The Mystery of the Martini
The writer H.L. Mencken once described the Martini as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” It’s a memorable line—and a genius comparison. Like that poetic form, the cocktail is an invitation to the sublime, carried out within certain tightly defined parameters yet deeply personal to its author.
Quite unlike Shakespeare’s sonnets, we do not know who authored the first Martini. It’s sometimes thought to be the descendent of the Martinez, an early cocktail prepared with Old Tom Gin and sweet vermouth. But by the early 1900s, iterations that would be familiar to the modern drinker—i.e., a large volume of gin paired to a much smaller volume of dry vermouth—began to appear in recipe books.
And so, the Martini was born, though its exact preparation would continue to vary based on the preferences (or depending on viewpoint, heresies) of the drinker. During WWII, FDR seriously tested the Anglo-American alliance by encouraging Churchill to share in brine-laced “Dirty Martinis” prepared by the president himself. And James Bond, though fictional, has offended generations of purists by insisting his Martinis be shaken, not stirred.
I like to think that I came relatively late to the Martini in my drinking life. I turned 21 in 2011, at the cultural height of Mad Men. Brown liquor was resurgent, and Old-Fashioneds were not only fashionable, but nearly foolproof to make. The Martini, on the other hand, could prove underwhelming at best or nauseating at worst when made by an amateur without the proper ingredients, equipment and technique.
In the decade-and-change since I earned my full rights as an American citizen, I dare say I’ve mastered a number of cocktails in my own kitchen. And yet, my Martinis weren’t measuring up to the best I’d been served outside the home. So earlier this year, I began keeping a diary expressly for that purpose, jotting down measures and stirring times in the hopes of fixing a Martini that might hold a candle to some of the finest I’d quaffed.
My ultimate findings were not earth shattering, but I am pleased with the results. I use a London dry gin—it’s hard to beat Beefeater for its pure simplicity, though I’m also partial to No. 3—and Dolin dry vermouth, which I enjoy for its Alpine herbs. Temperature became a fixation: to ensure an arctic drink, I keep the gin and glass in the freezer, and then stir the concoction with ice for a full 30 seconds. Lastly, I pinch a fresh lemon peel over the drink’s surface to express its oils, then gently slide it across the rim of the glass to impart its aromatics before discarding.
The end result, I’m pleased to say, is a damn good Martini. But it cannot capture the strange magic of certain Martinis I’ve since realized are inextricably tied to time and place. The Martini at Harry’s Bar in Venice, which favors gin over vermouth at a ratio of 8:1, and comes in a tiny, stemless vessel little larger than a shot glass. The Martini at J.G. Melon in Manhattan, which is shaken—the horror! —but nonetheless proves the ideal complement to a fatty cheeseburger and ketchup-slathered cottage fries around midnight. The strictly two-per-visit Martini at Dukes Bar in London, which when prepared tableside by the maestro Alessandro Palazzi, is as much magic trick as drink.
Finally, I leave you with my own humble entry in the annals of Martini greatness, which I hope brings satisfaction as you wax on the places you were and the company you kept when you’ve enjoyed the peerless cocktail in your own life.
75ml London dry gin (stored in freezer beforehand for at least one hour)
15ml Dolin dry vermouth
Add all ingredients to a stirring glass filled with ice and stir for thirty seconds, then double strain into a chilled coupe or Nick and Nora glass. Express a fresh lemon peel over the drink’s surface by pinching it while pointing the skin-side down, then gently run the peel against the drink’s rim. Discard lemon peel and serve.