When I go to a bar or restaurant I don’t know, I’ll ask the bartender, “What do you like to make?” If he or she doesn’t have a definitive answer, I’ll say, “Well, if I asked you to make me a Martini, what would you do?”
And so begins a dissection of what is arguably the greatest and most classic of all cocktails. Whether it’s your favorite drink of all time, your attempt to impress a date or just trying to channel your inner 007, the Martini has outlasted every other cocktail. Historically, the classic Martini is a gin and vermouth based drink, stirred, and served in its namesake glass. But it has been manipulated and changed through both personal preference and cultural changes throughout the years.
Gin was historically used in the 17th century as a treatment for kidney disease, stomache aches, and gout, while also used to purify one’s blood. Vermouth, a French or Italian wine flavored with herbs and spices that can be made dry or sweet, was also historically a medicinal drink. It was used to treat stomach disorders, intestinal parasites, mask nasty odors and add flavors to spoiled wine. So, with the Martini, you have a landmark union of two treasured ingredients. Or the ultimate way to get rid of your pain.
The martini, like any fascinating folklore, has a history shrouded in myth. The origin of the drink depends on who you ask. West coasters believe it was invented in San Francisco by Professor Jerry Thomas at the Occidental Hotel around 1850 for a miner traveling to Martinez, California. This hotel was supposedly a favored watering hole for visitors who took the ferry from Montgomery Street to Martinez. Story goes that a miner placed a nugget of gold on Jerry’s bar and challenged him to concoct something truly special. The result was the Martinez - that visitor’s destination. Let’s call the Martinez the Beta version of the Martini.
The Martinez first appeared in the foremost bartender’s manual, The Bon Vivant's Companion: Or How to Mix Drinks (1887 edition) which was authored by Jerry Thomas himself. It was made with a full wine glass of sweet vermouth, one ounce of Old Tom Gin, bitters, and a dash or two of maraschino. In those days, if the drink wasn’t sweet enough, gum syrup was added.
However in Martinez, California, the people there believe that the Martini was first concocted in their very town by a bartender named Julio Richelieu. The story dates to 1870 when a California miner – naturally paying with gold -- was disappointed with the whisky Richelieu poured for him. Apparently Richelieu concocted a drink of gin, vermouth, orange, bitters, and an olive to make up for the difference. Enter the Martinez.
But if you ask people on the east coast, they will tell you that a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel named Martini di Arma di Taggia invented it in 1911 or 1912 for John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller drank his martini with London Dry Gin, dry vermouth, bitters, lemon peel, and one olive. As for naming of the actual drink, The British (who also claim ownership) believe that the intensity or “kick” of the Martini led to its name, which came from Martini and Henry, a British rifle that the army used in the 19th century.
Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary credits the company Martini and Rossi with the invention of the Martini. In 1871, the company, then named Martini e Sola, shipped 100 cases of red vermouth to New York. Unfortunately, this was 20 years later than Jerry Thomas’ concoction and a full year later than Richelieu’s concoction served to a disgruntled miner.
Regardless of origin, the drink came to fruition by the beginning of the 20th century. Gin manufacturing was relatively affordable so an abundance of product was available. Unlike whiskey, it also didn’t require aging, so the bathtub home distillers had plenty of the spirit at their disposal. However, since most perceived prohibition as a permanent fixture of American society, many serious bartenders left the country.
Post prohibition, however, the cocktail bounced back. The general consensus on what constituted a martini became a mixture predominantly made of gin – and, depending on your stemware size -- a 3-to-1 ratio, so between 2 oz. of gin and .5 oz of dry vermouth, garnished with a lemon twist or olives. Some old school bartenders would call for the addition of orange bitters in the drink but this had gradually died out through time.
As a bartender and sommelier, the best thing I find in a glass of wine, a pint of beer, or a cocktail is balance. I’d go out on a limb here and say most of my colleagues would agree. The Classic Martini is a subtle, sexy drink. It’s confident, elegant and not very flashy. It doesn’t have 8 million ingredients – only 2 – and finding that balance of dry vermouth to your style of gin is what makes the drink incredible.
James Bond did many great things for popular culture – introducing risky adventure, gadgets, explosions, and seductive sex for those that lived vicariously through him. What he did not do correctly was order a Martini. When you shake a cocktail you are chipping the ice inside the shaker, naturally releasing more water into your drink. When this is done with certain cocktails, generally ones that call for opaque ingredients (like juice), this is more acceptable. However, the martini does not benefit from being watered-down, which is why it is a stirred drink. I repeat, the classic Martini is a stirred drink.
Purist bartenders will say the gin will become bruised by shaking, but I guess there’s a time when we all just want to say “Shaken, not stirred.” Bond’s original drink in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was a Vespa Martini or what is now called a Vesper cocktail. It is made from 3 parts Gin, 1 part Vodka, and a half pour of Lillet (an aromatized wine similar to vermouth), shaken until ice cold and served up with a lemon. In later novels, he transitioned into asking for just Vodka based martinis. This lead to many people asking for Vodka martinis throughout the latter half of the 20th century, thinking they were getting the goods.
The basic difference between Gin and Vodka is rather quite simple. Gin is a distillate of grain flavored with many botanicals, predominantly juniper berries. The word “gin” comes from the French’s genièvre or the Dutch jenever, both of which mean “juniper”. Depending on style and botanicals used, it can be more or less aromatic, rich, clean, smooth, spicy – you name it. Vodka on the other hand, is a clear-odorless spirit distilled from fermented substances such as grains or potatoes. It does not taste or smell like anything, which is probably why I find it the least attractive of spirits. Drinking a martini that doesn’t taste like anything seems to defeat the whole purpose of having a cocktail, unless you’re in it just to get hammered.
Furthermore, there is the debate of what is the “Dry Martini,” which means basically limiting the amount of vermouth put into the drink. I’m sorry, but just gin or vodka stirred or shaken poured into a Martini glass is NOT a Martini. It’s just a chilled spirit served up in fun looking stemware. Some bartenders rinse or spray the glass with Vermouth just to get the essence of the flavors but discard it from the alchemy of the finished drink. This is very silly.
Although, many great alcoholics of our time subscribed to this philosophy. Winston Churchill called for pouring gin into a glass and simply bowing in the direction of France. Alfred Hitchcock’s recipe for a martini was 5 parts gin and quick glance a bottle of vermouth. Ernest Hemingway liked to order a "Montgomery", which was a Martini made with 15 parts gin to 1 part vermouth; the odds at which (allegedly) Field Marshall Montgomery would want drunk before going into battle.
Through the years, and up until present day, we have seen everyone try to look cool by putting their twist (no pun intended) on a Martini. This again, is rather silly. A Martini is gin (or for some, vodka) and vermouth. There is no such thing as an apple martini, a mocha-chocolate martini, or any drink that is a referred to as a _____-tini. These are different drinks that only share one thing in common: the stemware they are served in.
When someone comes to my bar, I give them the option to choose how they would like their Martini – choice of spirit, style of vermouth, bitters or none, garnish, and shaken or stirred. History has shown us that interpretation of a classic will obviously happen, and that’s ok. It breads personality and encourages creativity. But if you ask me to make you a classic one, I am sticking to gin and dry vermouth, stirred. And when I walk into that reliable cocktail bar and ask for a Martini, I hope for the same.