The Right Way to Make a Classic Martini

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The martini is an emblem of booze. Obviously, there’s Bond’s, shaken, not stirred, but it goes beyond that — martinis represent a level of class and sophistication, or at least an aspiration toward a level of class and sophistication, that a tumbler of Beefeater, much less a shot of blueberry Smirnoff, does not. 

But like most creatures of power and prestige, the martini is often misunderstood. “A lot of people who’ve ordered martinis from me, especially with a younger crowd, have pretty much no idea that a martini is basically a glass of cold gin,” says bartender Forrest Hudes. “They think they’re getting a cocktail with some kind of juice or something in it. Most people have too much pride to admit that, when they get their martini, it’s the first time they’ve ever had gin on its own.” 

Hudes has bartended at Huckleberry in New York City and the Wellesbourne in Los Angeles, and he now creates and serves drinks at the Elysian in L.A. Young and old drinkers drink differently, and for a fresher crowd, those in their 20s, the martini is less familiar than it may have been in the 80s and 90s, when clear spirits were king. But whiskey has made major gains in recent years, and that means there’s less natural experience with the patron cocktail of Manhattan business-lunches. 

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And yet: The martini still matters. In his 2001 book Straight Up Or On the Rocks, New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes’ first words are, “Human invention has launched untold thousands of cocktails, but only one has developed a genuine mystique: the martini. It is the quintessential cocktail, the standard by which all others are judged.” For our purposes of making a martini, the drink’s origin only matters in the way that having watched Michael Jordan helps us appreciate Kobe Bryant. So, a quick word: Grimes traces it back to the mid-1800s, with arguments in favor of both New York and San Francisco as the city of birth. In its early days, Hudes says, the drink contained far more dry vermouth, as well as orange bitters. Now, it’s three ingredients, with possible variations in each category: liquor, vermouth, and olive or lemon. 

From here, you have options. Between 1971 and 1984, the great English drinker (and novelist) Sir Kingsley Amis wrote the pieces that would later be collected into Everyday Drinking. His dry martini called for 12 to 15 parts gin for every one part dry vermouth, plus lemon rind (or cocktail onion — let’s steer clear of that) and ice cubes. Kingsley prized the coldness of his martinis over the concentration of their mixture, which allows him to let mixed jugs of the drink stand. Grimes collects a recipe from the legendary director Luis Buñuel in his book; Buñuel calls for taking ice at 20 degrees below zero and pouring a few drops of Noilly Prat (a French vermouth) and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. “Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.” Do you want to get drunk? Both of these recipes will get you very drunk!

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If you would rather drink less like an English novelist or Spanish filmmaker and more like an American in 2015, Hudes has some advice. “A modern day martini, if you go to a cocktail bar and order a martini, is going to be nine or ten parts gin to one part dry vermouth, stirred, and served neat in a cocktail glass with either an olive or a lemon twist.” 

For production at home, Hudes says, there are a few things you need. 

  1. A bottle of gin or vodka that isn’t trash. “You can’t make a garbage gin martini, because then you’re just drinking garbage gin. Don’t be afraid to ask a question in the store, because you’re going to be tasting that gin — if you like more juniper-y gin, or lighter gin, figure out what all those things mean and get a bottle you like the taste of.”
  2. A bottle of dry vermouth that also isn’t trash. “You don’t really need it, since a lot of martini drinkers will order them extra dry.” (Extra dry = very little to no vermouth.) “But for a start, you should get a bottle of dry vermouth, and not the worst — a nice bottle of dry vermouth will make a big difference.”
  3. Cocktail-making accoutrements. “You’re going to need some kind of measuring instrument, because it’s all about proportions — get a jigger or a tiny little measuring cup. You’re going to need a pint glass and a bar spoon, an actual bar spoon and not a teaspoon. It’s like a swizzle stick, basically.”
  4. Good ice. “The kind of ice makes a big difference. You’re not putting ice in the glass, the ice is just for chilling the martini and diluting it, and those things are really important for making a martini. If you give someone room temperature gin in a glass, it’s going to be disgusting.
  5. Glasses with stems, so you don’t warm the martini with your hand. Keep in mind also that the bigger the glass, the warmer the martini will get before you finish it.
  6. Lemons or olives. “This is important, because in a two-ingredient ecosystem, a third ingredient makes a big difference. It’s not just a garnish — it’s actually an ingredient.

At home, you can keep all these ingredients cold, and you should. The next part is where personal preference comes into play. Add your ingredients to the pint glass according to taste. Unless requested differently, Hudes will fill his bar spoon with vermouth and add that to the gin or vodka. Then add the ice and either stir or shake. Hudes prefers to stir his martinis, which avoids bruising the alcohol and diluting the ingredients. Bond likes his martinis shaken, and so do plenty of other (real) folks, but when you stir them, you’re putting a lot less energy into the system, so it’s going to get colder, but with less water.” Stir for 30 seconds or so, until the glass is frosted on the outside with condensation and cold sweat. Let it sit for a second. Strain into a glass. Add the lemon rind or olive. And you have a martini. 

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