M IS FOR MARTINI
By Matthew Latkiewicz
M is for Martini. Here is the thing about the Martini. It is the perfect ideal cocktail and everyone can just shut up about it. Aviation? Don’t make me laugh? Vieux Carre? Vieux who? Manhattan? Please.
No. The Martini is the ideal cocktail, and here’s why. When done well, it achieves the maximum amount of flavor complexity with the minimum amount of ingredients. Gin, Vermouth, stir, garnish, done, while all you Sazerac types are still rinsing out your goddamn glass with Absinthe.
Now look. I love the Sazerac. I make an amazing Sazerac. And I love the Vieux Carre. And I even love the Aviation, as fussy as it is. But the Dry Martini Cocktail, invented somewhere around 1900, with Plymouth gin, good vermouth, and a squeeze of lemon peel is like Bach’s cello suites or a classic burger with lettuce tomato and pickles: you know it is perfect when you experience it. It’s not showy and it’s not bold. It doesn’t need to be. It’s already exactly what it needs to be and no more.
If the old-fashioned Cocktail and Juleps represent the Golden Age of drink making (I refer you to letter C and letter J respectively) then the Martini and the Manhattan come from drinking’s Silver Age. And just like in comic books, this is when shit started to get really good.
While early bartenders like Jerry Thomas and John Dabney mixed delicious drinks, a lot of them contained sugar or citrus, something to dull down the taste of booze and even cover it up. Remember we weren’t that far removed the London Gin Craze, where drinking straight spirits was considered a public health crisis and most people drank them mixed into extravagant punches.
But by the late 1800s, Americans had developed a taste for alcohol itself and didn’t want it covered up with sugar. A lot of early spirits were actually sweetened to make them more palatable, but towards the end of the century more and more unsweetened gins and whiskeys were hitting the market, including Plymouth and other London Dry styles. David Wondrich, whose book Imbibe! is a must purchase item for anyone watching, quotes the “proprietor of a fashionable drinking place” from 1897, who said about the shift away from sweetened drinks:
“A year ago I used a quart of ‘gum,’ which is the general term applied to all the syrups used to sweeten whiskies and mixtures. Today I use barely a whiskey glass of gum, and my business has increased too. People are beginning to realize that their stomachs are not made of cast iron. They want everything dry, the drier the better.”
So what else can you add to alcohol besides sugar, water, citrus, and bitters? Other alcohol of course! Along the same time that these unsweetened gins started appearing, so too did good Italian Vermouth. America is a nation of immigrants, and fortunately for us all those immigrants bring their booze. In addition to all the gin, whiskey, brandy and rum hitting our shores at the time, interesting liqueurs and fortified wines were also finding their ways into bartender hands. Noilly Pratt, which I have in my fridge always, hit San Francisco in 1853, and while the martini’s precise origins are in dispute, it didn’t take long for someone to try gin and vermouth together and realize that not only do they go well together, they enhance one another in almost alchemical ways.
On its own, gin is harsh and it’s fumey, the alcohol taste unavoidable. And vermouth on its own is fine. I mean it’s like drinking a small amount of perfume kinda, but it’s fine. Together, however, in the right proportions the vermouth smooths out the gin, takes out the harshness without removing the sharp crystalline flavor of the gin and adding its own delicate notes. It’s bracing, but delicious to those of us with a taste for it. For sweet tooth people, I get it, it’s not your thing. For you we have the old-fashioned.
But for people with a taste for alcohol, the ethanol stuff, then the Dry Gin Martini garnished with a squeeze of lemon peel presents the simplest, most elegant presentation of a cocktail. I’m not saying it’s the best tasting cocktail out there – that is obviously the White Russian – I’m just saying it’s the most perfect. Cocktails, like food, are all about balance, finding the right mixture between disparate elements. And while there are showier balancing acts out there in the drinking world, there are none that showcase the platonic ideal of cocktail balance more than the Martini. This is why Martini drinkers are so particular, arguing over the smallest distinctions in preparation: they are seeking the perfect balance between just two things.
For me that balance is this:
- 3 oz London dry gin
- 0.75 oz Noilly Pratt italian dry vermouth
- Stir, strain, and then squeeze a lemon peel over it to get that good lemon oil in there (the lemon oil is the secret to this balancing act). And then drink.
Yep. Perfect. And ok fine, you can’t talk about martinis without throwing a little liquor shade. #liquorshade
You can drink vodka martinis, but I don’t think they present the same ideal balance. Same with dirty martinis or martinis with no vermouth. I just think salty gin is gross and no vermouth? That’s not a cocktail. That’s just cold gin. Vermouth makes it a cocktail.
M is for Martini.