Stirred, not shaken
James Bond, it turns out, was wrong. Only if treated with care will the Martini, so favoured by the century's sophisticates, reveal itself as the best cocktail in the world. Richard Ehrlich explains
Sunday 10 November 1996
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini;
I wish that I had one at present.
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth -
I think that perhaps it's the gin.
A Martini is a cocktail, the best in the world, but it is more than just a drink. It is a 20th-century icon, symbolic of abundance and optimism and sophisticated high-living. It is an American institution, venerated by essayist Bernard De Voto as "the supreme American gift to world culture." Poems, essays and books have been written about it. Painters, printmakers and film-makers have used it as a motif. For those who love them, the mere sight of a Martini induces a blissful satisfaction which no other drink can ever approach.
In America, Martinis have been the cocktail sans pareil since the 1920s. And now, after a period of demonisation during the Carter era, when the teetotal President scolded industrialists for writing-off "three-Martini lunches" as a business expense, they are experiencing a revival. Martinis, now the cool drink among baby boomers in recovery from Chardonnay-overdose, are again being drunk at the most stylish of bars across the States.
Their fans have joined a club whose members devise their own personal formula. Which brand of gin, and in what proportions; which ancillary flavouring; what kind of glass; ice or no ice. Deciding on these questions - and arguing about them - is part of the fun of drinking Martinis. It is also, for pedants, the occasion for some of the silliest bullshit ever spoken or written on the subject of strong drink.
What can't be disputed is that Martini-lovers include some of the most celebrated drinkers of the century, each with their own preferred recipe and method. Winston Churchill said that he made his by pouring gin into a jug and then glancing briefly at a vermouth bottle across the room. US newspaper man HL Mencken called the drink "the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet". WC Fields kept a Thermos flask full of them when shooting a movie, and referred to it as his "pineapple juice". One day a joker emptied the flask and substituted pineapple juice. Fields took a sip, spat it out and roared, "who put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?" Dorothy Parker wrote, in reference to its legendary ego-loosening properties: "I like to have a Martini. Two at the very most - after three I'm under the table. After four I'm under the host."
The Martini's origins are disputed, but this much is certain. It first appeared, in a form made with sweet vermouth and probably Angostura bitters, some time in the 1860s. California and New York City both claim it as their own. By 1900 it was well established on both sides of the Atlantic, and as the century progressed the drink became increasingly dry - that is to say, more gin, less vermouth.
In their modern form, Martinis embody the idea of multum in parvo - much in little. Salvatore Calabrese, head barman at The Lanesborough Hotel in London, says that "It's the simplest drink in the world, yet it's the greatest love of all professional barmen." Peter Dorelli, of the American Bar in The Savoy, echoes his colleague's view: "The simplest is the most difficult to obtain." And there really is nothing simpler than a Martini, which has just four ingredients. This means that each of them must be perfect. But what constitutes perfection? That's where the debate begins. Taking them from the top, here are the ingredients and the major points of debate.
Gin gives a Martini most of its flavour. So it has to be the right gin, which means full strength (40 per cent) and properly infused with "botanicals" - juniper, coriander, angelica and other aromatics. Most bartenders prefer Beefeater or Tanqueray, but a passionate minority likes Booth's. Mix-master Dick Bradsell, of the Cafe de Paris in London, considers Booth's "Finest" the best gin in the world. Others choose Bombay Sapphire, even though it is made by a process that gives a lighter dose of botanicals.
Happily, the new breed of own-label full-strength gins costs less than a bottle of Beefeater. I like Oddbin's Pavilion (40 per cent) and Sainsbury's Blackfriars (43 per cent). At pounds 10.99 these cost about the same as Gordon's, but they're better and stronger. Export-strength gin (47 per cent) is a bit too strong.
You can also make a vodka Martini, even though purists loathe the idea. They're wrong. This is a different drink, and it will have a good flavour if made with good vodka. I have no strong preference among Moskovskaya, Stolichnaya, Absolut and Finlandia. You can also make a good Martini with Absolut Citron, but other flavoured vodkas are best avoided.
Vermouth is ingredient number two, and it inspires no end of debate. Macho-man Martinists say you should "wave the vermouth at the gin" or "let sunlight pass through the vermouth onto the glass". These pronouncements point to the immutable truth that Martinis must be dry. But if the cocktail weren't meant to taste of vermouth, however slightly, it wouldn't be made with it.
Most bartenders prefer Martini & Rossi Extra Dry, probably because it's relatively innocuous. Noilly Prat is altogether a better drink, with a stronger herbal and floral presence, and I love it for aperitifs and cooking. But a comparative tasting against Martini has persuaded me that it's not the choice here.
The best method of adding the vermouth is another debate. Some bartenders pour it over ice then strain off the excess and mix gin with the ice or liquid. Others splash it into an empty glass, swirl it round, and tip it out. There's an enchanting theatricality in these displays, and theatre is part of the pleasure, but it's unnecessary. All you need to do is measure in the right amount of vermouth and leave it there.
Ingredient number three is generically referred to as "fruit" - the peel of a lemon, or an olive (not, on any account, a cherry, a throw-back to when the Martini was sweet). This is another source of fierce debate, and authoritarian purists think that using olives places you at the moral level of someone who sells crack to sixth-formers. Loosen up, guys. It's a matter of taste, and the drink is equally delicious with lemon or olive. It's also good with a cocktail onion, which turns it into a Gibson. What's more, lemons are not the only fruit. I prefer orange peel, a trick taught to me by Mr Julian Pace of Weston, Connecticut.
As for olives, they can be stoneless greenies in brine, or stuffed with red pepper. They can also accommodate fancier stuffings such as almonds. But I do draw the line at anchovy-stuffed olives, which make Martinis taste like Gentleman's Relish. And the American "Cajun" Martini - with a jalapeno chilli - is too prickly on the palate.
Ingredient number four, not a substance but a quality, is cold. A Martini must be very, very, very cold. To achieve this, keep your gin or vodka in the freezer so it takes on a thick, creamy consistency. This is essential if you're serving the cocktail straight up, in which case the glass too must be frozen, but it's just as important for serving on the rocks. Room- temperature gin starts to become diluted when it hits ice. And a diluted Martini, as Bernard De Voto writes, is "a violation of nature's order".
I acknowledge a one-off exception to this rule. Conrad Aiken, the American poet and novelist, loved the conviviality of Martini drinking but wanted to enjoy them over extended periods without getting calamitously blotto. He made his Martinis intentionally weak, allowing him to drink and talk for hours.
There's no question that the ideal Martini is drunk straight up, in the classic inverted cone on a stem. But there's a problem here, especially for people who drink slowly. Martinis warm rapidly if there's no ice in the glass, so you have to drink fast - ideally within 10 minutes. That's a breath-taking hit of alcohol.
Being a slow drinker myself, I've evolved an on-the-rocks compromise which keeps the drink cold for 15 or 20 minutes with minimal dilution. It also creates a thick layer of frost on the outside of the glass, which for me matches the aesthetic appeal of the straight-up Martini in its inverted cone. (See recipe, page 66.)
Talking about cold raises the commonest and undoubtedly the silliest of Martini questions: should they be shaken or stirred? Shaking was popularised by James Bond, and his example led a whole generation of drinkers astray. Repeat after me: Martinis must not be shaken. If they are, friction makes the ice melt, and melting equals dilution. The drink becomes cloudy, and a Martini should be perfectly transparent. So please, stir lightly if at all. Incidentally, the James Bond Martini is gin, vodka and Lillet vermouth in proportions of 6:2:1; twist of lemon.
Another reason sometimes proposed for not shaking is that it "bruises" the gin. Or "bruises" the vermouth. I have not discovered any scientific basis for the notion of bruising, and have concluded that it's an old wives tale. That's if old wives have ever drunk Martinis.
And so to the health warning. A Martini is a strong drink. For proponents of the Ultra-Dry School, it is basically just gin or vodka with a drop of vermouth. I regard this as unnecessary strength, and can happily drink a Martini made in proportions of around 10:1. Even that, however, makes a Schwarzenegger-sized wallop. And the wallop is one of the Martini's attractions. I think it was Oscar Wilde who described marriage as the only adventure open to cowards. Well, Martinis are another. To drink them is to dice with intellectual annihilation.
The challenge can be met if you remember Dorothy Parker's verse: "Two at the very most." This is the first rule of Martini drinking. A variant runs that one isn't enough and three is too many, and there's a lot of truth in that. If you have a second, however, make Martinis your principal (or only) drink of the evening. Don't drive afterwards.
The other rule concerns timing. In her brilliant essay on Martinis in An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949), the American writer MFK Fisher said that she refused them unless she knew she'd be eating within an hour. She spoke for all true fans when she said: "A well-made dry Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature."
British Martini-culture has come a long way in the years since I went to one of the country's best hotel restaurants, ordered a very dry vodka Martini, and was given something that clearly contained one bar-measure of vodka and one of vermouth. You might still get those things somewhere, but in London, at any rate, a good Martini is easy to come by.
I spent a night with Douglas Ankrah, of the London Academy of Bartending, tasting Mart-inis at West End bars. The best came at three traditional places run by barmen who between them have a century of experience. Salvatore Calabrese at The Lanesborough uses Beefeater and Martini in a ratio of around 10:1. In the American Bar of The Savoy, Peter Dorelli mixes the dryer "Club" Martini - Beefeater and a drop of Martini. This is also the formula used by Gilberto Preti of Dukes Hotel, though he is less particular about the brand of gin.
They're even easier to find in the US, barman Dale de Groff of New York's Rainbow Room is said to make the best in the city. The venerable bar and restaurant, 21, where generations of New York worthies have learned their drinking skills, is probably just as good. But I've never had a bad Martini at a good American restaurant. Must be in the blood.
It's not only in New York that you'll get them. A correspondent on the Internet informs me of a Martini bar at the Chianti Restaurant in Houston, Texas, where 50 varieties are served, including "outrageous combos like chocolate, orange, and almond". She is a particular fan of the European Martini (vodka, Chambord liqueur and raspberries for garnish), though I wouldn't call this a Martini.
Few things in the world can be called perfect. The Martini is one. I have therefore resisted the temptation to give recipes for chocolate, vanilla, or any other novelty Martini, but have stuck with the classic. When you've got something this good, you don't want to mess with it.
The measurements you like will only be reached after enjoyable experimentation; it's the method that counts here.
fresh, hard ice cubes
1 bottle full-strength gin or vodka, well frozen
1 bottle dry vermouth
1 slice of orange peel, or 1 green olive
Take a clean Paris goblet or similar wine glass (a conical glass won't work with a Martini on-the-rocks). Put in four or five ice cubes, then pour in as much gin or vodka as you need to make a drink of the right size. If you insist on measuring, you'll probably find that 50ml (generous 2fl oz) is about right.
Working quickly, add the vermouth. I do this by pouring a little into the cap of the vermouth bottle, then trickling it into the glass carefully. Again, you'll have to proceed by trial and error till you find the right ratio, and it's hard to measure something in such tiny quantities. But start with a ratio of 10:1; this would mean 5ml (1 teaspoon) for a 50ml drink. If you find that you're a true maniac for maximum dryness, the ratio can go up to 15:1 or 20:1. If 10:1 is too strong, add another 5ml of vermouth. lf this is still too strong, you're probably not a Martini fan.
Crack the peel if using, following the technique in the following recipe, then drop into the glass. An olive can just be dropped in. Stir the ice cubes once, very gently, with your finger. Sit down. Take a sip.
GILBERTO PRETI'S MARTINI
This is similar to the Savoy "Club" Martini, but the Savoy stirs the vermouth with ice before straining and mixing. To get the cracking of the lemon peel right, practice without a Martini.
1 Martini-glass, well frozen
1-2 drops Martini dry vermouth
1 bottle full-strength gin or vodka, well frozen
1 piece of lemon peel
Set the glass before you and have all other ingredients at hand. Add the vermouth - at Dukes they keep it in those small bottles used to dispense malt vinegar at a fish and chip shop. Now pour in the gin or vodka, to within half an inch of the rim of the glass.
Take the lemon peel and hold it by the edges, skin facing down, using both thumbs and forefingers. Holding it directly over the glass, snap it quickly to release a fine spray of oil drops, which will spread out to form an aromatic slick on the surface. Do not stir. Put down the lemon peel. Pick up the drink.
It the Martini gets too warm, here's the re-chilling trick they use at Dukes. Take a Power Rangers "Power Ice Mugg" out of the freezer. Pour in the Martini, stir well, then pour back into the original glass. !
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