The Classic Martini: History, Heritage & Disambiguation
Gin itself, is basically your most basic spirit. Its clear, its mostly pure like vodka, but unlike vodka its flavored with Juniper Berries and other herbs. Vodka tends to be be made from wheat or potatoes, both clear, but gin is fragrant and has a more complex flavor due to the herbs infused. This was done as early as the 11th century by Italian Monks who had little to work with to make a spirit consumable. We owe a lot to Monks by the way, they were the ones that took a basically undrinkable beverage and with their knowledge of the garden were able to infuse botanicals, herbs and berries to make so many of the bitters, amaro, liquors and gins we have today, almost all “secret” because it is what makes that brand unique, but more so, because we simply don’t know what is in there because its not documented clearly.
So yes, we are going back, way back. We are talking Mid-1800s. Maybe it was a guy by the name of Martinez, maybe it was Alessandro Martini, partner and founder of Martini & Rossi who made Vermouth. Its much like the argument of who invented pasta or ravioli. Noodles were found in China around the same time as pasta was found in Italy. Ravioli? Well, the Polish and Russians have perigees, the Chinese wantons, the Italians ravioli and even the South Americans have empanadas — basically dough filled with meat or cheese or vegetables. So, we are not going to argue the origins here, only the recent and modern and relative history.
So, we have this spirit known as gin, and its too harsh on its own, so we add some flavored bitters to make it drinkable. At some point we add in vermouth since its used for cooking, and of if it makes food taste better, it will make our cocktail taste better. As with tonic containing quinine, it had health benefits for sailors. Quinine took the edge off gin and vice verse. Then came scurvy, the answer? Limes… and what goes better with limes than gin or rum to cut the ultra-sour taste and bite. Drop of sugar, and we have evolved the modern cocktail.
So, there you have it… pleasure, pain, and a matter of necessary health benefits for the Navy exploring and conquering new lands. Gin & Tonic, Gin & Lime (Gimlet), we know and understand these were common drinks which became cocktails with popular names.
Back to the Martini. Gin was often harsh, and it needed to be offset by vermouth, sweet or dry, (red or white) and as times changed and the cocktail evolved, we saw people liking the “dry” (white) martini over the sweet (red vermouth). However, one of the most popular cocktails even today is the Negroni made famous by Salvador Dali, which is equal parts sweet vermouth, gin and Campari with twist of lemon or orange.
Now its 1930s prohibition in the United States. Gin is made in bathtubs and served in underground bars known as “Speakeasys”. During prohibition, the whole idea was to get the most bang for the buck, so minimal mixers, maximum gin, so you have the “Dry Martini”, mostly gin, just a splash of vermouth. Time marches on and many feel the vermouth distracts from the infused botanicals of gin, so they opt for less vermouth.
So now you have the crowds that want olives (which flavor the cocktail) and unless you are hungry and those 3 olives will fill you… just get the Martini with a lemon rind.
Now its the 1960s and James Bond comes on to the scene. Unlike the Hollywood movies, James Bond from the Flemming novels is a rough and tumble guy, a rebel, not necessarily a gentleman or an intellectual, and yes, he wants his Martini shaken, not stirred. Why? Because its unheard of that a martini would be shaken and not stirred. He goes against the grain. Many purists feel that shaking with ice bruises the gin, and when it becomes too icy cold, you cannot taste the botanicals in the gin with its herbs. Problem solved, just let it rest a few minutes, it will come back up to room temperature, and the ice will melt and it will be perfectly fine. One of the great lines from a recent James Bond film is when a bartender asked him if he wants it shaken or stirred and Secret Agent James Bond says “does it look like I care”. This is the real James Bond Flemming envisioned, and since most bartenders today don’t have the patience to stir 50 times, just let them shake for 25 seconds, and we will all be fine.
Fast forward to 1990s, we now have Appletinis, Melontinis, Cosmos, etc etc… anything that can be served in a martini glass with vodka can and would be. I personally have no problem with that. I love a dark chocolate Godiva chocolate and vodka martini, but I still realize its NOT a “Martini” its just a name for something served in a similar style. Its like calling meatloaf a burger, a steak a sandwich only because its in bread and meatballs without tomatoes a sauce… its not so. One cannot go without the other and even if they have similar ingredients, each has a special place. For me, the Martini must be gin, it must have dry vermouth and while I don’t care for the green olive, that would be valid, but just give me a good twist of fresh lemon rind and all will be fine!
Here is my current favorite Martini Cocktail Recipe:
~ 5 Parts Gin (I’ve taken a liking to Bulldog Gin, but the original was made with Plymouth Gin if you want to keep it truly authentic, then again, we have evolved since)
~ 1 Part White (Dry) Vermouth (Martini & Rossi, but some prefer Noily Pratt)
~ 1 Large clean, clear, fresh ice cube
~ Shake and/or stir vigorously for at least 30-60 seconds
Strain or pour into a glass chilled in freezer for several hours…. rub rim of glass with lemon, twist and drop into the cocktail.
Experiment, I have, I don’t like the vermouth to overpower the gin, and I don’t want the melted ice to kill the cocktail… the fun is, you have several tries before you get your perfect martini!