The Four Gospels: The Martini

martini-gospelI’ve been fascinated for a while with the concept of the four bedrock drinks of cocktailia. Each is based on one of the four foundation spirits upon which classic drinking lore is laid: Gin, Bourbon, Rum, and Brandy. I refer to these cocktails as The Four Gospels. I’m not sure if I made this up, or if I read it elsewhere. I suspect I read it elsewhere, as I ain’t that clever usually.
This post is about the Gospel of Gin, the troublesome Martini.
If there is a Gospel of Gospels, it is the Martini. It is an order of magnitude more popular the the other three Gospels combined. That triangular glass, with its crystal clear contents and light frost on the outside is the icon of cool in cocktails, perhaps the icon of cool, period. The very name, Martini, is almost synonymous in the laity’s mind with the very concept of cocktail. And that is the challenge it presents.
If the Manhattan has changed the least from the time of its invention, the Martini has changed the most. Its exact origins are shrouded in significant mystery. Success has many fathers. Given the Martini’s success, it is not surprising that it mother appeared to have gotten around a bit. Trying to figure out the truth is like watching the first half of Mama Mia. All we know for sure is that it was invented in the United States, and the first one mixed would be unrecognizable to the average modern Martini drinker.
Warning, do not watch the following video if you are susceptible to earworms.

Let us consider a pretty representative base Martini recipe, as it has been slowly codified over time:

THE MARTINI

  • 4 parts London dry gin
  • 1 part dry french vermouth

Combine ingredients in a pitcher with large ice and stir long and gently until frost appears on the outside. Strain into chilled cocktail glasses and garnish with one or three olives on a pick. With one olive, the pick may be omitted.

There you go. Possibly the simplest, most elegant cocktail recipe there is. The resulting drink is complex, flavorful, and visually stunning in its elegant simplicity. There is a reason that this is the most popular cocktail in history.
Quality of gin in a Martini is of paramount importance. Like all the Gospels, it lovingly features all the magic of its base spirit. If you use bad gin, it will lovingly feature the badness, so don’t go there. Likewise, the vermouth plays an important role in a properly made Martini. Though some find huge variations in quality of various brands, most drinkers will be happy with any reasonable vermouth… as long as it is fresh. Unlike gin and other liquors, Vermouth is a wine. It does go bad once opened, not as quickly as regular wine, but it does get flat and stale. For the home bar, you should buy your vermouth in small bottles, and store them in the refrigerator.
Like the Daiquiri, the Martini can be subjected to a fair amount of interpretation and still be considered the gospel truth. Unlike the Daiquiri, these modifications are less about the players, and more about how they are arranged.
martini-twistThe first main variant is the garnish. The classic image of the Martini has that lovely green olive, nestled at the bottom of the glass, or impaled upon an artistic skewer. It imparts a little briny taste to the drink, especially at the end, as well as providing a tasty snack mid drink, for those who can stomach the darn things. But of equal canonical legitimacy is the long twist of lemon. This is my favorite, by the way. The lemon oil adds a brighter, fresher accent to the drink than the olive brine. And if you or your bartender have some skill with the knife, the long, luxurious, curling peel, nestled in the glass or crawling over the edge, provides a sophisticated yet whimsical image. Um, don’t do both. It won’t taste or look right.
The next question regards bitters: Do you add them? I do, but opinion is divided. A few drops or even a good dash of bitters, usually orange but Angostura works too, will add another harmonious dimension to this already complex drink. It does add a bit to the degree of difficulty, however. Not in making, but in drinking. It is probably better to omit the bitters for those who are just beginning to plumb the depth of this cocktail.
Lastly, you may play with the ratio of gin to vermouth. I like four to one, but that is truly just me. It should be somewhere from 2-1 (almost no one goes this far anymore), to seven or eight to one. The higher the ratio of gin to vermouth, the dryer your Martini is considered, and the more expensive and high quality your gin had better damn well be.
Beyond that, we start to get into the heresies of the Martini, which are legion.
We begin with the the question of dryness. Many bars, bartenders, and home mixers today will simply omit the vermouth in a misguided quest for dryness. A Martini with all gin and no vermouth is not a Martini. It is, get this, a glass of cold gin. No one in their right mind goes around calling for a round of shots of gin. Yet we see people all the time ordering and consuming giant, oversized shots of gin and calling them Martinis. Do. Not. Do. This.
But beyond that are the self-deluding heretics that subscribe to the wash method, or the super high ratio. The wash is simply rinsing the glass or the ice with vermouth and pouring off whatever does not stick. You get similar results with the super high ratio method, where you creep into the 15-1 range. These drinks all should be more properly called Montgomerys. This arrangement is named for British field marshal Montgomery, who was known to the Americans as the leader who would not attack without at least a 15-1 advantage in troops, and known to the French as the most crazy brave leader in military history…. Sadly, today you are more likely to get a Montgomery than a Martini in most places unless you take your bartender firmly in hand.
Next we have are those drinkers who order up a Martini with five, seven, or more olives. This is not a Martini. It’s a meal.
And some folks like their Martinis on the rocks. No. You know, I suppose that for some tastes…. No. Just no.
daniel-craig-bond-sqThe heresies only get bigger from here folks. Here’s a phrase you’ve heard before: Shaken, not stirred. Bond may have made the Martini cool (or more likely the Martini made Bond cool), but this is not the right way to make a Martini. While I do not buy the idea that shaking bruises gin, at least one source that I respect states that shaking will bruise the vermouth. (Not using vermouth? Heretic!)
More to the point, shaking will cloud your Martini, leaving bubbles and shards of ice to mar its crystalline perfection. I am in general a shaking proponent for most drinks, craving the greater coldness you usually get, but for the Martini it is better to take the time (a lot of time) to properly chill the drink with gentle stirring.
An even bigger heresy than that of shaking is the heresy of vodka. Before we go a step further, allow me to raise my hand and state for the Inquisition that, My name is Doug, and I’m a Vodka Martini heretic. A Vodka Martini (note the capitalization?) is a different drink. It is not a Martini, folks! It is a much less challenging, more accessible, less interesting, and currently more popular cocktail. Here’s the difference between the two in pictures:

v-vs-g
Imagine if you will the Vodka Martini (left), versus the (gin) Martini (right)

Worth a thousand words, no?
Lastly, we come to the greatest heresy of all, the one that infects otherwise great bars all across the land. Dark are the times, and fear walks among the women and children. I speak of the Cosmopolitan Martini, or the Appletini, or the Blueberry Mango Martini, or any of a hundred thousand other concoctions, most made with vodka, and all served in a Martini glass.
Stop! Stop right there, or you had best expect the Spanish Inquisition.
These drinks are not Martinis. Many of them can only charitably be called cocktails. The definition of Martini is in no way, shape, or form, an alcoholic beverage served ‘up’ in a triangular cross-sectioned glass. The glass itself is a cocktail glass, not a Martini glass. Even if it has a real Martini in it, it is not a Martini glass.
Pant. Pant. Pant. Whew, I’m worn out from all the righteous indignation!
The Martini is a magnificent cocktail. A cocktail to which modern cocktail culture, most drinks, and frankly most bars, owe their existence. It deserves respect and knowledge. It isn’t for everyone. The last thing that distinguishes Martinis is how many people really don’t like them, or think they don’t. I really don’t prefer them myself (see confession above). But they are a marvelous cocktail, filled with history, and the best way to showcase most fine gins. Treat them well.

Thus endeth Martini, The Book of Gin.
Here are the other posts here relating to the Four Gospels of the Cocktail:
The Daiquiri, The Book of Rum
The Manhattan, The Book of Whiskey
The Sidecar, The Book of Brandy

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

8 Comments

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  • I really enjoyed the Gospel from the Book of Gin. In fact, I’m quite taken by your premise that there are key drinks that anchor each of the major spirits. I can only wonder about the lost Book of Vodka…

    For all its simplicity the Martini seems to stand for choice. Even the dive bars will ask how you’d like it. Although I can only imagine it ending in disappointment. With so many different ways to make it, would it be fair say, that the Martini, more than any other drink, lives as a concept or a symbol rather than just a recipe?

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  • Kim,

    I’m glad people seem to be enjoying this series.
    I like your thought about the Martini existing as much as a concept as a drink. Like the texts of real religions, there is often a (seeming) disconnect between the literal and the meaning.
    As for the books of vodka and of tequila, I don’t see them as being “Gospels”. Aside from the fact that more than four would screw up the gag, each is missing something to make it work.
    I think I’ll do a post on these lost “Gnostic Gospels” after I’ve done the Gospel of Brandy.

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  • Vermouth is what gin-swilling drunkards use to convince others that they’re not gin-swilling drunkards, they’re cocktailians. -said the unapologetic gin-swilling drunkard.

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  • Thank you for the article and, more importantly, embracing and preaching the gospel. :)

    Here’s how I reconcile the subject of bitters (particularly orange) in the Martini and, I might add, you touched on it yourself with mention of “The definition of Martini is in no way, shape, or form…”

    The generally accepted definition of a cocktail was printed in 1806 via letter to the editor newspaper as: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

    To that end – bitters should be part and parcel of the Martini (a cocktail).

    So, not to add to the noise of heretics or evangelists proclaiming what is true and right – but it provides a good “end of argument” in my mind that bitters are an essential ingredient in the Martini and earliest recipes seem to dictate orange as the choice.

    Besides, since we’re on the subject of educating and spreading the word it only seems fitting to expose the true, unadulterated word: Gin, Vermouth, Bitters, Stirred, Cold, Sublime.

    Can I get an Amen?

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