don’t have the displacement of the larger, stuffable sizes, and seem to be better suited to smaller glasses.

      I’m trying to remember if the large olive fashion came in at the same time as the oversized cocktail glass fashion, back in the ’90s. That might be an interesting little bit of research.

      I’m glad you enjoy Cold Glass!

  2. Just found this page! Enjoyable reading. Rangpur with Dolin dry (3 to .5) turns out to be heaven for me, when garnished with green olives that have marinated in lemon and garlic (rinse before adding to toothpick).

    1. Rangpur! I’ve never tried that in a martini; I would have thought it would be too, well, limey. Perhaps I’ll give that a try one of these days.

      Meanwhile, the lemon-garlic olive sounds like a very interesting idea. Thanks!.

  3. I have never enjoyed gin, I do appreciate it, and understand how many like it.
    I still make my Kangaroo Cocktails, (Vodka martini) usually a cap full of vermouth. I have 2 favorite vodkas, please let me know what your opinion is. Pravda, and Tanqueray Sterling. With vodka, the colder the better, so I found a good shake and pour into a chilled cocktail glass works well. The one major thing, is the Olives. Cheap olives are way to salty and need to be soaked. Some of the more expensive olives are too hard, and have a woody taste, so findng the right olive is another challenge I have found.

    1. Hi, Dan,

      Thanks for asking about vodkas. I don’t think I’ve ever had Pravda, so I can’t compare it with Sterling. I’ve found that with vodkas, assuming they’re decently made in the first place, that I have trouble differentiating them by flavor. The main thing that interests me is the mouthfeel—some are more oily, some less, some very light, some more viscous. I sort of like a bit of viscosity.

      The other main difference I find is sweetness—some vodkas seem to have a lot of sugar (or something) added; they are not my favorites.

      Good advice on the olives.

      Thanks for taking time to add to the discussion.

  4. Great article. I’m glad you mentioned the “Martini on the Rocks” phenomenon. As a bartender and lover of martinis, I agree wholeheartedly with your libertarian perspective. It’s the rocks thing that drives me a bit crazy because it makes no sense to me. To simply pour the ingredients over the rocks, in a rocks glass/lowball glass, in my mind, makes it a cocktail. If I first shake it in ice or stir it in ice, till it’s chilled, as you do with a martini…why then pour it over ice? That makes zero sense to me. It’s excessively high maintenance, not to mention how watered down it would become via continued dilution as the rocks melt. Because it’s in addition water from melting ice added during the shaking or stirring. Am I missing something? Please help this make sense to me.

    1. Thanks, Julie. Sorry, I can’t make a martini on the rocks make sense, what with the dilution, as you say. Perhaps it works if you build it in the glass without pre-shaking or pre-stirring with ice. That’s an interesting observation, that a martini on the rocks is pretty close to being a standard cocktail, perhaps some sort of unsweetened “fancy cocktail” in Jerry Thomas’s terminology. Thanks for opening up that line of thought.

  5. Hi Doug,

    Although perhaps not about the origin of it, I think I have some suggestions for shedding a light on the rationale for the Martini on the Rocks. A Martini aficionado, I travel a lot in more hostile parts of this world, and under such circumstances it is not uncommon to find yourself short of cocktail glasses as well as shakers. So although I agree that the Martini Cocktail is clearly heretic, if the alternative is no Martini at all, the choice is simple. I should add that when it is very hot, 85 and above, drinks warm very fast, and then the ice comes in handy. As for the olives, I was introduced to anchovies stuffed olives some 40 years ago and never looked back. I always carry a few cans with me. The brine also makes great FDR Martinis.

    Thanks for an outstanding blog.

    Carl

  6. Hey Doug
    My go to gin is Boodles
    Have you ever tried it? I think it would be right up your alley.
    Very British Dry.
    There is some dissent BUT it is purported to be the gin of choice for Sir Winston C.
    I loved your article and perspective.

    1. Yes, I have tried Boodles, and it stood in as my house gin for a while, but in the end, it started to seem a bit too sweet. I should try it again to see if I still feel the same. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Although you rightly cautioned against huge martinis that are warm when you finally finish them, your recipe specifies just proportions. What do you feel is the ideal size for the martini glass?

    1. I like the question, partly since “ideal” seems to be a moving target for me. My martinis (and most other cocktails) have gotten smaller as I’ve aged (and I’ve done plenty of that). These days I make martinis with 2–3 ounces of gin and a half to one ounce of vermouth, ending up with 3–3½ ounces of ingredients; the added water from chilling puts them at perhaps 4 ounces. I have lots of smallish, antique glassware, so that encourages me to go with even smaller pours, maybe in the 2–3 ounce range.

      It’s a good question, and important, thanks.

      1. That sounds right to me, also. Recently, I added a couple martini shaped glasses to my collection, as I just had coupes. I went on Amazon, and after wading through tons of 8 to 12 oz glasses, I found a pair of 4 1/2 oz Riedels. They were a little more than I wanted to pay, but when I got them, they felt exactly right.

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