The martini is a crisp, clear, and bracingly high alcohol cocktail that combines gin and vermouth to create a drink that is almost perfect in its simplicity. It is difficult to top the gin martini for pure beauty in a cocktail.
Arguably the best martini is one in which a good amount of a fairly decent dry gin makes just a touch of room for a good dry white vermouth. Add a single dash of orange bitters and you can practically call it a day.
The vermouth amplifies and brightens of the gin with some acidity and sweetness, and the gin gives structure and body to the vermouth.
Gin’s characteristic botanical notes and high-proof spirit are balanced by the flavor and acidity (and sometimes sweetness) of the vermouth. Together, it’s a marriage of nuance and savory intrigue.
What's a Martini?
A gin martini is simple to make, but difficult to master—it is one of the first drinks that you should try to perfect.
Good and bad martinis alike come down to just two core ingredients: a high-proof spirit and an aromatized wine like vermouth. Make that a good dry gin, dry vermouth, just a dash of orange bitters, and you have what journalist and scholar H.L. Mencken called, “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”
History of a Martini
It all began with the Manhattan, a simple and perfect combination of rye whiskey, sweet red vermouth, and bitters. Then came the Martinez which is known to be the direct precursor of the martini. The Martinez substituted rye for gin and added a splash of maraschino liqueur and a touch of orange bitters.
And our beloved martini? At first it was just a Martinez without the maraschino, just gin and sweet vermouth. When drier, “French” vermouth became more available, it became the staple drink we know and love today. As vodka found itself on more and more shelves outside of Eastern Europe, in the mid-20th century, the Vodka Martini became a thing.
Best Brand of Alcohol to Use
The Martini is not a drink that calls for “mixing” versions of your spirits; you’ll want the highest quality gin and vermouth, and you will be able to taste the difference. Some of the most affordable and available of the quality choices include:
- Beefeater Gin: one of the most versatile gins. It is high proof but doesn’t overpower more nuanced ingredients. Tremendously affordable, and well-suited for a multitude of cocktails.
- Plymouth Gin: is a treasure to keep on your shelves. It’s more gentle, and lower proof, than Beefeater. Plymouth has a dreamy balance of the botanical with suggestively citrusy notes.
- Vermouth: Dolin Dry, is a beautifully dry, bright, and slightly herbal and just slightly bitter white vermouth.
- Noilly Prat Extra Dry vermouth: falls somewhere between the best dry white wine and best mountain spring water you’ve ever had.
- Dolin Blanc vermouth is another great option, less dry than Dolin’s other white vermouth (see above), with a delicate, honeyed finish.
What’s the Deal with Shaken vs. Stirred
It’s better to serve a martini stirred. You should want your martini as pure as it can get. Shaking your gin and vermouth with ice would simply add too much water to the mix.
Chilling your mixing and serving glasses ahead of time will help you start off on better footing, and lead to less dilution while stirring. Have your stirring spoon and strainer ready and stir smoothly and quickly in a mixing glass half-filled with ice. The temperature drops remarkably with every 10 seconds of stirring (after 30 seconds, it can even be below freezing), so go easy at first and try to find your own sweet spot. Experiment with 15, 20, and 30 second stirs to dial it into your own taste.
The Martini Glass (and Others)
Think you know how a martini ought to be served? Think again. The Martini had already been around for 25 years by the time the “Martini glass” was invented, and had been served in a coupe glass, for the most part according to Max Rudin’s “There is Something About a Martini”.
In theory, the “martini glass” was designed for practicality as much as it was for art. The long stem reduces the transfer of body heat to the drink itself so your drink will stay colder longer, but there are better glass options in my opinion.
A Nick & Nora or coupe glass is elegant, and more practical. They’re much better balanced (less top heavy), and easier to hold by the stem, letting your martini keep its cool far longer.
No matter your glass, make sure to chill it beforehand. You can either let it sit in your freezer for a bit, or simply fill it with ice water for several minutes before you pour your drink.
This will go a long, long way toward helping you keep an ideal temperature for your cocktail. The same can be said for your mixing glass—keep that cold and you’ll bring up the temperature of the gin and vermouth before ice enters the mix.
How to Garnish a Martini
There is garnishing for show, and then there’s garnishing for taste. Already a beautifully simple drink that rewards precision, the martini should only be garnished with what works for it, what may provide the last touch of seasoning.
Lemons and oranges are best, with fragrant oils that truly do work well as accents, without overwhelming the more nuanced flavors in your gin and vermouth. An olive provides a savory touch but does make for a nice complement to the gin.
Gin Martini Variations
- Wet Martini: This recipe is a semi-dry martini, with a relatively small amount of vermouth. To make a wet martini, use equal proportions of gin and vermouth.
- Vesper: A splash of vodka is added to a good pour of gin, and the slightly fruity Lillet blanc fills in for your dry, savory vermouth.
- Dirty Martini: Skip the orange bitters and add a splash of olive brine.
- Vodka Martini: That’s right, a vodka martini is a variation on the standard gin martini. Substitute vodka in slightly greater proportion: 2-1/2oz of vodka to 1/2oz vermouth.
- 50/50 Martini: Combine equal parts gin or vodka and vermouth for this slightly less booze forward version.
More Gin Cocktails to Try
- 2 1/4 ounces gin
- 1/2 ounce Dolin Dry Vermouth / Noilly Prat Extra Dry
- 1 dash orange bitters
- 1 lemon twist, for garnish
Pre-chill your glasses:
Pre-chill your serving and mixing glasses, if possible, by placing in the freezer for 10 minutes beforehand, or “charging” the glass by filling it with ice and topping off with water, for an even quicker chill.
Combine ingredients into your mixing glass:
Add the gin, vermouth, and orange bitters to a mixing glass with ice. Stir between 20 to 30 seconds at most.
Strain the martini:
Strain cocktail into a chilled coupe, Nick & Nora, or martini glass.
Garnish and serve:
Twist the lemon peel over the glass to “express” its oils into the drink, improving the nose and acidity, and set on the edge of the glass.