Imbibe team taste test: the five-star Martini challenge

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Other: Venues

Is there anything more classically beautiful than a perfectly prepared Martini? Of course not. Julie Sheppard and the Imbibe team visited some of the capital’s most luxurious hotel bars to check out the serves and the recipes on offer. Photos by Justine Trickett


Luxury. Celebrity. History. Glamour. These are the buzzwords at London’s five-star hotel bars; a breed apart at the rarefied top end of the on-trade. With stellar reputations, they attract the crème de la crème of bartending talent, so it’s no surprise that a roll-call of names – from stalwarts such as the American Bar at the Savoy to relative newcomers like Dandelyan at Mondrian London – regularly top the international bar awards.

Visit one of these establishments and you’ll find impeccable service, jaw-dropping lists of rare and vintage spirits, and cocktails that push the envelope of drinks creation. Months of research can go into developing dazzling new serves. But if there’s one thing that you can also rely on a five-star hotel bar for, it’s a truly perfect rendition of a classic.

Which is why Imbibe looked to the capital’s five-star hotels for its latest cocktail challenge: the Martini. As usual, we invited a selection of premium spirits brands to team up with a particular bar and provide us with their take on this time-honoured cocktail list staple.

Despite its ambiguous origins, the Martini has achieved cult status in the drinks world – and it’s a cocktail that has sparked endless debate amongst drinkers and bartenders alike. Gin or vodka? Shaken or stirred? What’s the best garnish? What’s the perfect ratio of spirits to vermouth? Should vermouth even be used? (Not according to Noël Coward, who famously decreed: ‘A perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.’) And don’t even get us started on fruity versions…

As Erik Lorincz, head bartender at the American Bar put it when we visited, ‘The Martini is very iconic. It’s such a simple drink, using just a few ingredients, but it’s still difficult to get it right.’
With that in mind, the challenge was on. Who would wow Team Imbibe with their Martini? Read on to find out…

THE AMERICAN BAR AT THE SAVOY

BRAND: Ketel One Vodka
DRINK: The American Bar Martini

THE AMERICAN BAR MARTINI

Glass: Martini
Garnish: Lemon twist
Method: Stir with block ice
and strain.
60ml Ketel One Vodka
15ml Cocchi The Savoy Dry Vermouth

‘The Martini is one of our best-sellling drinks,’ said head bartender Erik Lorincz, as he welcomed Team Imbibe to the legendary American Bar. Opened in 1904, when glamorous ‘American-style’ mixed cocktails were all the rage, it’s played host to a procession of legendary bartenders – not least Harry Craddock, author of the iconic Savoy Cocktail Book back in 1930.

Famous Martini drinkers here have included not one, but two James Bonds – Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig – while Lorincz himself went on set of the Bond movie Skyfall to teach the actors how to make a proper Martini. The American Bar’s Martini is stirred rather than shaken – ‘I leave that to Bond,’ quipped Lorincz – with hand-carved ice blocks. ‘I’ve found that the bigger ice blocks give a different viscosity and less dilution,’ he explained.

Ketel One Vodka is paired with Cocchi The Savoy Dry Vermouth, created especially for the Savoy by Roberto Bava, Cocchi’s winemaker. ‘He said, “There are two people we can’t say no to; one is the Pope and the other is the Savoy!”’ laughed Lorincz. The final Martini is garnished with citrus.

‘The pepperiness of the Ketel One plays off the vermouth really well, while the touch of lemon from the garnish lifts, but doesn’t overpower,’ approved deputy editor Laura Foster. ‘This is a great aperitif, deliciously savoury with the flavours of the vodka coming through, along with mineral and fresh lemon notes,’ added editorial assistant Isabella Sullivan. ‘This is exactly what you’d expect of a Martini in the American Bar,’ concluded managing editor Julie Sheppard.

BLUE BAR AT THE BERKELEY

THE BLUE BAR MARTINI

Glass: Martini
Garnish: Lemon twist
Method: Stir with block ice
and strain.
45ml Star of Bombay
15ml Belsazar Vermouth Dry

BRAND: Bombay Sapphire Star of Bombay
DRINK: The Blue Bar Martini

What better place for a sapphire than the Blue Bar? Designed by the late, great David Collins, with a recent update by Collins’ protégé Robert Angell, the look incorporates plush blue velvet banquettes and moulded periwinkle-blue panels by Edwin Lutyens. The Berkeley hotel’s bar exudes discreet elegance. There’s an attention to detail here that follows through into every element of the drinks list, from the bespoke etched glassware to the creation of cocktail recipes. No surprise then that assistant bar manager, Michele Mariotti, put in a full year of research into creating his perfect Martini.

‘Me and a friend met every Sunday and tested different gins, different vermouths. There’s always been a big difference between French and Italian vermouths – French are more wine-driven and Italian are botanical-driven,’ he explained. Mariotti then played around with different proportions of gin and vermouth in every Martini. ‘I found that any ratio between 1:1 and 5:1 can work, but 3:1 works best,’ he said. His final recipe was three parts Star of Bombay to one part Belsazar Vermouth Dry.

‘This is a very classic interpretation of a Martini,’ praised Sheppard. ‘It’s beautiful in its simplicity, with a clean, poised taste profile – delicious!’

‘It has a lovely elegant, lifted character,’ agreed editor Chris Losh. ‘Great dryness on the finish with a good juniper punch delivered gently – like a butterfly in carpet slippers,’ he mused. Foster noted a creamy yet fresh palate, with hints of lemon, bergamot, peppery spice and jasmine. ‘It takes a very special Martini to make me drink one very quickly; and this is a very special Martini,’ she concluded.

THE CONNAUGHT BAR AT THE CONNAUGHT

BRAND: Tanqueray No. Ten
DRINK: The Connaught Martini

THE CONNAUGHT MARTINI

Glass: Martini
Garnish: Amalfi lemon peel
Method: Stir with block ice
and strain.
75ml Tanqueray No. Ten
15ml house vermouth
2 dashes Dr Ago’s Bitters

‘The secret of a perfect Martini is the sound,’ confided Ago Perrone, director of mixology at The Connaught. ‘The sound of the ice-stirring – it’s almost mesmerising, very relaxing…’

The Cubist-inspired, David Collins-designed Connaught Bar is a shimmering shrine to cocktails. Its Martini menu was developed nine years ago and focuses around the hotel’s glorious Tanqueray No. Ten Martini trolley, which allows Perrone and his team to mix mesmerising Martinis in front of guests, at their table

‘We approached our Martini menu in a very technical way, analysing the botanicals in the gin, and developed our own range of bitters to use,’ explained Perrone. The choice of bitters changes seasonally, but might include cardamom, vanilla, pink grapefruit or lavender, as well as Dr Ago’s Bitters, made with ginseng and bergamot.

‘Vermouth also plays a very important part in our Martini,’ explained Perrone, who uses a house blend of three vermouths: aromatic Noilly Prat, sweet Gancia Bianco and Martini Extra Dry, with a 5:1 ratio. The Martini is served in the bar’s bepoke glassware and garnished with Amalfi lemon peel.

‘This Martini is bone-dry but absolutely packed with flavour,’ noted Sheppard. ‘There’s an explosion of herbal and citrus on the palate, then the bergamot stays on the finish, giving a lingering, warmly fragranced note,’ she added. Foster agreed: ‘This hits all of the flavour points. There’s crisp and bitter citrus, woody, spicy ginseng, a note of vanilla sweetness and a savoury, salty finish – all with a lovely silky texture that’s still bone-dry. It’s a supremely elegant Martini,’ she concluded.

DANDELYAN AT MONDRIAN LONDON

VX ‘GIBSON’ MARTINI

Glass: Martini
Garnish: Pickled grapes
served on ice
Method: Stir with block ice
and strain.
75ml Grey Goose VX
5ml vinegar (red grapes macerated in
white wine vinegar and botanicals)

BRAND: Grey Goose VX
DRINK: VX ‘Gibson’ Martini

Recently named World’s Best Cocktail Bar in the Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail, where it also scooped the awards for Best International Hotel Bar and Best International Bar Team, Dandelyan has an unequivocally stellar reputation. But could it wow Team Imbibe with its Martini?

‘We’ve been talking about the concept for this drink for about six months, then it took about a month to develop the final recipe,’ said senior bartender Jack Banks. The VX ‘Gibson’ Martini features on the bar’s esoteric Cellar Menu, a collection of six drinks featuring prestige spirits. As the name suggests it’s a twist on a classic 6:1 Gibson, made without vermouth and using Grey Goose VX (vodka blended with Grand Champagne cognac).

‘We’ve eliminated the vermouth to showcase the vodka flavours, so this is about the terroir and culture of France,’ explained Banks. To replace the vermouth, Banks macerated red grapes in a white wine vinegar laced with botanicals including lemon and wormwood. While the pickling liquid is used in the Martini, the grapes then become a garnish, served separately on ice. The result was a thoroughly original take on a Martini.

‘Clever,’ approved Losh. ‘Interestingly, given that they have totally removed one of the two ingredients, the drink still tastes like a Martini, which is an achievement,’ he added.

‘This is packed with layers of flavour and the drink is totally in keeping with Dandelyan; an unusual, modern take
on a classic,’ added Sullivan.

GILLRAY’S AT LONDON MARRIOTT HOTEL COUNTY HALL

THE BRAITHWAIT

Glass: Martini
Garnish: Long lemon twist
Method: Stir the gin and bitters with
block ice and strain. Serve alongside a
perfume bottle containing the vermouth
and dry ice, to create a vermouth mist.
50ml Copperhead Black
3 dashes Copperhead Digestivum Bitters
Sacred English Amber Vermouth

BRAND: Copperhead Black
DRINK: The Braithwait

Located in historic County Hall, which is now home to Marriott’s flagship London hotel, Gillray’s Bar boasts spectacular views over the River Thames and Houses of Parliament. Fittingly, it’s named after ‘the father of the political cartoon’, the caricaturist James Gillray, born in 1757, whose work satirised leading politicians of the time, King George III and fashionable upper class society.

With his acerbic wit, no doubt Gillray would be a fan of the Dry Martini – much like Gillray’s senior bartender, Cosmin Tudor, who believes that a good Martini shouldn’t include vermouth. That’s why his recipe for The Braithwait contains only gin and bitters.
‘In a nod to the classic Martini we mist the vermouth over the glass in a vintage perfume bottle with dry ice capsules,’ he said. The vermouth is steeped in Earl Grey tea, to pick up notes that can be found in Copperhead Black, a Belgian gin that features black Ceylon tea. Paired with Copperhead’s own bitters, which give the final Martini an opaque appearance in the glass, the drink is then garnished with a long lemon peel that imparts a big citrus hit to the final flavour.

‘One note – lemon – plays very loudly here,’ commented Losh, concluding: ‘This is one for fans of citrus Martinis.’ Sheppard agreed, noting lemon sherbet on the finish and a crisp citrus mid-palate.

THE RIVOLI BAR AT THE RITZ

TO BE OR NOT TO BE

Glass: Martini
Garnish: Japanese peach
Method: Stir with block ice
and strain.
50ml Belvedere Vodka
30ml yuzu clarification
20ml Cinzano Bianco
10ml sugar syrup
2 dashes peach bitters

BRAND: Belvedere Vodka
DRINK: To Be or Not To Be

Designed to make guests feel as though they are walking into a glittering jewel box, The Ritz’s Rivoli Bar is an opulent oasis featuring gilded ceiling domes, swathes of marble, shiny camphor wood wall panels, Lalique glass and leopard-print stools. Drinks here really have to look the part, and theatrical presentation is something that head bartender Tiago Mira uses to full effect.

‘A Martini is one of the most classic cocktails, and this drink is a play on a Martini, offering guests something that they’re not expecting – hence the name, To Be or Not To Be,’ he explained. ‘The idea is to play with your palate and your senses, as we all tend to interpret things as look.’

At first glance his drink looked like a Dirty Martini garnished with an olive. But take a sip and you get fruity, not dirty, flavours. ‘I wanted a drink with all the strength of a Martini and the look of a Martini, but with a fruity taste, which is more accessible for our guests,’ said Mira, who combined Belvedere Vodka with a yuzu clarification, peach bitters and Cinzano Bianco. Even the ‘olive’ was not as it seemed; Mira had replaced it with a sweet Japanese peach skewered on a jewel-topped cocktail stick.

The Imbibe team liked the clever presentation and the concept of the drink. ‘This looks terrific and is good for the clientele,’ approved Losh.

‘This is not a classic Martini, but it’s a delicious, really accessible twist on a Martini,’ noted Foster. Sheppard praised the ‘super-charged peach and yuzu character’ on the palate, while Sullivan concluded: ‘This is sharp, citrusy, fresh and very drinkable!’

About Author

Julie Sheppard

Julie is managing editor of Imbibe and joined the team in 2006. She has written about drinks for the past 16 years in a varied career that includes treading grapes in the Douro and foraging for juniper in Northumberland. When she's not hanging out with the on-trade, Julie writes about food, drinks and travel for Time Out, Square Meal, Conde Nast Traveller, Waitrose Food Illustrated and Waitrose Drinks

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