Easter Drinks: The Martini


I must admit, the martini is my favorite cocktail.  The chilled, dry, gin-based drink is the perfect cocktail to sharpen one’s appetite before a meal.

Before I go further into discussing the cocktail, I want to touch briefly upon the spirit itself, gin (of course, a martini is only properly made with gin, not vodka as some would have you believe).

To make gin, a fermented grain mash of barley is distilled once and then re-distilled with juniper berries and other flavors.  The liquor’s roots date back to the 11th century, when it was first made by Italian monks.  It wasn’t until the 1600s that the drink became more common, however.  In the 1800s, gin, like many other liquors, was given a boost in quality after the invention of the Coffey continuous column still in Ireland.  As stills were perfected, gin gained particular popularity in England, and it’s from there that we get the dry “London gin.”

It is in America, however, that the martini was invented: gin with dry vermouth, garnished with an olive or twist of lemon.  The drink, a descendant of the Manhattan, appeared in America in the mid to late 1800s. The martini’s existence was sustained during Prohibition by the illegal gin industry, and when the Twenty-first Amendment was passed the country was ready to embrace the martini as one of its favorite cocktails.

The 1960s, 70s, and 80s however, were dark times for the martini.  We can certainly blame Jimmy Carter’s campaign rhetoric against the “martini lunch” for the cocktail’s loss of popularity, but that was merely a symptom of the wider problem.  These decades embodied a direct rejection of tradition, culture, and leisure, and the martini was one of the first casualties.

Fortunately the martini has regained popularity in recent years.  The late Judge Robert Bork (in a piece I highly recommend) recounts the role he played in its reappearance:

Just a few years back, no one under the age of forty drank it. Though I can hardly take full credit for the drink’s resurgence, I made a contribution. When I was a judge, I used to tell my clerks, who had never tasted one, that martinis are essential to cultural conservatism. Furthermore, I described the ideal recipe. Several of them accepted my argument, with only one unfortunate result: they took to entering bars in Washington and ordering “Judge Bork martinis.” This gave a somewhat false picture of life in my chambers.

So, how does one go about making a martini?  Well the first step is to start with a very fine gin.  I cannot stress this enough: poor gin will make for an even worse martini.  I recommend Plymouth Gin, an English brand distilled in copper stills at a former Dominican monastery in the old harbour area of Plymouth.  The current version of the bottle is a reminder of its Dominican heritage with the phrase “Black Friars Distillery” embossed on the glass.

My preference for Plymouth gin is also one of the rare occasions I find myself agreeing with a New York Times article.  Writer Eric Asimov notes that after four writers tried multiple martinis with various gins, Plymouth came out on top:

Our favorite martini gin, Plymouth English Gin, could not have been more stylish and graceful.  Plymouth has the classic juniper-based gin profile, yet it is uncommonly subtle and smooth.

But whichever gin you select, please know that the quality of the martini often directly correlates with the quality of the gin.

MartiniThe next ingredient is the dry vermouth (fortified wine with botanicals).  If you’re new to buying vermouth, be sure you purchase the dry, not sweet, variety (look for the green bottles, not the red ones).  For years the Noilly Prat, produced in France, was the choice vermouth for martini drinkers.  The version exported to America was less sweet than its European counterpart, making for a drier, more classic martini.  But in 2009 the company changed its exported version to match the European flavors, making for a “sweet, floral” taste.  People weren’t happy:

Martini drinkers are conservatives. Not necessarily politically, but in temperament: They abjure fad and fashion in drink, hewing to the Platonic form of the cocktail. They would stand athwart history yelling Stop — if yelling weren’t inconsistent with the proper comportment of a Martini drinker.

I’ve had the new Noilly Prat, and it’s a solid vermouth, but it’s not my favorite in the martini.  I now use Dolin or  Boissiere extra dry, and both are good fits for the drink.

So you’ve picked out your gin, and you’ve picked out your vermouth.  But the question remains: in which proportion will you mix the two?  This, of course, is the key to the balance of the martini.  Too much vermouth and you mask the rich flavors of the gin.  Too much gin and you’re drinking a glass of gin, not a martini.

My preference for a martini is a 5:1, gin to vermouth, ratio.  I understand that this is on the low end, but there ought to be enough vermouth to enhance and highlight the flavors of the gin.

The next question to address is whether the martini should be shaken or stirred (though both are done over ice).  Traditionally, the martini was stirred in a mixing glass before being poured into a cocktail glass. Thanks to Ian Fleming’s fictional character, though, many today prefer their martini, “shaken, not stirred.”

While I enjoy a martini either way, one must remember that shaking a martini not only dilutes the gin (as the ice breaks up when shaken), but it results in air bubbles which ruin the clarity of the drink when poured.

Last, but not least, is the martini’s garnish.  Judge Bork, in his description of the martini, shuns the traditional olive garnish, saying:

[O]lives are to be eschewed, except by people who think a martini is a type of salad.

His choice is the drink’s alternate garnish, the lemon twist.  Some like their martini with a silverskin cocktail onion instead, but this is more properly referred to as a Gibson.

So, there you have it, the martini.  Five parts gin, one part dry vermouth, stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass, garnished with an olive or a lemon twist.  Happy Easter!

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