The recent announcement that Bond will be switching to martinis made with Belvedere vodka in the next film, Spectre, has been greeted as a return to form, but the truth is that the Bond of the novels drank vodka martinis only slightly more frequently than gin ones — at a split of about 60/40. According to Meaghan Dorman, Head Bartender at The Raines Law Room and Dear Irving, the ratio is about the same among their customers: "It’s getting more back to gin, but it’s 60 percent vodka." And at Raines’s new midtown location at the William Hotel, martinis can be a quarter or more of the total drink orders around dinnertime. But why has the vodka martini become so popular? And why do bartenders and cocktail aficionados the world over have such a visceral dislike of the drink and such a strong preference for gin?
The simplicity of a dry vodka martini — and the fact that vodka is commonly described as an odorless, colorless, flavorless spirit — has some seeing it as the white bread of the cocktail world, known mainly for its consistency or, put charitably by Dorman, "something of a palate cleanser." Of course, a great bartender like Dorman will serve whatever her customer orders, and will find a way to make it better than they’ve ever had, but it’s not hard to see why people who take pride in their craft might be a little disappointed when asked to make something requiring so little skill or personal flair. "I think of cocktails like food," says Dorman, "and I would never pick the plainest thing to eat."
The fact is that gin, a much more diverse spirit than vodka in taste and smell, offers far more opportunity for customization and experimentation. There are classic London dry gins, very botanical and floral gins, sweeter gins, juniper-heavy gins, and herbal gins. With vodka, the difference between grain types or potato is significantly less interesting. "It creates a much more dynamic drink to add those botanicals to the vermouth," says Dorman, who tests out every new gin by making a martini. "It’s like matching up two complex things and it becoming more than the sum of its parts."
Scott Rosenbaum, Spirits Strategist at T. Edward Wines, is less diplomatic: "I prefer gin martinis and the reason is fairly obvious. Vodka is a neutral spirit and when you mix it with something it takes on its characteristics. A vodka martini is diluted vermouth. When you mix gin and vermouth you get a cocktail."
What’s worse, the much-lamented triumph of vodka over gin martinis has affected other aspects of the once-noble drink. It isn’t just that vodka’s Swiss-like neutrality opened the door to various flavored abominations (apple, lychee, chocolate, etc…) but the other things that make a martini a martini — the vermouth, the garnish, and the preparation — have suffered as a result.
It’s no coincidence that the spurning of vermouth happened in lockstep with vodka’s rising popularity in martinis. The proportion of gin to vermouth is an old point of contention in the great martini debate. Martinis used to be vermouth-heavy, considered as a light before-dinner aperitif. But by the 1960’s the vogue was set for a bone dry martini involving little, if any, vermouth. One bitter Vermouth manufacturer of the day insisted that the people who drink extra dry martinis are just closet alcoholics who want straight gin but are too embarrassed to order it. Rosenbaum explains that "Vodka and vermouth don’t typically play nice with each other. This is why when you see people who like vodka martinis they like very little vermouth or a very dry martini. Which is just chilled vodka."
The garnish is the martini’s most visible means of customization, and a good test of a well-stocked bar? is to order a Gibson, which uses a pickled cocktail onion instead of an olive. A twist of lemon peel is preferred by those who want a slightly more astringent drink, but the olive has become standard, despite the historian Bernard Devoto’s famous theory: "Nothing can be done with people who put olives in Martinis, presumably because in some desolate childhood hour someone refused them a dill pickle and so they go through life lusting for the taste of brine." This taste for brine is behind the dirty martini: A drink almost always detested by cocktail connoisseurs and almost inconceivable without vodka’s flavorlessness. "It’s very hard for me to wrap my head around," confesses Rosenbaum. And Dorman agrees: "I really don’t like them," she says, "I don’t see the appeal. It’s just too much of a salt bomb." When a bomb like that goes off in a pool of delicious, flavorful gin, the result is a clashing melee of uncomplimentary tastes. In vodka, the cloying taste of saltwater might be a welcome relief from boredom.
Some customers prefer their martinis "violently shaken," another sin in most bartenders’ eyes for which 007 and his vodka martinis are again responsible. Unsurprisingly, vodka martinis are shaken more often than gin ones. "You can shake a martini," says Dorman, with some hesitation in her voice. "It’s not the worst thing. But it changes the texture with air. A martini should be a smooth, silky, elegant drink." Rosenbaum is again less compromising: "Never shake a martini. It’s a stirred drink."
Both bartenders agree that long drunk hours of experimentation using various quantities and brands of gin and vermouth with different garnishes is the best way for the gin martini drinker to find his own personal drink.
"The important thing with every martini," says Rosenbaum, "is that you don’t treat every ingredient the same. You want to marry the styles and proportions. You treat a floral gin differently than you treat a savory gin like a London Dry. You wouldn’t just say 'two parts gin, one part vermouth.’" Get to know the ingredients you put in your drink. You can order your Plymouth and Dolan with an olive, your Hendricks with Carpano Bianco and a twist, or your Roundhouse Gibson with Cocchi Americano and extra onions.
For the historically curious, the Raines Law Room offers two classic martini variations on their menu. One is the Martinez, which is a sweeter precursor to the Martini using "Old Tom" gin, an old-fashioned style of gin; sweeter, lower proof, and with less heavy juniper flavor. The other is the Vesper, invented by Ian Fleming himself and ordered by Bond in the novel Casino Royale. The original Vesper calls for gin, vodka, and Kina Lillet, and Dorman describes the version at Raines as "an introduction to a gin martini for a vodka martini drinker. It’s clean and approachable."
"I think it’s super classy when people have their own drink," says Dorman. "Just not Red Bull & vodka."