Last weekend I heard a guest on NPR speaking about martinis, and discussing the many variations that are now available on cocktail menus – espresso martinis, chocolate martinis, apple-tinis. The commentator was Bonnie Wolf, who did not appreciate the current proliferation of martini wannabe’s. I totally agree. A martini is quite simple – gin (or vodka if you prefer), dry vermouth, ice, and an olive or twist for garnish. Period. No chocolate, no apples, no cherry liquor. You do not tamper with perfection. If you like apple flavored vodka be my guest, but it’s not a martini.
The origins of the martini cocktail are as cloudy as an afternoon after a three martini lunch. Most agree that Martini & Rossi vermouth has something to do with the name, but others attribute an early 1900’s San Francisco drink – the Martinez cocktail – as the genesis of the drink that we now know. A Martinez had similar components, but with added sweeteners. I prefer to think that Nick Charles’s Thin Man thought it up to impress Nora. Lord knows Nick perfected the art of making them. Or was it Hawk-Eye? In any event it is an elegant drink, certainly one of the most popular cocktails of all time. It is also one of my favorite cocktails. Actually not one of – it is my favorite, period.
The NPR commentary last week referred to the martini as an urban drink, which I suppose has some validity. I don’t see too many martinis being drunk while sitting on a tailgate at the fish and game club, but it is certainly not unheard of. I suspect that most martinis are consumed while wearing a suit, which might account for the drinks popularity. When you are wearing a suit you need some relief. By the way, there is no latent sexism in the suit comment, for most martini drinkers are men. I have met a few women martini drinkers and they can certainly be a lot fun. Or not. I suspect that one of the reasons that martinis are an “urban” drink is that most city dwellers don’t have to drive home after a few martinis at cocktail hour. They walk or take the train. They have to. Martinis have a habit of doing that. A friend states that every really stupid thing he has ever done can be traced directly to a martini. Fair warning.
The ingredients in a martini are easy enough to come by. The preparation is also easy to master, but for some reason there are a lot of really bad martinis being served out there. Having made a few thousand in my lifetime, I will offer the “Idiot’s Guide to Making a Proper Martini”. I apologize if there is actually a book out with the same title.
First you must have all of the components in place, ready to go, before you start.
You will need:
A bottle of gin or vodka of your choosing. It should be room temperature, not frozen! More on this later. You will need a reasonably fresh bottle of dry vermouth (the green one). Vermouth has a short shelf life. Just because you store it next to the gin bottle in the closet does not mean it will last six years. A few months is OK. You will need a proper martini glass. It should be large enough to hold at least six ounces of liquid, plus a few olives, and still have a half inch of free board for trembles. There is something about the anticipation of an ice cold martini that makes grown men tremble. I like an eight ounce glass. For preparation you will need a cocktail shaker, a strainer, a shot glass if you need to measure, and a stirring spoon. You should have a good supply of ice cubes, and some decent olives. Here too, people go off in many directions with all different types and sizes of olives – stuffed with garlic, cheese, or pimento. I really enjoy a good large fresh pitted green olive in my martini. I buy mine at Zabar’s. If I want to be fancy I use caper berries. I avoid olives cured in a lot of oil, or stuffed with anything oily. I think oil floating on the surface spoils the crisp clean look of a good martini. They don’t use the expression “gin – clear” for nothing. An alternative is a twist – not a slice – of lemon. Only the lemon rind is used, twisted to release the lemon oil. Think espresso.
When you are ready to start preparing the drink you must first chill the glass. Fill the glass with ice cubes, then fill the glass with cold water, almost to the top. As it sits for a few minutes while you are making the drink it will get nice and frosty. Now on to the drink. Much is made of the amount of vermouth that goes into a martini. Too much will ruin the drink, but you do need some vermouth or the drink will not taste at all like a martini. Too many bartenders assume that “very dry” means no vermouth, which is most definitely not the case. If you use no vermouth you have a gin or vodka on the rocks, not a martini. Some will use a perfume mister, or wave the cork over the glass, or some other silly stuff. The fool proof method is as follows. Old timers will remember it as an “in and out” martini, served “up” as opposed to “on the rocks”.
Fill the cocktail shaker almost to the top with ice cubes. Now, using a circular motion, poor in an ounce or two of vermouth all over the ice into the shaker. (Too much is OK; too little is not.) Cover the shaker with the strainer, and pour all of the vermouth out. What remains, just coating the ice, is the proper amount of vermouth. Now take the gin or vodka and pour three ounces over the ice. Stir the martini. If James Bond is in the room and he insists on shaking it, fine, but you will notice that a shaken martini gets very cloudy. You also get lots of ice chips in the drink. I prefer my martinis stirred – thirty times. Thirty stirs will do two things – it will thoroughly mix everything up, but much more importantly it will melt some ice. A proper martini is one quarter water. If you don’t stir the drink enough you will not release enough water from the ice. In addition, if you freeze your gin or vodka it will not allow the ice to melt so don’t put your booze in the freezer if you are going to make martinis!!
At this point you will have (A) a shaker of martini, and (B) a frosted glass filled with ice cubes and water. Discard the ice water, pour A into B, add two olives, or a twist, and Voila! The proper martini. Enjoy.
PS – The best martini in the North Country? The Owl at Twilight, Olmsteadville, NY
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