Thanks to its iconic status, the Martini is a cocktail that many people like the idea of more than they do the drink itself. It's wrong to think of a Martini as one particular drink, it's more a formula in which to place certain components in order to create the desired drink. You cannot, or should not, be able to ask for a Martini at a bar without being asked at least one follow up question. Here’s a guide to how to answer, or ask, those questions, and how to use the answers to get to certain flavour profiles and types of Martini.
Gin or Vodka?
A somewhat contentious one to begin with. There are plenty of people within the industry who will tell you that a Martini is a gin-based drink and that to even suggest vodka is an act of pure blasphemy. The arguments from this side are solid – there is little else in a Martini, so to use vodka is to make a drink lacking any real flavour, and that any flavour added to a Martini, in the form of olive brine, certain vermouths, citrus peel or (say it quietly in case there are any stalwart traditionalists around) bitters, will work better when paired with the botanicals in gin. This may be the case for those particular people and their specific tastes. And that is surely the point. This is such a customisable cocktail that there is no right or wrong answer. If someone wants a very salty, olive-heavy Martini, then vodka can sometimes be the best way to go. Yes, there are gins which pair amazingly well with the saltiness of olives, but vodka, with its clean profile, can allow the olive to overpower it and shine as the predominant flavour. Using gin can allow you to take the Martini in other directions in a more subtle way. The botanicals in gin can see a Martini range from citrusy to earthy to reasonably off-dry. Gin works excellently in allowing the cocktail to become more bespoke. It adds more complexity. The botanicals in vermouths work phenomenally well with the botanicals in gin. The 2 products often share a lot of the same components. Traditionally the Martini is a gin-based cocktail, but the number of drinkers, thanks in no small part to James Bond, who would order a Martini and expect to be handed a glass containing vodka is high enough that it should be included in a conversation about the classic.
Vermouth - Wet, dry, extra dry, perfect?
Vermouth is fortified wine which has been aromatized and flavoured with botanicals that is excellent to sip as an aperitif or to mix into cocktails. It is particularly common in pre-prohibition era classics. When it comes to vermouth, the 3 main types are sweet, dry and blanc/bianco. We made a full vermouth guide you can check out here.
The next point of call is ratio - how much vermouth will we be adding, and to how much spirit? In most bars, this is determined by the wet/dry/extra dry question. Extra dry would mean stirring ice and about 10ml of dry (or extra dry) vermouth for 20 seconds, straining it out, and adding the rest of the ingredients to the vermouth-washed ice, stirring that down to temperature, straining and serving. For a dry Martini, stir the 10ml of dry vermouth together with the gin for about 30-40 seconds for dilution and chilling. For a wet Martini, do the same as a dry, but make it 20ml of vermouth. For a perfect Martini, the same rules apply, but whichever varying amount of vermouth is used, it should be 50% dry and 50% sweet.
Now, if you’re lucky enough to be in a bar with a wide range of vermouth, then choosing the right one can elevate your Martini from good to outstanding. Not all dry vermouths are the same. Likewise sweet. Certain brands will be heavier in certain botanicals and flavours, which will pair better with certain gins. If you’re ordering a Martini, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the bartender. As a Martini can go so many ways, the more in-depth the conversation had about it, the better. A nightmare for a bartender is someone who, when asked how they would like their Martini, doesn’t have the slightest idea which way to take it, and still doesn’t give them a hint, even after the prompting questions. There’s a very high chance they’ll get a drink that they don’t want, and in that scenario nobody wins.
HITTHiSBAR: A Guide To Vermouth
Dirty, filthy or with a twist?
Yes, it’s SO much fun to say “I like it dirty” to a bartender. And boy will they laugh as if they’ve never heard that one before, earning their tips in the process. But what does it actually mean, and why would anybody like a dirty drink? Well, a dirty Martini is essentially a dry Martini with the inclusion of give-or-take 15ml of olive brine. For a filthy Martini, up the brine to 30ml. Garnish with 3 olives. Never 2. Never 4. Always an odd number. You can make a dry Martini with no brine and garnish with olives for the gentlest hint of salty flavour. You might find that eating an olive after every few sips of a dry Martini is actually a fantastic, contrasting pairing.
For a fresher finish, a twist of citrus works perfectly well in almost any type of Martini. It will complement the botanicals of the dry vermouth and the gin, while balancing out any sweet vermouth, if that's the way the Martini has been taken. It adds to the nose and look of a drink, and brings a pop of colour to a sometimes-transparent looking drink.
As you feel more confident combining certain gins and vermouths, another way to up your game is the inclusion of bitters. Some traditionalists may argue that technically at that point you aren’t making a Martini any more, you’re into variation territory, but it’s all fun and games. Again, it’s just about knowing which ingredients contain what flavours and which bitters will enhance them. Seeing as this is where you can get creative with things, it's generally a time to reach beyond your classic Angostura Bitters for something more obscure. Citrus-based bitters obviously work well here, with practically any kind of Martini. Celery bitters are a popular option with dirty Martini's in particular, but there's really no limit to what can be done here. Whichever type of bitters you choose to add, start small. With a drink as finely-tuned as a Martini, too much of one component can through the balance off totally.
Building a Martini
Now you know about each component of a Martini, let’s bring it all together with some ready-made combos.
If you’re going dirty, either keep it super simple with vodka, or use a gin that is heavy on earthy botanicals. Vodka will let the olive brine do the talking, and the right type of gin won’t cut through the saltiness. Remember, they’re not for everybody, but if someone’s ordering a dirty Martini it’s because they want that specific profile. There’s no point trying to over-complicate it. Use any vodka you like, or great gins for the occasion include The Botanist, Roots and Rutte Celery Gin. They’re earthy enough that the olive can pop, but they aren’t so citrus-forward that they will be challenging that brine for your attention. A Navy Strength will also pack enough of a punch to hold its own in a dirty Martini.
For a classic dry Martini, the gin is key, and a slightly more high-end gin can really shine. Feel free to take it down the avenue of citrus-forward, choosing dry gin that hits those notes without being too rooty or barky. That said, juniper and citrus are a match made in heaven, so don’t go choosing any gin that is marketed as being citrus-flavoured. The beauty of the classic dry Martini with a twist is that it can be a way to showcase great gins and the diversity of the spirit as a whole. Almost all gins are good in dry Martini’s, but some standouts to use here include Lighthouse, Martin Millers Westbourne and Little Biddy Dry.
The more information you have, or that is portrayed to the person who will be drinking the Martini, the more intricate an experience it can become. A Perfect Martini suits the slightly sweeter palate, so a twist of orange may work better than lemon. As far as gin goes in this setting, some great examples are Melbourne Gin Co., Clemengold, or even change it up further with an Old Tom Gin.
The Martini is simultaneously simple and complex. At its core is an incredibly easy formula known the world over as perhaps the most iconic of cocktails. Scratch the tiniest bit beneath the surface though and there lie the build-blocks for an endless amount of amazing and diverse drinks to suit any palette. It’s not that you don’t like Martini’s, it’s that you don’t know how you like them yet.