The Martini: a Primer

September 25, 2015

It’s a basic fact — some cocktails will never be as good as their original counterparts. Take the classic martini, for one; mixologists can craft their variations, adding interesting or novel ingredients, but those can never be as delicious as the original was intended. In the past two decades there has been a worrisome development in the world of cocktails, the suffix “tini” has been stolen and attached to other words such as “apple” or “lychee.” As nice as these sweet cocktails might be, they bear no resemblance to the original classic dry martini; with their only similarity being the v-shaped glass they are served in, colloquially known as the martini glass.

The martini is a classy, simple drink, which explains its association with British super spy James Bond. In his infamous words: “I’ve never tasted anything so cool and clean … They make me feel civilized.” Bond was also prone to improvisation where the martini was concerned, crafting the “Vesper” as a hasty homage to Casino Royale’s female double agent, Vesper Lynd. The recipe for the Vesper belies Bond’s inimitable thirst, calling for three parts English gin, one part Russian vodka, and a half part of Kina Lillet, garnished with a twist of lemon. Kina Lillet is now defunct, but enterprising drinkers can pick up a bottle of Cocchi Americano if they’re looking to recreate the cocktail. Ultimately, Bond was soon drinking vodka martinis in Fleming’s second novel, Live and Let Die, which most likely added to vodka’s rise in popularity over gin during the 1900s. Bond’s love for the vodka martini has even inspired brands to design bottles especially for the films — Belvedere is currently selling a limited edition bottle for the premiere of Spectre, and Smirnoff and the Bond franchise have a long history.

While its connection with James Bond is irrefutable, the martini’s history is muddled. One theory cites the cocktail’s origin during the mid-1800s Gold Rush in Martinez, California, a small town whose inhabitants claim this classic cocktail as their own. The story goes that a local barman did not have the champagne his patron requested and instead put together another drink consisting of a mixture of what he had available — bitters, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and, as you may have guessed, gin. He added a slice of lemon and handed over the creation. The patron supposedly loved the drink so much that on a trip to San Francisco he ordered the “Martinez Special,” to which the bartender could only offer a quizzical look. The patron instructed him on how to make the drink and thereafter its reputation grew, and the recipe was even published in Harry Johnson’s famed Bartender’s Manual in the 1880s.

The origins of the martini are so disputed that Barnaby Conrad III had material for an entire book on the origin of the cocktail. Conrad ultimately claimed that the cocktail was invented in San Francisco, but also presented numerous theories as to the cocktail’s provenance. One theory postulates that the tipple was created at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, and another theory speculates that it was created by and named for Martini & Rossi Vermouth (first made in the mid-1800s). Another theory, which borrows elements from other theories, suggests the cocktail originated in San Francisco at the Occidental Hotel in 1862, where the drink was named after the nearby town of Martinez. This too is accepted as the drink’s origin, as patrons of the hotel would order it and then take the ferry to Martinez.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the martini’s reputation grew, and it was considered the “it thing” amongst executives of the time to have a few martinis during their business lunches. Nowadays, it’s still a very popular drink and stands up to the best of cocktails, even if not drunk to excess during lunch. No matter where the martini may have originated, it has deep roots in American culture.

As we’ve discussed, various theories abound as to the source of the classic martini, and the debate over the recipe is not immune from that controversy. Most recipes agree that it consisted of gin and dry vermouth, was served highly chilled in a v-shaped glass, and was garnished with a twist. Why do some recipes call for vodka instead of gin though? This is probably due to vodka’s growing popularity over the years, as we read above, most likely because of its use in the Bond films.

These days, should the mix have vodka instead of gin, the drink is should then be called a “Kangaroo Cocktail.” When a cocktail onion is used in place of the olive, the drink is known as a “Gibson.” Another twist on the classic martini is whether it’s dirty or dry. A dirty martini has a splash of olive brine, and a dry one has less vermouth — although that’s slightly confusing considering the ingredient is called “dry vermouth.” A (likely apocryphal) tale of the dirty martini’s origins is that it was invented at the Yalta Conference, when FDR was lamenting his hangover over from what was supposedly a prodigious, multi-day bender. Stalin suggested that Roosevelt drink one of Uncle Joe’s favorite cocktails, vodka and pickle juice, but alas there were no gherkins at hand. The ever-enterprising Churchill supposedly produced a private stash of olives and their accompanying brine, and thus the dirty martini was born. This is also where the olive reportedly found its way into the martini’s ethos.

While Bond always sounds suave ordering his martinis “shaken, not stirred,” most barmen agree that the cocktail is better stirred in a mixing glass. The stirring introduces less oxygen into the mix, and the resultant libation has more depth and nuance. Most will also agree that any good martini should be served as cold as possible, a feat accomplished by stirring until you think you’re done, and then stirring a little bit more. While martinis can be sipped on the rocks, they’re better served in their eponymous glass, drunk quickly and without reflection. Like Harry Craddock (author of the renowned Savoy Cocktail Book) used to say, “drink it while it’s still laughing at you.”

If this piece made you thirsty, slake your thirst with one of the original takes on the martini:

Recipe for a Classic Martini (Makes 1)

2 ¼ Oz. Gin
¾ Oz. Dry Vermouth (I like Dolin Dry)
2 Dashes Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
Orange Thumb (a small round segment of orange rind and pith)

Chill a martini glass either beforehand by placing the glass in the fridge or freezer, or by filling it with ice water while making the cocktail. In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients except for the orange thumb. Add ice, and stir for 40–60 seconds or until the outside of your mixing glass has condensation. Julep strain the cocktail into your chilled glass, and garnish with the orange thumb. Drink, enjoy.


Shanon O’Donnell is a student and aspiring writer. She loves all things artsy and is hoping to achieve a career in online journalism. She is also a keen photographer and is in the process of setting up a blog to showcase her photography.


Photo credit: Ken30684