Martini truths

Bafferts, Boodles, Broker’s, Dirty Olive and Old Raj. What the hell am I talking about? If you know, you can proudly go around telling people that you are a sophisticate. For these are some of the names of premium gins that are currently on the UK market as the upmarket gin makes something of a comeback in the face of the super-premium vodka brands. Or should I say the facelessness of the vodka, because good vodka is famously faceless, the perfect non-drink, the alcohol that aspires to have no taste.

Now, as every seasoned bar denizen knows, making a damn fine martini is so simple, most people cock it up. The second thing that this denizen will know is that a fine martini can be made from a good vodka, but a damn fine martini can only be made with gin. Gin is the original soaker, a drink that’s guaranteed to mess you up if you don’t treat it respectfully. It destroyed the British Empire, after all, the same way that brandy destroyed the Boer Empire, but the British was far larger and therefore more of an accomplishment. Gin will eat you alive, given half a chance. Which is part of its charm, and why those with a healthy respect for the louche life understand that you drink gin casually at your peril.

The martini, then, made from good gin, is the original drink for giving conservative values the big finger – while looking suitably debonair, for the martini glass is a dignified creation. Its heyday was in America in the 1930’s, when life was really dandy, even though you weren’t supposed to drink (the Prohibition), and it’s still in America where most barmen know how to make the real deal martini. Early on, the martini went international with some big-name champions like Hemingway who made the drink famous for its refining effect on imbibers through his protagonist Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms. Amid the throes of World War I, he says, “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” There can be no doubt that our country needs this drink.

Strangely, this concoction that has gin at its heart has the name of another alcohol, Martini, at its head. Let me assure you that the two originally had nothing to do with one another (see box on name). The cocktail itself is made up of only two liquors – gin and vermouth, and it so happens that the Martini brand is now one of the biggest vermouth-makers. Vermouth is a herbed spirit that comes in various guises, from sweet through to dry, and it is the dry vermouth that we use for this noble cocktail. Never the sweet.

You basically get three types of martini – the wet, the medium and the dry, based on how much dry vermouth is used (more is wet). This ratio has had an interesting evolution: Before the War to End All Wars, a typical dry martini was 2 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. Today, the ratio has grown up to 25 to 1. In the 1950’s, an American journalist writing for the New York Times said: “The affliction that is cutting down the productive time in the office and destroying the benign temper of most of the bartenders is the thing called the very dry Martini. It is a mass madness, a cult, a frenzy, a body of folklore, a mystique, an expertise of a sort which may well earn for this decade the name of the Numb (or Glazed) Fifties … Along every stretch of polished mahogany in public places and in countless living rooms there is no talk of the world crisis … only of how to get a Martini really dry.”

A recipe
Today, New York bar-guru Michael McCann never touches the vermouth bottle as he mixes the cocktail. Instead he soaks the olives in dry vermouth, and then squeezes that olive around the glass. He then wipes it dry, and pours in the shaken gin. Now that’s a drink with balls. Here are more conventional ratios:
Dry: 1 part dry vermouth to 5 parts gin
Medium: 2 parts dry vermouth to 4 parts gin
Wet: 3 parts dry vermouth to 3 parts gin
A martini should be stirred, not shaken, because it helps keep the drink clear and prevents it from becoming overly diluted. Martinis may be garnished with either a lemon zest or an olive.

Who the hell was Martin-i?
As with any really interesting subject, there are a number of myths surrounding the origin of the name. Some say it’s named after the town by name Martinez in California and originally called a Martine; others say a bartender named Martini first mixed it in New York. The fact is it was first published as a cocktail in 1888 in a bartender’s manual, so it has a proud pedigree.