How and Why to Make a Martini

Shaken? Stirred? France? Let’s smooth this out.

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Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

If you want to know more, then read on. If you’re just looking for a recipe, here it is. Mix away, and cheers.

  • 4 parts Gin
  • 1 part Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 sliver of lemon peel

Add both ingredients into a mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir with a spoon. Pour into a chilled glass. Rub the rim of that glass with the lemon peel and drop it on the top.

I know that many of you reading this are now doubting my Martini street cred, my taste, my manhood and possibly my ability to make rational decisions. But read on to understand why I use that recipe.

Martinis conjure an idea of sophistication and smoothness. Your mind goes to a dark bar full of wood and old leather. At a comfortable distance in the uncrowded space men are wearing tuxedos and ladies sit in solid colors with matching heels while being attended by a well-dressed bartender who is there when needed and polishing glasses when not. This is a place of firm handshakes and solid negotiations; a place where you can take the time to look a person in the eye whether you’re trying to broker a political deal… or negotiate something more intimate. Wincing when you drink is not allowed.

Martinis are provocative, sexy and indicative of a time and a place full of manners and ritual where men wore hats and stood up when a lady entered the room. They act unapologetically sexist, but if you stand your ground they will back off like a weak schoolyard bully. There is no hidden reveal or plot twist; this is hard liquor and if you can meet its challenge then it will defend your honor to its dying breath. And if not, it will kick your ass in the back alley.

You’re not traveling, so get that experience at home.

Dim the lights, play something soft and instrumental and plan to sit still while you sip. Plug your phone in the other room and let yourself be okay with the shadows of disconnectedness. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in surroundings softened by the passage of time; the worn, polished wood of a long bar, the well-tended leather of a sturdy chair and black-and-white photos of real people who have made this journey before you.

Dress in something that you’ll have to dry clean if you spill on it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a companion in this experience put on something that makes he, she, or them raise an interested eyebrow with every glance. Speak softly, sit demurely and if you choose to touch… gently and with purpose.

A slow sip brings just a bit of liquid past your lips and lets it sit on your tongue for a few seconds.

Feel the Gin and Vermouth slide over your lips, unencumbered by ice yet still cold and mixed in a way that says they weren’t violently thrust together, but rather pushed gently toward each other with a silver spoon. Smell the tart lemon peel every time your lips touch the glass and take a second to revel in the contrast between sweet and sour with every split second of your Martini experience. If you’re wincing when you drink it, then it’s too dry. Every sip should be as smoothly firm as your surroundings. You need to know it’s there, but it shouldn’t poke you with intrusiveness.

For a drink with so few ingredients, there are a lot of opinions on the matter. Running away from either a Martini or a negotiation admits defeat.

The first decision is the ratio. I’m a math guy, so I understand the importance of ratios. And I have experimented with these ratios, thus saving you the trouble and the increased aspirin consumption.

The International Bartenders Association (IBA) only lists a Dry Martini on its official site at a 6:1 ratio using Dry Vermouth. They also advocate for the lemon peel.

David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948) suggests 7:1, while Gary Regan’s Bartender’s Bible (1993) lists several ranging from 3:1 to 15:1. More recently, Liquor.com says 5:1.

And, of course, Winston Churchill famously suggests pouring the Gin into a chilled glass while glancing at a bottle of Vermouth from across the room, or merely tipping your glass in the general direction of France.

So, which one is right? Remember that smooth experience that you’re trying to create. Your drink needs to dovetail into that space of mahogany and leather while maintaining both its sophistication and ability to stand up if you get out of line.

I like Gin. I like the taste of a good Gin and I will sometimes just drink Gin over ice. But when I order a Martini, I expect a mixed drink. With all due respect to Mr. Churchill, I welcome the French into my Martini glass.

I have found that 4:1 allows me to taste both the Gin and the Vermouth. It allows the Vermouth to soften the bite of the Gin but still lets the flavor of a good Gin come through. Mixing it dryer (with less Vermouth, or with a Dry Vermouth) makes the Gin taste stronger and removes some of the notes added by a good Vermouth.

You must stir. Shaking isn’t really even an option in any Martini recipe that I’ve found unless you’re James Bond.

The Internet likes to talk about how James is ordering a watered-down Martini, or how 007 doesn’t understand the effects of bruised Gin. My theory is that Mr. Bond wants a watered down drink in order to give him that slight edge over the villains. Also, he is bound to bed some leading lady within the next two hours and it simply would not do for him to be incapacitated by too much alcohol. In short, our hero has more things on his mind than getting drunk. And make no mistake, a good Martini will get you pleasurably on the way to being drunk.

But, let’s take a scientific look at this one. Shaking makes the drink colder, and temperature is very important in the Martini. But what about those ice shards that are the complaint of the never-shakers? Yes, they will water down your Martini. Yes, they will change the taste as the ice melts. But more importantly, you can feel them in your drink. Well-made drinks, Martinis or otherwise, have a particular feel that adds to their enjoyment.

Home Bartender Tip: Stir in a shaker with 3–4 ice cubes, strain out the alcohol and then drop those cubes with their coating of Gin and Vermouth into a glass of water. It adds a slight flavor to the water, lets you consciously use the ice cubes, and makes you drink at least one glass of water between Martinis.

While we’re on the topic of temperature, a Martini must be consumed cold. The taste and feel changes as the drink warms. Chilling or freezing the glass, or a few extra swirls with the spoon will change this timeline.

The typical volume of a Martini is between 2.5 and 3 ounces depending on your ratios. A standard shot is between 1.25 and 1.5, so you’re looking at two shots of high ABV booze here. Personal habit says how long that much alcohol is going to take to consume. The Martini needs to stay cold for that time to avoid you downing the warm dregs like a frat party shooter.

Home Bartender Tip: Split the standard size with another person and get a smaller glass, or just cut all the standard measurements in half. In my recipe, I list “parts” instead of volume measurements to help with this. It takes more work, but then you always have a cold drink.

Garnish and the Dirty Martini

Olives are great, and I even like them in a Martini. If you’re ordering your Martini dirty, or extra dirty, then you are salting down the whole thing and taking away much more of the Gin flavor. Be careful though you are not reducing the alcohol content, you’re just hiding your schoolyard bully in a salty band costume. If you’re not careful he’ll come to your birthday party and beat you up while you’re distracted with cake.

I like the lemon peel. It’s light and it adds a little fragrance when you drink but doesn’t overpower anything.

The Vodka Martini

No.

The entire point of Vodka is that it’s a neutral spirit (it’s not supposed to have much of a taste). Yes, there are Vodka distillers out there who are making spirits with some subtle flavors, but when you mix them with anything you lose that subtlety. If you mix them with Vermouth, you definitely lose it.

Flavored Martinis

Just because you add the suffix, it does not make your drink a Martini. Appletinis, Chocotinis and other things give the bartender a chance to show off their craft and give the drinker some sugar to go with his or her alcohol. These drinks are delicious and have their place, but they are not Martinis.

Of course, these are one man’s opinions and sanctioned only by me and those who drink at my home bar. But try setting the stage, pouring the Vermouth, and letting yourself revel in the smoothness that is the Martini.

Loves writing, loves teaching, and loves his 7-year-old daughter. All of which are potential topics of hopefully entertaining posts.

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