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Up, With a Twist: The Martini, Properly Considered

Up, With a Twist: The Martini, Properly Considered

The Martini defines cocktail. The cocktail emoji on your phone is clearly a Martini. The neon lights outside dive bars almost always depict Martinis, in a conical glass with an olive on a toothpick. Throughout my youth, my father and both my grandfathers drank what they called Martinis. I hadn’t heard of any other cocktail probably until I entered high school. The Martini I learned of from them was simple, and they all made it the same. They filled a tumbler with ice, poured in about 6 ounces (!) of London Dry Gin (Tanqueray on a good day, Gordon’s if we were in the Midwest), and topped it with a few enormous pimiento stuffed olives. Eventually I learned from my father that dry vermouth was an essential part of this equation as well, but I noticed that he never actually used any. When I mentioned this to him, he reassured me that he did in fact own some vermouth, though. Hmmm. This cemented deep within me the notion that the Martini was much more than just a drink. This was an idea, a ritual, and some kind of grand tradition. That seemed pretty damn cool. I couldn’t wait to be an adult so I could make a martini and know things about life while I held it.

Now I’m ostensibly an adult, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the memories of how cool my dad and my grandfathers looked with their tumblers in hand, grilling steaks and commenting upon worldly things that made no sense to me at the time. But it also breaks my heart that I have to give them some bad news. Those just aren’t Martinis, fellas. Yes, the Martini is an idea, a tradition, and a ritual. But it’s also a cocktail, dammit, not just cold gin in a glass! It’s a cocktail, and that means something. What exactly does it mean? Well perhaps some history can provide us some answers. What makes a cocktail a cocktail, and more importantly, what the hell is a Martini even supposed to be?

In today’s world, the word cocktail simply denotes any mixed alcoholic drink. In the 19th century though, a cocktail was specifically a spirit forward drink, different than punches, slings, fizzes, toddies, and the like. One of the oldest definitions for cocktail was “Any combination of spirit, sugar, and bitters”, which should be immediately recognizable as an old fashioned template. Back in the first half of the 19th century, if you wanted what we call an old fashioned, you’d order a Whiskey Cocktail. By the 1850’s, as more complicated, “improved” versions of the cocktail became prevalent, this drink became “Old Fashioned”, and folks began identifying it as such. Most updates to the cocktail involved little dashes or a barspoon here and there of Curaçao, Maraschino Liqueur, or Absinthe. One of the biggest changes to the cocktail would come in the 1880’s, when Vermouth became readily available throughout America. Italian, or sweet vermouth, had the most initial success, the Manhattan in particular becoming the standout star cocktail of the 1880’s. The Martini came about in various forms soon after in New York, all of the early examples employing sweet vermouth. There was the Martena and the Martinez, the Martine and the Martineau, the Martigny and the Martini, all of which initially had as their base Old Tom Gin, a sweetened style of Gin. The name and the recipe changed a lot, but were eventually settled by the beginning of the 20th century. The drink was called the Martini, and it was generally made with 2 parts Plymouth or London Dry Gin, 1 part Sweet Vermouth, and a couple dashes of some kind of bitters or sometimes Absinthe. Around the same time this Martini was becoming firmly established, a simple variation was gaining steam using dry, French vermouth in place of the sweet Italian variety. Enter the Dry Martini.

Many today assume the name Dry Martini refers to the fact that it should contain very little (or no) vermouth. This disdain for vermouth is a relatively new phenomenon, coming about in the second half of the last century. It can’t be stated enough: for the sake of the cocktail, if there is no vermouth, there is no Martini. The “Dry” moniker refers to both the use of dry, French vermouth in place of sweet (which was called for in the standard Martini until prohibition), as well as the growing ubiquity of London Dry Gin. A 50/50 split was the most common, with a couple dashes of orange bitters, served most often with a lemon twist, although the olive did make an appearance pre-prohibition. When you consider the difference between this cocktail and the original Martini, made with sweetened Old Tom Gin and sweet Italian vermouth, one wonders if the cocktail was altered by bartenders as a creative choice, or if society’s palate was simply getting drier. According to an 1897 New York Herald interview with an unnamed “proprietor of a fashionable drinking place”, it was the latter. He said he could tell who was a local, city dweller by their increasingly dry cocktail orders. Only “young fellows from the farm, with their rosy cheeks and sound stomachs” would come in for the sweeter libations, including the classic, non-dry Martini. But still the two Martinis happily lived side by side until the country entered its dark dry experiment, prohibition.

Prohibition ruined how America drinks, and though the Martini survived somewhat intact, it became a shell of its former self. The Dry Martini certainly won the martini battle, but by midcentury, it was often being served over tiny, quick melting ice fragments, the vermouth omitted, bitters a forgotten relic, with only an olive to signify that it was supposed to be a cocktail and not just some cold, watery gin. This was the Martini my grandfathers would inherit.

Vodka was introduced to the American market properly in the 1950’s, and the Vodka Martini naturally came to be, given a push in the 60’s by Sean Connery’s James Bond and his questionable order of a shaken martini, made with Vodka. By the 80’s, Vodka was the norm. The platonic ideal of the martini shifted from a crisp, junipery, lightly herbal stiff drink, to a neutral, almost flavorless shot in a conical glass that was way too easy to spill. If you were lucky, you might get a dirty martini which at least had some savory olive brine. The 90’s saw a further denigration, with the infamous “martini menus” featuring any number of Espresso Martinis, Appletinis, and their ilk. Gone completely was the dash of orange bitters, in was the Sour Orange Pucker Liqueur. Martini had simply come to mean “cocktail”, and a bad one at that. It was just any old thing served in that spillable cone glass.

But then, magically, the craft cocktail movement happened. Bartenders started growing silly moustaches and wearing goofy suspenders, yes, but they also began taking cocktails seriously. They researched the history of these drinks, made them precisely and properly, and used high quality, appropriate ingredients. Before long, tons of casual drinkers were educated about what they were drinking, and people knew how to order a proper Martini, just the way they like it. Mostly the way they liked it was much more spirit forward than the pre-prohibition, half Gin, half Vermouth standard. Anywhere from 2:1 to 5:1 is pretty common, and seems to be generally accepted as within the margin of what a “normal” Martini is. You can walk into any cocktail bar in San Francisco today and you’ll hear regular old drinkers confidently ordering things like a “4 to 1 Hendricks Martini, up with a twist” (they don’t need to say stirred. This is understood).

This turn of events makes us at Bitters and Bottles very happy, as we wouldn’t exist without wonderful, educated drinkers like this. Customers who come into the store or email us with thoughts and questions about obscure cocktails and exactly what dry vermouth best complements an especially floral gin make our hearts flutter. Hearing the peculiarities of how people like to make classic drinks is always fascinating, and while talking about lots of Gin this month, and Martinis in particular, we all realized how many strong opinions we had about this cocktail, and how many different versions we liked. So we thought we would share our Martini adventures/arguments with you here.

The first noticeable thing we generally have in common is our love for the lemon twist. Nobody went for an olive garnish, although Joe went savory with some olive brine, omitting the olive itself. Another thing we agreed on generally was Vermouth choice. Though we all have many different dry vermouths we love for other cocktails and for sipping, Dolin Dry was a popular standby when it came to Martinis, appearing in half of our recipes. The last and maybe most important commonality is that all of the gins we chose have classic, prominent Juniper, even if they aren’t all London Drys. Big juniper character plays well with most dry vermouth, while softer Gins get covered too easily by it. So without further ado, let’s get drinking! Here are our Bitters and Bottles staff favorite Martinis:

Melissa’s Clean and Classic Martini

Melissa’s preferred Martini uses the Botanist, a wonderful Dry Gin from Islay, Scotland (home of peaty whiskies) that has a wonderful balance of local Islay botanicals and classic Juniper. She prefers a 4:1 ratio with Dolin dry and a dash of Orange Bitters. 4:1 also happens to be the ratio employed by the amazing Gigger, a specially designed jigger that measure the perfect 4:1 martini everytime. A wonderful cocktail novelty item!

2 oz Botanist Islay Dry Gin
1/2 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
2 dashes Orange Bitters
Stir with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with lemon twist.

Mish’s 50/50 Split

Mish went for a bold pick for his Martini, the 50/50 split, which is half Gin, half vermouth, but the vermouth itself is split between the traditional Dry and a Blanc, a lightly sweet, clear vermouth that makes this a perfect gateway martini for those who think they don’t like Martinis. His vermouths are both Dolin, and his gin is a lovely Juniper and Floral forward number from Koval in Chicago. Looks great on you, Mish!

1 1/2 oz Koval Dry Gin
3/4 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
3/4 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
2 dashes Orange Bitters
Stir, strain, garnish with lemon twist

Patrick’s Tokyo Drift

My favorite Martini at the moment is built with some lovely, bright Japanese flavors, using the new Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin, which has a strong juniper presence as well as yuzu, a Japanese citrus similar to a lemon, sansho pepper, and gyokuro tea. Add some Dolin Dry and some Yuzu Bitters from Miracle Mile, and you’re set for some smooth sailing, buddy. A 3:1 ratio does it for me. I’m not afraid to get a little wet.

1 1/2 oz Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin
1/2 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
3 dashes Miracle Mile Yuzu Bitters
Stir, strain, garnish with lemon twist (or yuzu if you got it!)

Denni’s Violet Vesper

Denni went perhaps the farthest afield of all of us, and we are glad she did. The Vesper Martini is Bond’s great contribution to the drinking world, much better, if less famous, than his Vodka Martini. Invented by the Bond man himself, Ian Fleming, in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, this drinks adds a little bit of Vodka to the mix along with Lillet Blanc, an aromatized wine aperitif that substitutes handily for vermouth. Denni went high octane on that basic formula, using a Citrus Vodka and Empress Gin, a beautiful bright indigo-violet gin that is naturally colored with Butterfly Pea Tea. Just promise us, please, that you will ignore Bond’s most famous request and stir it. Don’t shake.

1 1/2 oz Empress Gin
3/4 oz Ketel One Citroen Vodka
3/4 oz Lillet Blanc
Stir, strain, garnish with lemon twist

Meredith’s Bone Dry Martini

Meredith likes a lot of eccentric cocktails, and can generally be expected to get excited about whatever cocktail trend is the strangest, the most out of left field. But when it comes to Martinis, she doesn’t play any games. It’s time to dust off that tuxedo and get classy A-F. 5:1, Russell Henry London Dry Gin, Vya Whisper Dry Vermouth, and that’s it. Up. With a twist. Bone dry. It’s not me; it’s you.

Woof! You’ve just been Lantz-ed!

2 1/2 oz Russell Henry London Dry Gin
1/2 oz Vya Whisper Dry Vermouth
Stir, strain, garnish with lemon twist

Joe’s Down and Dirty Martini

Joe’s Martini is a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of super old school, pre-prohibition with its 1:1 ratio and super 80’s with its olive brine surprise. Yzaguirre's Dry Reserva Vermouth is the star, with its incredibly distinct nutty almond, mineral, and saline flavor from being aged one year in fino sherry barrels. For the Gin, something simple, something classic, something Dry. Ford’s Dry Gin works perfectly. He adds a little pour of coriander infused Gaea brine instead of a garnish - that adds a citrus note, some meaty olive-ness, and a dash of salt. The lower abv, and euro bar snack flavors make it a great aperitif martini... snack-tini anyone?

1 1/2 oz Fords Dry Gin
1 1/2 oz Yzaguirre Dry Reserva Vermouth
1/4 oz Gaea Gin Martini Brine
Stir, strain, no garnish

If you’re like us, and reading about all of this has got you hot and bothered and in a tizzy about Martinis, but you don’t know where to start, you might consider our Martini Taster Kit! The kit includes Dolin Dry Vermouth, Fee Brothers Orange Bitters, and five super diverse mini 50 ml Gins: Hendricks (yummy cucumbers), 209 (modern style dry), Bar Hill (with a touch of honey), Beefeater (classic London Dry), and Wilder (full of SoCal local botanicals). It’s a full Martini world tour in mini form, and a dynamite way to get started on your newfound quest of Martini mastery!

Martini Sampler Kit

See the kit here!

Previous article A Gin Cocktail Odyssey, Act II: You Only Live Twice


Ian McInnis - March 22, 2021

Great article! Informative and balanced. Tasteful to the point of having me feel a bit underdressed for the occasion. The photography alone had me wishing for an early cocktail hour!

I would have loved seeing each and every drink presented how each contributor might like it served- the choice of stemware, the practiced curl of the lemon peel, etc.

No love for olives? I do like a savory Martini.

Time to rethink a restocking of my liquor cabinet.

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