If you’re looking for a sweet cocktail, something more historic than the Cosmopolitan, I can think of no better place to start than the Martinez.

The Martinez is the proto-Martini. The newly-invented Martini had many recipes in the 1880s, and went by many names as it tried to sort out its identity. In some quarters it was the “Martini;” in others, the “Turf Club;” often, it was the “Martinez.” Modern bartenders have settled on this last name, “Martinez,” to differentiate that early cocktail category—it’s more of a concept than a single drink—from today’s evolved Martini.

So what’s in a Martinez?

The thing that connected the early variants was the combination of sweet Italian vermouth and Old Tom gin. Italian vermouth became popular in the US during the 1880s, and combining it with gin—Old Tom, London Dry, or bathtub—was a common cocktail strategy right up through Prohibition. The Martinez is the closest we come to a pure-play gin and sweet vermouth cocktail. (Almost pure-play—the Martinez was a playground for combinations of bitters and liqueurs.)

The thing that makes this drink the “Martinez” and the modern drink the “Martini” is the shift from sweet to dry, in both the gin and the vermouth. The flavor profile is entirely different between the two drinks.

Another characteristic that separates the 1880s Martinez (or Martini or Turf Club) from the modern Martini is that the former was unquestionably a vermouth drink, not a gin drink—two parts sweet Italian vermouth to one part Old Tom gin, usually with bitters, and often with dashes of Maraschino liqueur or some other amendment. It’s a very sweet formulation by current standards.

While some modern recipes stick to the “authentic” two parts sweet vermouth to one part Old Tom gin, others present it in more current form—drier, and more gin-heavy to accommodate today’s tastes. Some current recipes call for equal parts gin and vermouth; some go as far as to call for two parts gin to one part vermouth, and some abandon the sweet Old Tom gin altogether, replacing it with London Dry—in a sense, reinventing the original 1890s evolutionary path of the Martini.

The Martinez Cocktail, photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Martinez Cocktail

The original Martinez recipe

If there’s a “typical” version of the Martinez, I would guess it would be Jerry Thomas’s 1887 recipe (from his Bartenders Guide). Here’s the way I interpret Thomas’s recipe:

The Martinez Cocktail (Original)

  • 2 oz Italian vermouth (Carpano Antica)
  • 1 oz Old Tom Gin (Hayman’s)
  • 2 dashes Boker’s bitters (Angostura; Fee’s orange)
  • 2 dashes Maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)

Stir with ice until well chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon.

Regular readers know I’m not fond of sweet cocktails; when I first encountered this version of the Martinez, I expected it to be undrinkable, but curiosity (and credibility) demanded that I try it. To my surprise, it turns out to be quite palatable. It’s a sweet cocktail, to be sure, with the flavors driven primarily by the vermouth, but it works, especially if you drink it stone cold. As I said before, if you like sweet cocktails, this may be your classiest choice ever.

The important thing about the 2:1 vermouth portion is that it allows the vermouth to own the drink—the gin nearly disappears in the mix. Having no Boker’s bitters, I made the drink with Angostura, which tempered the strongly vanilla Carpano vermouth and added a depth of flavor to the overall drink. Inspired by an idea from Jamie Boudreau’s spiritsandcocktails, I then tried Fee’s Orange bitters; this also worked well, and left a delightful, faint chocolate aftertaste, mysterious, and pleasant. (I prefer the Angostura version, with the tamed vanilla notes and the woodier aftertaste.)

Can you make the Martinez seem “less sweet”?

I was intrigued by some of the modern, less sweet formulations I noted earlier. While they shift away from the original 1880s cocktail style, the good ones do adhere to the concept of the Martinez, and to some extent recreate likely real-world experiments in the evolution of the Martinez toward the drink we would recognize as the “Martini.”

First of all, the equal parts variants, with equal parts Old Tom and Italian vermouth: these turned out to be my least favorite—neither fish nor fowl, they seem watered down, though it’s hard to decide if it’s the gin or the vermouth that’s not standing up to the job.

On the other hand, the two parts gin to one part vermouth formula works very well, and provides a fairly sophisticated flavor that is not excessively sweet—particularly if you shift from the sweetened Old Tom to London Dry gin, which began its rise to cocktail dominance in the 1890s:

The Martinez Cocktail (Dry)

  • 2 oz London Dry gin (Bombay Dry, Junipero)
  • 1 oz Italian vermouth (M&R Rosso)
  • 1 barspoon (⅛ oz) Maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir with ice until well chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail glass. Optionally garnish with lemon.

This version is still sweet, but the London Dry gin is much less sweet than the Old Tom; I consider it an acceptable way to dry out the Martinez, both through the flavor difference and the increased proportion. (It’s intriguing to consider that in these proportions, the Martinez looks like a gin version of the classic Manhattan. For some reason the Martinez seems sweeter to me; perhaps that’s the difference between gin and rye whiskey…)

Martinez Cocktail (detail), photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.The main flavor driver is still the vermouth, even in this reduced proportion. The M&R Rosso provides a darker, more severe complexity of flavor than the Carpano; specifically, it doesn’t have the aggressive lushness and the strong vanilla note that seems to dominate the Carpano version.

I don’t know how the original recipe’s Bokers Bitters affected the overall flavor of the Martinez, but the readily-available Angostura combines very well with Italian vermouths, cutting into the sweetness in a way that orange bitters do not. The added complexity is a bonus to the overall cocktail.

So that leaves us with two versions of the Martinez: the very sweet, and very educational, “original” version from the 1880s; and a drier version that may or may not represent some middle step in the 1890s evolution toward the Martini. I find the original, vermouth-heavy version growing on me, especially if I mix with a drier gin like Junipero. Not what I expected at all. There is no end to the surprises in cocktailing.

If you enjoy the Martinez, you might want to try other gin-and-Italian vermouth classics; notable examples include the Hanky Panky, Satan’s Whiskers, and of course the Negroni.