A woman sat at my bar and said: “I’d like a classic martini, please. Make it with Grey Goose.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Even if I stocked Grey Goose, which I don’t, I would not be able to make you that drink, because a classic martini can only be made with gin.”
Although some folks might have taken offense at my tone, this woman took everything I said in the instructive spirit in which it was intended. “Really? I had no idea,” she said. “I’ve never heard of a martini being made with anything other than vodka.” And then she asked, “What exactly is gin, anyway?”
It’s a sad story, but it has a happy ending. I made her a gin martini that she loved.
But it’s a sad state of affairs when our country’s most recognizable and iconic cocktail is more easily identified with the glass it is served in than its components or preparation. It’s gotten to the point where anything served in a “martini glass” becomes a “martini,” whether it be nothing but cold vodka, or a syrupy sludge tasting vaguely of watermelon. I sometimes serve martinis in a coupe glass rather than the traditional “martini glass,” and it’s not uncommon for a guest to complain that the drink I served them is somehow “not a martini” simply because it came in an unexpected glass.
So, in light of all of this information, let’s straighten things out right now: A martini is gin and dry vermouth, stirred with ice until chilled, and garnished with either an olive or a lemon peel. Or a cocktail onion if you wish to have a gibson. That is all a martini is or ever will be. You will notice I say it should be stirred. It should never be shaken. James Bond is a moron. I would never say that to his face, because he’d break my jaw with his pinky finger and then run off with my girlfriend. But, in my heart of hearts, I know he’s secretly a wuss. No real man would ask for a shaken martini and, good lord, ask for vodka in it. The only thing worse than a vesper is a straight vodka martini. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Now we know what a martini is. It honestly doesn’t really matter what glass it goes into. You could pour one into my cupped palms and it would still be a martini. (Mad props and a huge tip, by the way, to the bartender that eventually makes that dream of mine a reality.)
I enjoy all manners of gin. I will admit that I believe it is easier to find bad gin than it is to find poor examples in other spirit category (with perhaps one exception in the case of tequila). This is largely because many upstart distillers in the United States decide to make a gin while they are waiting for their brand new whiskey to mature. The problem is that making a good gin takes a daunting amount of skill, and few people have it. Sometimes to find the best gin, you have to stick with the big names, because they are the ones who pay the big bucks for the best people. My preferred gins are Beefeater and Plymouth, plain and simple. Many people who know me as a fellow who gravitates toward esoteric, lesser-known labels, would be shocked to hear this, but it’s the honest truth. (That’s not to say that there aren’t smaller gins I adore. Oxley and The Botanist have both held my attention recently.)
If you were to make a martini for me right now, here’s what I would expect from you:
3/4oz dry vermouth (Noilly Pratt and Dolin are both preferred. It should be refrigerated if already opened. Otherwise, throw it away and open a fresh bottle.)
-Add the ingredients to a mixing glass and then add freshly-made ice. If the ice is large, crack it with a spoon into smaller pieces.
-Stir well. No more than 10 seconds if the ice is cracked, a bit longer otherwise.
-If you think you might have stirred it for too long, YOU DEFINITELY HAVE AND NEED TO STOP NOW.
-Strain into my cupped palms, or, if we are expecting polite company, into a martini glass or similarly non-embarrassing vessel.
-Don’t chill the glass in the freezer. The martini shouldn’t be ice cold, and one should never drink a cocktail out of a glass that is colder than the cocktail itself. If you must serve it in a cold glass, put it in the fridge, instead.
-Yes, that’s right. My martini shouldn’t be ice cold. If it’s too cold, I won’t taste the subtle nuances of the cocktail which have made the drink so beloved, and will have wasted your precious time and my own. Don’t go for “igloo cold.” Go for “I wish the bus would goddamned get here already because my ears are beginning to hurt a bit.” But no colder than that.
-Garnish with a lemon peel. Yeah, I know an olive is considered “classic,” but we are talking about what I would do, and I prefer a lemon peel. If you are out of lemons, a small green olive will be fine. None of that bleu cheese-stuffed garbage though. That’s just ridiculous.
I will drink my martini within 8 minutes. That’s how long I have before the thing gets too warm, unless we are sitting in an igloo or waiting for the bus, in which case I’ll probably have a bit longer.
This isn’t just how I would want you to make a martini for me, but how I think a martini should be made for all people. It is the closest one can get to the essential martininess to which we all strive. Alas, I rarely order martinis when I go out drinking. The martini pays a steep price for being the simplest cocktail around: It’s the easiest one to get wrong.