From Bond’s legendary quote to the glamorous cast of Mad Men sexily swilling them in every episode, few cocktails have had as enduring and elegant an appeal as the martini. The late American writer H.L. Mencken called them "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet", whilst his contemporary E.B. White lyrically referred to the drink as "the elixir of quietude".
Few cocktails have as many points of contention for purists to argue over: Gin or vodka? Shaken or stirred? Olive or lemon rind? Give a traditionalist a shaken vodka martini and watch them combust in irritation. This is not even to speak of such modern bastardisations as watermelon or lychee martinis or (I confess, this writer’s personal, shameful favourite) the divinely, dangerously inebriating – yet simultaneously stimulating – espresso martini.
A classic cocktail is born
The martini was one of the very first modern cocktails. Its origins can be traced back to a recipe for a "Martinez", published in Jerry Thomas’ 1887 edition of The Bar-Tender’s Guide. Legend has it that the famous American bartender created the drink for a gold miner on his way back to the town of Martinez, California. The original recipe called for Old Tom Gin, sweet vermouth, a dash of bitters and maraschino liqueur, a slice of lemon, and two dashes of gum syrup.
Thankfully, the drink has evolved considerably since then. A modern dry martini consists of simply gin and dry vermouth, typically garnished with either an olive or a twist of lemon rind. By the early 1900s, the martini had become much loved not only in America but across the Atlantic too.
Noël Coward noted that a perfect martini should be made by "filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy", meaning that only the tiniest dash of vermouth should be added. Indeed, many suggest the fortified wine should be merely swirled around the glass and poured out before pure, well-chilled gin is added.
The vodka debate
Martinis made of vodka have become a popular alternative, albeit one that causes many a martini snob to sneer. Those who consider the vodka martini an abomination can blame Bond, James Bond. The first reference to vodka being used in a martini was in Ian Fleming’s novels of the 1950s and the subsequent films, which raised the profile of the vodka martini throughout the 1960s. In Casino Royale, published in 1953, Bond's recipe for his Vesper Martini was three parts Gordon's gin, one part Russian vodka, a half measure of Kina Lillet aperitif, shaken until ice-cold, served with a slice of lemon peel. By the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, our hero was drinking conventional vodka martinis.
W. Somerset Maugham doubtless would not have approved of Bond’s infamous "shaken, not stirred" catchphrase. The English playwright and novelist once declared, "martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other".
A bartender's best
Barry Chalmers, who manages the bar at Sydney’s Eau-De-Vie – a "jazz infused speakeasy created for the discerning bon vivant", which specialises in exceptional cocktails – says that the majority of his customers order gin martinis, but that this is probably not reflective of your average bar patrons.
"The sort of people who come to our bar tend to be people who are slightly fanatical and who are on a cocktail pilgrimage. While we do a lot of variations, we also serve around 50-100 classic martinis a week," he says.
Ordering a martini at Eau-De-Vie is an experience you’ll be hard pressed find elsewhere. Gin or vodka and vermouth are first measured in a graduated cylinder. This mixture is then poured into a Perspex mixing glass and reverentially stirred with a glass mixing rod. Then, the pièce de résistance: "We put it into a volumetric glass – a little flask that sits in a beaker of crushed ice – and then we pour liquid nitrogen over that. That not only keeps the alcohol as chilled as possible, but [it] creates a lot of theatre. Everyone asks what you’re drinking and wants one too." Visit the Eau-De-Vie website to see a video of this impressive mixology in action.
How to make the perfect martini at home
Whichever spirit you’re using, always start with a great quality product. "Never use a home brand or cheap supermarket brand, as you’ll get a bad quality martini no matter what you do. If it doesn’t say London dry gin or distilled gin – assuming you’re using gin – just don’t buy it," says Chalmers.
"Old school bartenders say you must mix a martini 20 times to the left and 20 times to the right, and some people think that’s the be-all and end-all and how it must be done, but it’s really just a rule of thumb."
"If you sip it through a straw and feel like you need a drink of water, you’ve not stirred it enough. If you feel like you could go on drinking it through the straw all night, you’ve stirred it too much. It’s about getting that balance between too watered down and too strong."
"The quality is determined by a lot of factors. For example, the alcohol strength: if it is stronger, you’ll have to stir more to dilute it more. Also, the ice cubes; if they are smaller, there will be less surface area to dilute the drink."
Chalmers notes that the quality of the ice used is an unrecognised factor that plays a key part in the success of a great martini. For true cocktail nerds, he recommends freezing boiled water in takeaway containers, then defrosting them and freezing them again to dispel any gas bubbles, so that you have large blocks of ice you can custom chip to the desired size. Failing that, get hold of some good quality rubber ice-cube trays that make large cubes (ideally around 23ml).
"The whole contention that shaking will 'bruise' the gin is a myth. You can’t bruise anything that has no veins. [But] by shaking it, you will alter the molecules of the spirits, adding air bubbles, which creates a cloudy effect as though an aspirin has been dropped in it, rather than the crystal-clear martini everyone wants."
As to how chilled you should have all of your ingredients, and how much you have to stir (or shake) to achieve the correct dilution, Chalmers says, "It’s all a question of trial and error, especially at home. We know the variables in the bar because we make so many of them, but, at home, you just have to play around until you get the drink that’s perfect for you."
"Really, if you just want a martini that tastes great, go with the '60-10-10 rule’, whereby you mix 60ml of gin or vodka, 10ml of vermouth and 10ml of water. If you just mix those up and stick them in the freezer, you’ll get a delicious tasting drink."
That said, he concedes that a great martini – whether served at home or in a bar – is about much more than just taste.
"It’s about creating an experience and ceremony around it. When people think of martinis, they think of an era, the 1940s and ’50s, and beautiful men and women looking glamorous. They’re not just thinking about the drink, but how it looks and how they look drinking it. Martinis are sexy; therefore you feel sexy drinking them."