Who can ever forget the catch phrase of secret agent James Bond, ordering a martini? “Shaken, not stirred!” No doubt he influenced generations of cocktail lovers. Whether shaken or stirred, there’s no denying the popularity of the famous concoction.
Although, I believe Bond preferred vodka in his, the quintessential martini is a cocktail made from gin and vermouth, often adorned with an olive or lemon twist. Preparation varies slightly, but generally involves pouring gin and vermouth into a mixing glass over ice, agitating it somehow, and straining it into a chilled cocktail glass, garnished with a green olive or a twist of lemon peel. Number of olives or twists of peel is up to the individual.
Believe it or not the proportion of gin to vermouth has steadily increased over the years. At the turn of the 20th century, a ratio of 1:1 was the norm. During the 1930s and 1940s, it was 3 or 4:1. Towards the latter part of the 20th century, it rose to anywhere from 6:1 to almost 95:1. There were and still are folks who believe vermouth should be eliminated entirely. Wasn’t it Noel Coward who suggested the ideal martini should be created by “filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy”? (Italy and France being the major producers of Vermouth!) Not really a martini then, in my mind! The balance of gin to vermouth is perhaps the ‘holy grail’ among martini connoisseurs. By trying differing amounts of each for yourself, you can make up your own mind.
Aside from James Bond’s preference of mixing (and choice of spirit other than gin), the ‘shaken or stirred’ controversy rages on and neither is the gospel. Some gin martini drinkers prefer stirring, objecting to the cloudiness that forms when the drink is shaken and swear that shaking ‘bruises’ the gin making the drink bitter. Others claim that shaking opens the flavor of the gin up, and the cloudiness that results by shaking dissipates promptly.
To prepare the ideal martini, chill the martini glasses in the freezer and use a high-end gin like Bombay Saphire, Boodles or Tanqueray that renders a brilliantly clear drink. You could alter the garnish to something like stuffed olives with pimento, cheese, onion, almond, etc., but keep in mind each of these has a different brine and will alter the taste of the drink.
As to the martini’s origin, it’s unclear. Many cocktails and mixed drinks with similar ingredients and names were evident in bartending circles in the late 19th century. A theory that it evolved from a drink called the Martinez, served at a particular hotel in San Francisco in the early 1800s exists, as does another stating it was named after a bartender in New York City around 1912.
However it evolved, its popularity in North America was catalyzed by Prohibition in the U.S. in the mid 20th century where it was pretty easy to manufacture gin illegally. Replaced by more complex cocktails and spritzers in the 1970s and 1980s, it lost ground as it was viewed as old-fashioned and dated. However, it found new life in the mid-1990s with lots of innovation.
Today there are numerous drinks that include the word ‘martini’ or the suffix ‘-tini’ in its name. Most are quite different. The classic variation on the original is the vodka martini (kangaroo cocktail) where gin is simply replaced by vodka. One of Bond’s creations, the Vesper, utilizes vodka, gin and Lillet.
However, fruits like apple (appletini), banana, blueberry, cantaloupe, cherry, cranberry (crantini), grapefruit, peach, lemon, orange, pomegranate, etc. are popular ingredients in many other versions. Some utilize chocolate (chocolate martini) and coffee (espresso martini). Others make use of herbs and spices (basil and ginger martini). There’s even one made with a veggie (cucumber martini).
The majority of these do not resemble the original in the slightest. They’re usually named after the martini cocktail glass used and often contain other spirits derived from the ingredients. Generally, most die-hard martini lovers aren’t into these.
Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is a wine writer, educator, judge & consultant