The Martini. The iconic cocktail, instantly recognizable with its Y-shaped glass and speared olive, adorns neon signs worldwide as the universal symbol of cocktails and places to drink them. With only two ingredients, the Martini is deceptively simple. How to select, proportion, and mix those ingredients has been hotly debated for over 120 years.
Tread carefully – you are in the presence of the undisputed king of the cocktail world. What is it that makes a Martini so iconic? Universally revered as the driving force behind cocktail culture itself and twisted and embellished to within an inch of its life, there’s a good chance that the first cocktail you ever heard of was a Martini.Tristan Stephenson. The Curious Bartender Volume 1: The artistry and alchemy of creating the perfect cocktail. 2013.
As a young man, inexperienced in cocktail culture, I found it downright intimidating to order a Martini in a bar because of the lexicon of arcane terminology. Wet, Dirty, Dry, Extra Dry, Up, Straight Up, Twist – these cocktail questions were hurled at me by busy bartenders when I would attempt to order a Martini. I’d mumble an answer, hoping I liked what came back.
Dirty, dry, up, or in between / From the very first sip you know what I mean / When you’re out with a babe you don’t nickel or dime / Guessin’ that means it’s Martini timeReverend Horton Heat. It’s Martini Time. 1996.
After a lot of experimentation, I figured out how my 22-year-old self liked Martinis. “Dry vodka Martini, straight up, with Ketel One and three olives,” I would confidently assert, and get back something in the general neighborhood of what I wanted. There was still a lot variation, though. Some bartenders would “rinse” the glass with vermouth, others would add a full ounce, and still others would mist the cocktail with lemon juice from a spray bottle. Such were the 1990s in Oklahoma.
These days, I like a Dry Gin Martini at a 4:1 ratio with garlic stuffed olives. But I don’t order them in bars anymore – I just make them the way I like at home.
So what do all these Martini words mean, and how do we make a great one?
Martini Terminology and Types
Learn to speak the language of Martini:
- Wet or Dry: All Martinis use “dry” vermouth, which is clear vermouth (not the red/brown “sweet” variety). Wet or Dry, then, refers to how much dry vermouth is in the cocktail. More dry vermouth makes a wetter Martini. In other words, the less vermouth, the drier the Martini. It sounds backwards, but that’s the way it is.
- Extra Dry: An Extra Dry Martini is so dry that it has no vermouth at all. It’s just straight gin (or vodka).
- Dirty: A Dirty Martini has a splash of olive brine added to the drink, so the entire cocktail has a salty olive flavor. “Extra Dirty” is a way to specify you want a lot of olive brine.
- Up or Straight Up: A cocktail served without ice in the glass. This is how Martinis are traditionally served. It is uncommon to find a Martini served “on the rocks” or with ice. I’ve had them, though, served in plastic cups in live music venues that claim to have a full bar.
- Shaken or Stirred: Martinis are chilled by agitating them with ice. The ice chills the cocktail and dilutes it slightly as the ice melts. This dilution takes the edge off the alcohol. Shaking agitates the cocktail more than stirring, which introduces tiny air bubbles into the Martini, making it cloudy and frothy. Whether Martinis should be shaken or stirred is a topic of great passion and debate, which we will cover below.
- Twist: A twist of lemon peel as a garnish, with a small amount of the oils in the peel expressed over the top of the drink. An olive garnish adds a salty taste, while a Martini with a twist has a cleaner, citrus taste.
History of the Martini
Like most classic cocktails, the origin of the Martini is lost to history.
What we do know is that cocktails recipes resembling the Martini began to emerge in literature in the 1880s, likely evolving from the Martinez and Manhattan cocktails. Martini-like recipes appear in Henry J. Wehman’s n Bartender’s Guide (1891) and Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual (1900). Simon Difford wrote a fascinating article documenting the history of Martini recipes from the turn of the century, complete with scans of the original recipes. Somewhere between 1900 and 1910, the concept of a “dry” Martini emerged, as recipes began omitting sweeteners like syrup and Curacao and specifying drier vermouths.
A recipe for the Martini is oddly absent from Charles H. Baker’s Gentelman’s Companion (1939) but the cocktail is mentioned in the glossary on vermouth.
the light, or “dry” French vermouth, without which a Dry Martini would be a wet, old-fashioned MartiniCharles H. Baker. The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask. 1939.
Perhaps by 1939 the Martini was so commonplace that it didn’t deserve a recipe in an “exotic” drinking book. By this time, the Dry Martini was dominant, and Baker calls anything else “old fashioned.”
Today, the world has more or less settled on the idea that a Martini is gin (or vodka) and dry vermouth. Let’s make one.
- 2.5 oz Gin
- 1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
- Garnish Cocktail Olive or Lemon Twist
- Add gin and vermouth to mixing glass
- Stir, not shake, with ice until chilled
- Strain into serving glass
- Garnish with cocktail olive(s) or lemon twist
- Prep your garnish first so your Martini isn’t sitting around getting warm while you fish around for olives or peel lemons.
- Stir until it’s arctic cold. Fill the mixing glass 3/4 full of ice, using a mixture of 2/3 cubed ice and 1/3 cracked ice. Stir a long time – 30 to 45 seconds to get it really cold.
Detailed instructions and notes
Your goal is to serve the Martini arctic cold – because it’s all spirits, you can actually get the temperature below the freezing point of water. The cocktail is served without ice, so the moment you pour the Martini is the coldest it will ever be.
Therefore, prep the garnish before you make the drink. Put your olives on a toothpick or make a lemon twist with your channel knife. That way, you can pour the drink, garnish it, and serve it as quickly as possible.
After preparing your garnish, pour the ingredients into your mixing glass and add ice.
Add a lot of ice – fill the mixing glass 3/4 full of ice. Use a mixture of 2/3 cubed ice and 1/3 cracked ice.
Stir the Martini for a long time – 30-45 seconds. You can time it with your watch or silently sign the Happy Birthday song three times. With practice, you can judge the temperature based on the appearance of the ice. The little chips will have melted and the cubes will look wet and rounded.
Another trick is to keep a finger low on the mixing glass while you stir, and monitor the temperature of the glass.
Strain the cocktail into your chilled Martini glass, garnish and serve.
Gin or Vodka?
The classic Martini uses gin. London Dry Gin, to be exact. Gin is a neutral grain spirit (basically vodka) with botanicals infused in the alcohol. This gives each gin its own unique flavor, making gin one of the most diverse base spirits in the world of cocktails.
Vodka is just a neutral grain spirit. It has very little flavor, and most of them are indistinguishable from each other.
Whether you prefer gin or vodka is a matter of personal preference. Honestly, it took a long time for me to appreciate gin. There are still many that I don’t care for. That’s why my 22-year-old self preferred vodka Martinis. Nowadays, I prefer gin.
Shaken or Stirred?
A Martini should be stirred. This is my opinion, and it’s the opinion of many experts from the famed Sasha Petraske to the great Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Stirring your Martini is my recommendation.
The Martini is the great-grandfather of all stirred cocktails.Jeffrey Morgenthaler. The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. 2014.
From the other side of America, Sasha Petraske agrees:
The Martini is to a stirred drink what a Daiquiri is to a shaken one – total simplicity: just straightforward technique and execution.Abraham Hawkins, quoted. Sasha Petraske. Regarding Cocktails. 2016.
That said, I recognize that there are other mixology masters who hold different opinions. Consider Tristan Stephenson from the UK:
My experience has taught me that the wetter Martinis prefer to be stirred and dry ones shaken. Whether this is to do with the lower ABV of a wet Martini or the fact that it has more wine in it, I do not know.Tristan Stephenson. The Curious Bartender Volume 1: The artistry and alchemy of creating the perfect cocktail. 2013.
While movies and pop culture are seldom the best source of mixology advice, we can’t deny the great influence they have over popular opinion. Everyone knows that James Bond prefers his Martini “shaken, not stirred.” And James Bond is a cool dude. Though he may be fictional, people want to emulate his sophistication and charm.
The Thin Man, a classic 1934 film based on a detective novel of the same name, is a fascinating snapshot of post-prohibition cocktail culture. Nick and Nora Charles (for whom the Nick & Nora glasses are named) are a hard-drinking party couple that get mixed up in a murder mystery. In an early scene, Nick explains shaking cocktails to the bartenders in a club where he is drinking:
The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a Dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.Nick Charles (character). The Thin Man. 1934 film.
Many people point to The Thin Man as evidence that Martinis should be and always have been shaken. Others note that “waltz time” is fairly slow, so shaking a Martini to waltz time would not agitate it any more than stirring, meaning it would mix and chill the ingredients without introducing too many air bubbles.
For me, stirring is the better option as long as you do it properly. Use enough ice – cubed and cracked – and stir long enough to get the Martini arctic cold. With this technique, I don’t think you can go wrong.
Wet or Dry?
In the Dry Martini, “wetness” refers to how much vermouth is included in the drink and is expressed as a ratio of gin to vermouth. For example, a 5:1 martini would include 5 parts gin and 1 part vermouth. You could mix this as 2.5 oz of gin and 1/2 oz of dry vermouth.
There is a body of evidence suggesting that the 5:1 ratio is most appealing.
“After extensive experimentation I have arrived at the ratio of 5 to 1 as the proportion most pleasing to the average palate.”David A. Embury. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. 1948.
Embury, however, goes on to note that his personal preference is a 7:1 ratio. Jeffrey Morgenthaler also advocates for 5:1.
At my bar we prefer a 5:1 gin-to-vermouth ratio, which I’ve found to be most pleasing to the greatest number of martini drinkersJeffrey Morgenthaler. The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. 2014.
I prefer my Martini a little wetter, so at home I make them at a 4:1 ratio. This also makes them easy to measure without a lot of fuss. Two measures of gin from the big end of the jigger, and one measure of vermouth from the small end.
Sasha Petraske, legendary founder of Milk and Honey, is credited with the reinvention of cocktail culture in the early 2000s. He liked his Martini very wet.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a proper martini is dry, but Sasha’s martini was as wet as I’ve ever seen – a straight 2:1 ratioAbraham Hawkins, quoted. Sasha Petraske. Regarding Cocktails. 2016.
What’s the final word on ratios? Let your own taste be the judge. Start with a 5:1 ratio and see how you like it. Adjust proportions and try it again. Your selection of gin and vermouth will likely factor heavily into your preference, so experiment and figure out what works for you. Here is an easy guide for working with different ratios using the measurements your jigger:
|7:1||3.5 oz||1/2 oz|
|5:1||2.5 oz||1/2 oz|
|4:1||3 oz||3/4 oz|
|2:1||3 oz||1.5 oz|
Olive, Twist or Onion?
The Martini garnish is entirely up to personal preference.
The classic garnish is 1 to 3 cocktail olives, which are pitted and stuffed with pimientos. These days, you can find olives stuffed with everything from jalapeños to blue cheese. My absolute favorite are Mezzetta Garlic-Stuffed olives.
The other classic garnish is a twist of lemon peel. This completely changes the Martini, as you no longer have the salty olive seeping into the cocktail. The lemon zest is crisp and fresh instead of savory.
Garnish with an onion, however, and the cocktail is no longer a Martini. It’s now a Gibson. Congrats, you just learned a new cocktail!
Best Gin for a Martini
Gin is an interesting base spirit. Other spirits, like whiskey, are distinguished by the grain, fruit, or sugar they’re made from, the fermentation process, or how long they’re aged. Gin starts as a neutral base spirit, like vodka, and is then flavored by botanicals that give the gin its unique flavor profile. A particular gin could use only a few botanicals, or over a dozen.
The classic Martini recipe calls for London Dry Gin, which is the typical juniper-heavy style of gin. Some major brands are Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Bombay Sapphire. James Bond likes Gordon’s.
If you need a recommendation, start with Beefeater – but experiment and find the gin you like best.
Best Vodka for a Martini
This is a bit of a joke, since almost all vodka tastes the same.
However, if you were going to notice any subtle differences between vodkas, a Vodka Martini would be the cocktail for it.
Use your favorite vodka and don’t sweat it. If you need recommendations, here are some major brands I like at different price points: Ketel One, Grey Goose, and Stolichnaya.
Best Vermouth for a Martini
The classic recipe calls for French Vermouth, and the top pick is Dolin Dry Vermouth. Dolin Dry is “made from a unique blend of 15 botanicals and spices that macerate in a specific white wine.” Dolin has been making vermouth for over 200 years, only a few years less than Carpano.
I prefer Martini & Rossi Extra Dry Vermouth for my Martini. I like the taste. Martini & Rossi introduced this vermouth in 1900 along with a massive advertising campaign that forever defined the Dry Martini. Flavored with Florentine Orris root and other herbs, the secret recipe of Martini & Rossi Extra Dry Vermouth has a slight herbal and citrus character. With the Martini & Rossi Extra Dry, I prefer garlic-stuffed olives as a garnish.
Carpano recently introduced Carpano Dry Vermouth, a new formula with a dryer taste and less sugar than their other Vermouths. Carpano Dry incorporates wormwood (the characteristic herb of Absinthe) from “unpolluted mountainous areas” and a herbaceous plant called Dittany of Crete which adds a savory note to the vermouth. I found the Carpano Dry to be very pleasant, and found myself adding a dash of grapefruit bitters and garnishing with a lemon twist when I used the Carpano Dry.
It all comes down to personal preference. Vermouth is generally inexpensive, so it’s easy to experiment.
Remember to keep vermouth in the refrigerator once opened and it will last about a month.
People have different palates. Maybe you like sweeter cocktails, or maybe you like them drier. Maybe you like jalapeño-stuffed olives, or maybe you prefer a twist.
Now that you know how Martinis are built, you can experiment and find your perfect Martini. Tell me your favorite in the comments!