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In Defense of the Martini
cap, captain miss america

On any weekday night, in any city in America, you can find a happy hour menu that includes a selection of “Martinis.” Chocolate martinis, sour apple martinis, blueberry martinis, lemon martinis, baby penguin martinis, and on and on. Perhaps the height of this martini craze coincided with the height of “Sex and the City,” a show that may have elevated the status of the Cosmopolitan forever. However it happened, martini is now the stand-in word for any cocktail served in a triangular martini glass.

These drinks are nothing like a true martini, neither in nature nor content. A “flavored” martini is often a fabulous concoction, requiring a scientific and complicated recipe. A flavored martini is also, most often, a vodka-based drink. Catering to drinkers who are more interested in pretty colors and fruity flavors than the complexities of a good liquor, flavored martinis are all about the flavorings added, not the base liquor. And that’s not to knock flavored martinis of this variety– some of them are very good, very tasty, very drinkable. But the similiarity to a traditional martini ends at the shape of the glass.

For those of you who are neophytes to bartending, a true martini is a simple paean to one of our most challenging beverages. Gin is created by taking a grain spirit (liquor made by distilling grain), flavoring it with juniper and other herbs, and then re-distilling it. It has a strong, distinct flavor that often evokes a visceral reaction: people love it or hate it. It’s like the horseradish of the bartending world.

A martini, a real martini, a drink whose roots are found in gold rush stories of 19th century America, has only two necessary ingredients: gin and dry (white) vermouth. Classically, a martini is served with a green olive or three in it, or a lemon peel garnish. Variations on the martini include the vodka martini, which substitutes vodka for gin, the dirty martini, which uses brine from the olive jar in place of or in addition to the vermouth, the Gibson, which uses an onion instead of an olive, and the Winston Churchill, in which you look in the direction of the vermouth bottle and fill your glass with dry gin.

Martinis are served in varying degrees of dryness. A traditional martini has about a half-ounce of vermouth. A “dry” martini has about half that, and an “extra dry” martini is one where you only coat the glass in vermouth, or put in a teeny-tiny splash of vermouth in the glass.

Technically, a martini is meant to be stirred, but a lot of people shake them in a cocktail shaker instead– including me.

Here is the martini recipe I use when making martinis:

3 oz gin
Splash of vermouth

1) Put ice in glass to chill
2) Add ice and gin to shaker and shake.
3) Remove ice, pour vermouth into bottom of glass. Swirl glass until coated, then pour out remaining vermouth.
4) Add gin
5) Add olives and serve

I don’t have anything against candy-flavored drinks– in fact, I quite like most of them, a long as they don’t have too many artificial ingredients. But a drink made with vodka and lots of fruity, candy-like flavorings, is just about the furthest thing from a martini as you can get. So the name is not only misleading, but it affects people’s expectations of what a real martini is. I have been out to dinner with people who see that a restaurant specializes in martinis and ask what “kind” of martinis the restaurant has. I’ve also people out with people who were surprised when they ordered a martini and got gin and not vodka. There’s a reason James Bond specifies vodka in his martinis– because the real thing doesn’t have vodka.

That’s not to say that you can’t improve upon or create variations on a martini! But I would argue that a martini variation should stick to a gin base and should keep the spirit of a martini intact, not just the glass shape. For example, I think it’s possible to have a sour apple martini– but it should be made with a tiny bit of sour apple whiskey, fresh ground cinnamon, and fresh green apples in an American gin like Bluecoat or Seneca Drums, not artificial sour apple mixer or Schnapps in a glass with vodka. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to two of my own variations on a martini which I think more suitably reflect the spirit of a martini.

Sugarplum Martini

Sugarplum Martini

Sugarplum Martini

3 oz Tanqueray Rangpur Gin (this is a gin infused with lime flavoring)
6 leaves plus one flower sprig lime basil
2 sugarplums
Splash of St. Germain (Elderflower liqueur)

1) Put ice in glass to chill and add ice to shaker.
2) Add 5 leaves lime basil to shaker
3) Cut up 1 1/2 plums and chop into 1/2″ pieces. Reserve one plum half.
4) Add chopped plum to shaker.
5) Muddle plum and lime basil with wooden spoon
6) Add gin and shake.
7) Remove ice, pour St. Germain into bottom of glass. Swirl glass until coated, then pour out remaining St. Germain.
8) Pour gin into glass.
9) Add 1 leaf lime basil, flower sprig, and half plum. Serve.

Lemon Martini

Lemon Martini

Lemon Martini

3 oz gin– I prefer a London Dry or a Swedish gin for this, like Bulldog or Right.
1/2 oz limoncello
6 leaves plus 1 flower sprig lemon sage
1/2 lemon

1) Put ice in glass to chill and add ice to shaker.
2) Reserve one leaf lemon sage.
3) Slice one thin slice of lemon and reserve.
4) Chop remaining sage coarsely and add to shaker.
5) Squeeze lemon juice from remaining half of lemon into shaker.
6) Muddle with wooden spoon.
7) Add gin and limoncello and shake.
8) Remove ice, pour into glass.
9) Add lemon sage and lemon slice and serve.

Mirrored from Antagonia.net.

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President Bartlett said that drinking martinis shaken is wussy. And I take all my drinking tips from fictional presidents.

The sugarplum one looks really good!

Drinking martinis shaken adds water to them, which makes them weaker, which is why President Bartlett thinks it's wussy. However, it also causes a chemical reaction that enhances the flavor of the gin.

That makes the shaken ones sounds more sciency, and I do like my drinks to be made by science.

Science and drinking *do* seem to go well together.

I love a good, classic martini with a twist. I have never been able to make one properly at home. I always, no matter how little I seem to use, end up with too much vermouth taste. Coating the glass is something I haven't tried.

Yeah, try coating the glass! It works really well. It's also the only way I've figured out how to use St. Germain without having it overpower the cocktail.

My great-grandmother always had hers made extra-dry using a spritzer, so you just get a little spray of vermouth and nothing overpowering.

Not that I drink martinis, but throwin' that out there!

Edited at 2009-09-22 03:18 am (UTC)

Gotta say, I love a good dirty martini... surprise surprise! I didn't realize people made martinis with vodka until very recently. Which is weird, because at my last restaurant, we had a vodka-based pomegranate martini on the menu.....

This post made me realize how sloppy I am with my martinis - I don't shake or stir, I just keep the gin in the freezer, coat the class, plunk in a few toothpick-less olives and go to town!

That is okay, too! Especially if you are coating the glass and not mixing the gin and vermouth together, the shaker/pitcher don't really factor in as importantly.

Haha, I always put the "martini" in quotes as well. And let me just say, whoever invented the martini glass is a horrible person. Worst design ever. Maybe if the bartender just set it on the counter and you sipped it without ever touching it... then maybe it'd be okay.

Well, there are a few reasons for the shape of a martini glass. For one, the idea is to keep your hands off the bowl of the glass-- it keeps your hands from getting cold and the drink from getting warm. Another reason is to increase the surface area of the drink maximally. This does two things: keeps the drink ingredients from separating and gets the most oxygen to the ingredients. You know how you're supposed to decant wine before drinking it because you want to oxygenate the wine? The martini glass does the same thing for gin.

(Deleted comment)
Of course not! There's definitely a place in the lexicon for vodka martinis. It's just that they should be specified as vodka martinis.

The thing with gin too is that a lot of well gins just really do a number on people. I don't know how many gins you've tried but you might want to try a few more. Even if you've had more upscale brands, there's a big difference between a London Dry, which is what most gins are, and a Swedish, Dutch, or American gin. I would recommend you might want to try some Swedish gins-- they taste a little more like vodka and are a bit cleaner and more citrusy, with less juniper than a London Dry.

Oh, and also, if you're using vodka, I think you might want to vary the ingredients a little bit. Gin has a lot of herbal flavors that vodka doesn't have. So you might want to put more herbs in a vodka version. Play around with it.

Edited at 2009-09-21 01:48 pm (UTC)

I have decided I need to come up to New York and visit you sometime and we need to have a bar tending class night because you are just too amazing at this

You are absolutely welcome as long as I am around!

So, while all the apple-tinis and whatnot are called "martinis" and share as much with a real martini as a Cosmopolitan does, I never think of the latter in the same category as a martini. Except for the glass, obvs. I really enjoyed this post, though it reminded me how much of a wimp I am about cocktails. The idea of a martini (i.e. pretty much straight up alcohol) gives me shudders. I do have a goal to acquire a taste for them at some point over the next three years, so I may have to try one of your recipes as a starter.

I also might have to try out different gins-- I've only had gin once, long ago, and I don't remember it being a wonderful experience, but I couldn't actually tell you how I feel about it. However, I have had Pimm's and liked it, and that is gin-based, so there's a chance for it. Do you have any recommendations for gin-based cocktails (orderable at a bar) that could give me a clue as to whether I think it's foul or delicious?


I think the best way to get used to gin and taste the flavor of gin without drinking it straight is in a gin and tonic. This one is easy. Rocks, gin, tonic, lime or lemon juice.

Gimlets are traditionally made with gin, but like martinis, they are so often made with vodka that you probably need to specify that you want a gin gimlet. Gimlets are just gin with Rose's Lime and a slice of lime.

A Negroni is one of my favorite drinks but you need to like the taste of bitters. It's gin, Campari, a splash of vermouth with orange or lemon.

THANK YOU!! I had a taste of someone's gin gimlet at our school's LGBT happy hour and it seemed good from what I could tell-- maybe I'll try that next time. And then the G&T. I'll have to find out if I like bitters first and if so proceed from there.

Merci boucoup, bartendrix extraordinaire!

Yeah, bitters are one of those love it or hate it flavors. I think the gimlet and the g&t are the right way to go to to start with gin. If you have a friend who has more than one kind of gin in his/her liquor cabinet, try tasting them side by side, because they can taste really, really different. The flavors are all based on the herbs the gin is redistilled with, so you can go from something like Rangpur, that tastes like limes, to Hendricks, that tastes like cucumbers.

This is an awesome post -- like all of your alcohol posts!

Vodka martinis are my favorite drink: they're so crisp and clean and the olives are so delicious. In fact, my mouth is watering right now thinking about it.

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