The Martini Variations

Poetics, aesthetics, and the personal when it comes to gin, vermouth, and bitters. Plus, a half-dozen recipes.

When you write about drinks for a living, people in your life eventually ask you to teach them how to make a martini. Sometimes they ask you to show them a “real martini” or a “proper martini” or a “gin martini.” But it all means the same thing. Even though your nerdy friends on Drinks Twitter spend a lot of time arguing about Negroni variations, the normal people in your life never really ask about a Boulevardier or an Old Pal. Even though you’ve written about dozens, hundreds, of cocktails, your friends usually don’t want to hear about your favorite recipes for a Red Hook or a Greenpoint or a Bijou. And this is fine. You want the people close to you to be happy.

When someone asks me to show them how to make a martini, I know this is a way of saying “I appreciate you” or “I’d like to understand you better” or maybe it’s a way to avoid deeper conversations altogether. Likely, they’d be just as happy drinking a sparkling rosé or a hard seltzer or an oaky malbec or a vodka-and-soda or a Scotch on the rocks. But here I am, and here we are. So I mix them a martini.

The thing is, a martini is so personal. I am only ever guessing at what someone may like. I’ll start with a couple ounces of gin, and a healthy amount of dry vermouth (possibly an ounce or more), and a few dashes of orange bitters. I stir it with ice until it’s very cold. As I stir, I remind them that this is only one way to make a martini. “If you don’t like it this way, I can make another, using less or more gin, or more or less vermouth, or a different gin or vermouth…” Then I realize I’m being too solicitous, trying too hard. So I shut up and pour the martini into a chilled glass. I cut a lemon peel twist and squeeze it to express the oils and drop it into the drink. “We could also do olives if you’d rather…” I wait to see if it’s a wince or smile on the first sip. Do they like it or are they just being polite? It’s not an insignificant moment.

I’ve been making martinis since I was a teenager. I lived with my grandmother during summers in Ocean City, New Jersey. She often drank a martini in the evening, sipping it as she listened to the Phillies game on the radio. Sometimes I mixed her martini, which she took very dry, always with Gordon’s gin and virtually no vermouth. I recall the same bottle of Cinzano in the bar, unrefrigerated, for the entirety of my adolescence. I’d mix it in her tall, glass martini pitcher, the one with an etching of a seagull. It was to be garnished with a minimum of six olives. With a martini, there was certainty.

Because it was so familiar — as so often goes in life — a martini didn’t strike me as anything special for a long time. When I was younger, I never understood the fuss over first “martini renaissance” in the 1990s, which spawned the surprisingly persistent concept of the “martini bar.” I never got why, during the Sex and the City years, every terrible cocktail served in a V-shaped glass (Appletini, Chocolatini, et al.) needed the suffix “-tini.” I was bewildered by how much of the early 2000’s cocktail writing focused on the 19th century original story of The Martini. A decade ago, I even published columns insisting that the Manhattan was a superior cocktail to the martini (“more complex” and “more flavorful”).

I was wrong. As I get older, I realize that a martini is clearly superior. I find myself making more of them these days, often in my grandmother’s martini pitcher with the etched seagull. Recently, I’ve decided I like them with more gin — more of the juniper bite — and less vermouth. Or maybe I’ve always liked them this way, but for whatever reason have always been trying something different.

I don’t exactly know what’s made me reconsider something as basic as the martini. Maybe it’s the simplicity and the fact that I’m mostly stuck at home. Maybe it was this beautiful and inspiring personal essay by Alicia Kennedy, in which she says martinis “kept me going, providing a trail of gin from my old life to this new one that formed to my own surprise.” Maybe it was news this past fall that one of those 1990s “martini bars” in my city, which had incredibly survived for 25 years, was closing. Or maybe I’ve just been an over-romanticizing simp who is finally willing to embrace some of life’s truths and certainties — even if it’s just a 5:1 ratio of gin to vermouth.

I’ve often quoted H.L. Mencken’s famous assertion that the martini is “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet” and there’s certainly something poetic about it. But by a certain age, trust me, too much shared poetry can be a recipe for disaster. Better just to focus on gin, vermouth, and bitters in the way you like it best.

The Recipes

Since the martini is so personal, why limit things to one basic recipe? You can make dozens of classic variations by simply switching the vermouth from dry to sweet, changing the gin from Londont Dry to Old Tom, or adding dashes of liqueurs such maraschino or Chartreuse. Try these or post your own favorite on Everyday Drinking.

Turf Club

Some cocktail historians believe that the martini was invented at New York's Turf Club in the early 1880s, essentially as a variation on the Manhattan that used gin instead of whiskey. The original recipe called for Italian vermouth, which probably would have been Martini brand. (Martini vermouth was available in New York beginning in at least the 1860s, suggesting a clear origin of the martini’s name).  The key ingredient variation here is Old Tom Gin.

  • 1.5 ounces Old Tom gin

  • 1.5 ounces sweet vermouth

  • 3 dashes aromatic bitters

  • Lemon peel twist

Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously , then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.


Paid subscribers will get our tasting report on Old Tom gins next week!


Martinez

Some crazy theories suggest that this (named for Martinez, California) was the original martini. But, more likely, it was just a variation. In reality, all martinis are variations on the Manhattan. Regardless, the Martinez is a tasty drink, though slightly sweeter than a dry martini.

Other Martinez recipes call for aromatic bitters, an orange twist, and a ratio of two parts vermouth to one part gin. But I like equal parts gin and vermouth with bitters and a lemon twist. This recipe is from the book, Spirits Sugar Water Bitters, by Derek Brown. Whatever variation you choose, be sure to use Old Tom Gin, a sweetened gin that has undergone a recent revival after a century of obscurity.

  • 1.5 ounces Old Tom Gin

  • 1.5 ounces sweet vermouth

  • 1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur

  • 2 dashes orange bitters

  • Lemon peel twist

Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously , then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.


Ideal Cocktail

I include this to show how small, subtle variations can make completely different drinks. This is early-20th-century recipes is similar to a Martinez, but it calls for London dry gin. It differs from a classic martini because it calls for sweet vermouth instead of dry, a bit of maraschino liqueur instead of bitters, and instead of a lemong peel: A grapefruit wedge, which pulls the surprising flavors together. Adapted from the 1916 classic Recipes for Mixed Drinks, by Hugo R. Ensslin.

  • 1.5 ounces London dry gin

  • 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth

  • 1/2 teaspoon maraschino liqueur

  • Grapefruit wedge

Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the grapefruit wedge.


François’ Tuxedo

Perhaps my favorite of all the martini variation is the Tuxedo, a very old cocktail with multiple iterations (I believe this is actually a variation of Tuxedo #2). I use this formula and credit my friend François Monti, because he’s who shared the recipe with me.

  • Absinthe, for rinse

  • 2 ounces London dry gin

  • 3/4 ounce dry vermouth

  • 1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

  • 2 dashes of orange bitters

  • Lemon peel twist

Rinse a cocktail class with a splash of absinthe. Combine rest of liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.


Alaska

Sometimes a martini variation eschews the vermouth altogether, such as this bold, botanical drink that appears in numerous 20th-century cocktail guides. No one, however, seems to know why it is named after the 49th state. Be sure to use yellow Chartreuse, which is lower in proof and more honeyed than green Chartreuse. Adapted from The Standard Cocktail Guide, by Crosby Gaige.

  • 2 ounces London dry gin

  • 3/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse

  • 2 dashes orange bitters

  • Lemon peel twist

Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.


Racquet Club

This strange variation, from my friend and drinks writer François Monti, keeps the basics of a 2:1 dry martini, but adds a barspoon of creme de cacao liqueur to mix (always use white creme de cacao)

  • 2 ounces London dry gin

  • 1 ounce dry vermouth

  • 1 barspoon white creme de cacao

  • 2 dashes of orange bitters

  • Lemon peel twist

Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.


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