The Martini has survived the indignities of being made with vodka, mis-ordered by James Bond and the dark, Dayglo days of the 1980s. Naren Young looks at the mysterious origins of what is arguably the coolest cocktail of them all
I clearly remember my first Martini. Actually, let me re-phrase that: I remember the first Martini that I enjoyed. There’s a big difference. Because, let’s be frank – straight, hard alcohol, even when chilled to near freezing, is not every 20-year-old’s cup of gin. Except this foray into a world of civilised drink was made with vodka (yes, yes I know, it’s not a ‘true’ Martini).
It was at least stirred and it was garnished rather ostentatiously with a blue cheese-stuffed olive. At that tender age, it was nothing short of a revelation. Best of all, it was coined the ‘Killer Martini’. I remember being so jealous at how appropriate that name was. It truly was a killer drink. The place was Sydney’s long-gone International Bar and it still haunts me. Now, I’m a gin freak and I’d lap a Martini from the floor should anyone be stupid enough to spill one.
This was also a time when the word Martini might have a prefix such as ‘chocolate’, ‘lychee’ or my personal favourite, ‘bubblegum’. No cocktail was sacred, it seemed, and while no other cocktail in history is more iconic and polarising than the Martini, none has been bastardised more, for what should essentially be a rather simple libation.
Proportions be damned, most of us can probably agree that a classic ‘modern’ Martini consists of gin and dry vermouth, perhaps with a few dashes of orange bitters if the mood strikes.
But where did this venerable drink come from? Like the origins of many classic drinks, no one has been able to say with any degree of certainty, and although debate and theories are rife, none have been substantiated by fact. Getting to the bottom of the history of the Martini is as difficult as getting to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. And like the deepest part of the ocean, its origins are murky at best, and there are countless books, websites and treatises on the subject.
The Myth, The Legend
The most common fable surrounds the drink called the Martinez, itself an august elixir. Turning up for the first time in the 1884 book The Modern Bartenders’ Guide by OH Byron, it was almost certainly made with genever, often referred to as ‘Holland gin’. London Dry – the benchmark for the modern Martini – didn’t start to trickle in and become a popular style in the US until the late 19th century, while old tom was also in demand at the time and could have easily taken
a seat at that table.
Byron’s tome didn’t list a recipe for the Martinez, though, only asking the reader to refer to the Manhattan Cocktail but ‘substitute gin for whisky’. The first actual recipe turned up in Jerry Thomas’ last re-print of his Bar-Tender’s Guide in 1887 (albeit two years after his death). In fact, Thomas has also been credited as the inventor of the Martinez (and the Martini by association), although such was his renown that if he had indeed created the Martinez (or Martini), people would have most certainly known about it. Thomas was not a wallflower.
Another fanciful story of the Martinez points to a chap called Julio Richelieu, who supposedly owned a bar in the town of Martinez in northern California and concocted the drink in the 1870s, in exchange for a gold nugget which was used by a miner to buy a bottle of whiskey.
Not only was the gold rush well and truly over by then, but according to David Wondrich in his wonderful guide to Thomas’ opus, Imbibe, he can’t even find a listing of the man’s existence.
The first time we see a drink listed as a ‘Martini Cocktail’ is in Harry Johnson’s 1888 edition of the New and Improved (Illustrated) Bartender’s Manual. That said, its ingredients are notated as: old tom gin, vermouth, Boker’s bitters, gum syrup and curaçao or absinthe (‘if required’), which is essentially identical to the Martinez listed by both Byron and Thomas.
Clearly this recipe reads nothing like the Martini we know today and sounds sweet, even for that era. And while we might never know if one of these chaps actually created the drink, we can’t ignore the similarities between the Martinez and Martini.
‘No drink has been bastardised more, for what should essentially
be a rather simple libation’
From a taste profile perspective, the first mention of a ‘dry’ Martini recipe is from Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, published in 1896 and listing a drink called the Marguerite, made with a dash of orange bitters and one-third of a part of French vermouth to two-thirds of a part gin, with Plymouth as the preferred brand. A fine choice indeed.
But then – to confuse matters further – the first time we see the actual words ‘Dry Martini’ listed in print (that I know of) is in 1904, in Frank P Newman’s American Bar: Recettes des Boissons Anglaises et Américaines.
Never Stands Still
But the Martini – even today – continues to evolve, to the point where some strange people prefer theirs without any vermouth at all. If you find yourself at a bar sitting next to such a person, do not engage them in small talk.
One Martini without such frippery – one that has become a pilgrimage for many, yet is completely overrated in my opinion – is found at Dukes Bar in London. Here frozen gin is poured into a frozen glass with zero dilution. But as any decent bar keep knows, a Martini needs at least a little water to tame the fire.
As seen above, the earliest incarnations of the Martini were either usually sweet or ‘wet’, often working off a ratio of 1:1. Vermouth was a very popular drink at that time (with Martini & Rossi kicking things off when their ‘Rosso’ was first imported into the US in 1867) and many great classic drinks containing vermouth became popular across America and Europe. Several other theories point to the Martini cocktail being so named because of its association with the vermouth brand.
Vermouth started to fall out of favour with the rise of the Vodka Martini in the 1950s and is still clawing its way back into popularity. Taking your Martinis ‘bone dry’ became a badge of honour around the table at the infamous three-Martini lunch.
As we moved into the ‘80s and the unfortunate rise of the neon-coloured Martini, no self-respecting bar – in New York at least – was complete without a Martini ‘menu’. The rule book was thrown out the window during this dark age, and the word itself became a metaphor for anything served in a Martini glass (which, strictly speaking, is actually called a cocktail glass).
Now, with the resurgence of both gin and vermouth into the cocktail lexicon – thanks to a throng of passionate bartenders spreading the word again – the Martini is back and arguably better than ever. The incarnations that our bartending forefathers popularised are still as delicious and relevant as ever, and the classic Martini, in all its simple yet modern forms, is still an icon, proving beyond any doubt that class will never go out of style.
A ‘killer’ drink? No doubt.
Sympathy for the Devil’s Urine Or ‘one man’s quest for the ultimate dirty martini’
I think that Dirty Martinis are the devil’s urine. I always have. I don’t truly believe that people who drink them like olives or even olive juice for that matter. I actually think they don’t like Martinis at all. The problem with the Dirty Martini is that there is never any purity of olive flavour. It’s usually shitty brine from a can that tastes like, um, canned salt water. But what if you were to get a fresh, true and delicious flavour from actual olives? This was my mission. I approached Allen Katz of the New York Distilling Company, who produces two wonderful gins: Dorothy Parker and Perry’s Tot, to see if he’d like to help me tinker with this experiment.
Using a micro still, we re-distilled neutral grain spirit (the same used to make his gin) with chopped green Cerignola olives, making an intense distillate. Local bitters company – Bitters, Old Men – also made us a bespoke olive bitters. Finally, we poured the brine down the sink (where it belongs) and soaked the olives in dry vermouth.
The drink is stirred using Dorothy Parker gin, olive-infused vermouth, a few drops each of the bitters and distillate and then strained into a frozen glass and finished with large green olives and drops of olive oil. Not everyone will be pleased or even care about the lengths we’ve gone to. They don’t want all this pomp and ceremony. They want a regular, shitty Dirty Martini and they want it now, goddamit! But I don’t care. To me, this is the ultimate Dirty Martini. You’re welcome.
Fort & Wharf
Shawn Soole, Little Jumbo, Victoria
‘We have a local oaked gin plus all the new ones hitting the stores soon. I am digging oaked gin; it’s the progression from gin to whisky for some people and it gives the gin another dimension without diminishing it. A local distillery on the island (Victoria Spirits) does an Oaken Gin that
is outstanding. It works well with high end aromatic bitters and stands up to smoke, while the citrus oils brighten the whole thing up. Plus, I love Martini Bianco for its mouthfeel and a smidge of inherent sweetness.’
Glass: Frozen cocktail
Garnish: Lemon twist
Method: Rinse glass with Islay whisky. Stir other ingredients and strain into glass. Garnish.
45ml Victoria Oaken Gin
15ml Martini Bianco
3 dashes of The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Bitters
Pickled Ramp Gibson
Masahiro Urushido, Saxon + Parole, New York
‘Ramps are an amazing spring ingredient that pop up on menus all across the city when they come into season. We take some of the brine used to pickle them and use this to make a sort of Dirty Gibson, using the ramp in place of an onion. This drink will only stay on our cocktail list as long as ramps are in season. It works beautifully with the botanicals in the vermouth and the lemon bitters help to dry out the drink. Pair this with a plate of oysters.’
Glass: Frozen cocktail
Garnish: Pickled ramp
Method: Stir and strain into glass. Garnish.
60ml Beefeater London Dry Gin
20ml Dolin Dry Vermouth
10ml pickled ramp juice*
3 dashes The Bitter Truth Lemon Bitters
* Take ramps, cut off the base stems. In a pot, gently heat equal parts water and apple cider vinegar. Add a quarter part of salt and white sugar and dissolve. Add some mustard seeds, black pepper, coriander seeds and star anise. Remove from the heat and as it’s cooling add the ramps and peel of six lemons. Keeps in the fridge almost indefinitely.
Bone Dry Martini
Ryan Chetiyawardana, White Lyan, London
‘The serve came about partly by the name of the traditional serve,
and partly as a means of complementing our spirit. The vodka is
unfiltered wheat spirit that is cut with our own mineral blend water. It has
an incredibly soft mouthfeel with a nice spice. It’s great neat, and when frozen takes on an amazing thickness. The bone tincture is roasted chicken bones dissolved in phosphoric acid with some calcium salt added. The tincture gives a lovely flinty, mineral dryness that really accentuates a dry Martini and gives a clean heart to the serve. It lifts the vodka whilst staying true to a simple naked Martini serve. The lemon distillate on the base freshens without adding a noticeable aroma to the actual drink.’
Glass: Frozen cocktail
Method: Add tincture to glass and pour in neat vodka. Spray lemon distillate onto base of glass and serve.
50ml Mr Lyan Vodka (frozen)
3 dashes bone tincture
Patrick Pistolesi, The Gin Corner, Rome
‘This is a bestseller in my bar and is a perfect aperitivo. It gives you just the right kick, and it has some bitter notes on different levels, keeping the sting of the Beefeater. It needs to be served extra, extra cold!’
Glass: Frozen cocktail
Garnish: Pink grapefruit zest
Method: Shake and strain into glass. Garnish.
50ml Beefeater 24
15ml Cocchi Americano
1951 Chicago Martini
Vernon Chalker, Gin Palace, Melbourne
‘The recipe for the 1951 Chicago Martini is in a book titled The Martini by Barnaby Conrad III. I made the drink as soon as I found anchovy-stuffed olives in a Spanish supermarket in Melbourne.
It sounded so strange to mix orange liqueur with anchovies, but the magic of the recipe is that it works and it inspired a following at Gin Palace. It soon became our biggest seller, after the classic itself.’
Glass: Frozen cocktail
Garnish: Anchovy-stuffed olive
Method: Rinse the glass with Cointreau and discard.
Stir the gin with ice, strain into glass. Garnish.
90ml Bombay Sapphire
Maxime Belfand, Saxon + Parole, New York
‘My inspiration behind this drink was Chinese cuisine. Since arriving in the city I have been facinated by New York’s Chinatown. Five spice is one of the main cornerstones of Chinese cuisine, and I always thought of incorporating those particular spices into a drink. I use the sous vide technique to infuse the spices into gin quickly. I use Plymouth because it has a nice earthiness, as well as a soft juniper flavour. The absinthe spray gives the drink the brightness and the freshness it needs.’
Glass: Frozen cocktail and small carafe
Method: Stir with ice and strain into glass. Serve the remainder in a carafe on crushed ice. Spray with absinthe.
60ml spiced gin*
30ml Cocchi Americano
*To make the spiced gin:
1 bottle Plymouth Gin
1g fennel seeds
1g black peppercorns
1g coriander seeds
1g Szechuan peppercorns
Pinch of ground cumin
Vacuum-pack all ingredients using a sous vide machine. Cook in an immersion circulator for 10 minutes at 65˚C. Strain through a coffee filter.
Madam Geneva, New York
When Madam Geneva opened on a shabby block on the fringes of the East Village in 2008, there were no bars in Manhattan specialising in gin. Given the fact that during its most infamous days of the 18th Century, several of the monikers gin was given were ‘Mother’s Ruin’ and ‘Madame Genever’, it seems like a fitting tribute. The space was conceptualised and is owned and operated by the AvroKO design firm, renowned for its incredible bar and restaurant interiors around the world.
The space has Asian flourishes throughout and it’s supposed to evoke the idea of a small cocktail bar hidden in a back alley in Hong Kong with the owner – an old lady known to her regulars as ‘Madam Geneva’ – used as AvroKO’s muse. The space is gorgeous, with a cocktail menu that also nods to the Far East and all based on gin, of which the bar currently stocks about 60 different brands.
Martinis are a big focus, with one page of the list chronicling the evolution of the drink from the 1800s right up until the present. There’s a Fancy Gin Cocktail from 1862, a version from The Lamb’s Club circa 1908 and a cheeky Apple Pucker Martini representing the late 1990s.
They also make one of the best classic Dry Martinis in the city, which is served in a tiny vintage glass with the remainder served in a carafe sitting on crushed ice and garnished with a lemon knot, an olive and an onion – pickled, no less, in the same seven botanicals found in Plymouth Gin.