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The Problem with the Martini

November 26, 2014

I know several people who probably followed this link just to tell me that there is no problem with the Martini, that it is the Platonic ideal of gin cocktails and God’s Perfect Drink. Let me first tell you that I agree, for the most part, that a well-made Martini is a radiant and profound drink, and also that you’re wrong, there is indeed a problem, but it has nothing to do with taste.

That awkward moment when you realize you mixed up “drier” and “wetter,” probably as a result of drinking a bunch of martinis.

The Problem:

Get 20 cocktail bartenders in a room and ask them all for a recipe, and you might get a little individual variance.

Ask for a Last Word, and you’ll get the same thing from everyone. A Corpse Reviver #2, and there might be a little trembling on whether to use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano, but the ratios will be the same. I have, embarrassingly, killed a whole drunken hour arguing about whether it’s lemon or lime juice in a Southside, but again, it’s essentially the same drink.

But the Martini. The goddamn Martini. The Martini diffusion is hopeless.

Everyone agrees on the principle ingredients: a martini is gin, dry vermouth, (sometimes) orange bitters, stirred, up, with a lemon peel. If you disagree with any of this, I invite you to explore your wrongness in the footnote(1) at bottom.

But it’s not that easy, because look it up 10 times and you’ll get 8 different ratios, the range of which is both hilarious and absurd. Just gin and vermouth, right? How much of each? Consider the list below, which is the Martini ratio given in all the books I have at home, plus a bit of google poking. I didn’t cherry pick these. These are the first 15 I found:

Ratio of Gin to Vermouth

1:1 — Edmund Spencer, via The Flowing Bowl, 1898 (+orange bitters)
2:1 — Sam Ross, via Bartender’s Choice (app)
3:1 — Jim Meehan, via PDT Cocktail Book
3:1 — Death & Co. Cocktail Book (+orange bitters)
3:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
4:1 — Andre Domine, via Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails
5:1  — David Wondrich, via Epicurious (+orange bitters)
5:1  — Simon Ford, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
5:1  — Gary Regan, via Joy of Mixology
6:1 — International Bartender Association (IBA)
6:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Food Republic (+orange bitters)
6:1 — Dale Degroff, via The Essential Cocktail
8:1 — Ted Haigh, via CocktailDB.com
10(+):1 — Cookworks, via FoodNetwork
10(+):1 — David Wondrich, via Esquire

You’ll notice that some people don’t even agree with themselves. I want to make the best drinks I can, and this list gets me no closer to the perfect Martini than I was before.

So I did what any sensible person would do: I made them all. Over the course of about 6 weeks, I made every ratio, with every gin I have at home, across two different vermouths, with and without orange bitters. And then I drank them.

[martini] montage

So Who’s Right?

Possibly everyone. Or at least, everyone between 5:1 and 1:1. Also maybe no one. Because, as it turns out, there is no single perfect recipe. The ideal recipe varies wildly from gin to gin, and further depends on your dry vermouth, and even further, likely, personal taste.

To find the best ratio, first assess what you’re looking for: a good martini radiates out of the glass. It shines like a diamond. It is a strong, bracing drink, that nonetheless charms you with impeccable balance and clarity of flavor, a harmonic resonance that’s remarkable when hit just right. So make everything between 1:1 and 5:1. Then try again, this time with orange bitters. Find your champion, make sure to write it down (you’re pretty drunk by now), and write off the moral cost of today’s inebriation as a learning experience (the story of my damn life).

Eight gins in all, and here are my last page conclusions, sorted by my personal preference:

[martini] Spreadsheet
Interesting, no? Some preliminary conclusions:

(1) Beyond 5:1, you’re just drinking cold gin.

(2) When the vermouths did disagree, Dolin almost always wanted to be a bigger part of the drink than Noilly Prat. It also tasted better every time.

(3) Orange bitters works with more juniper-forward gins, like Beefeater and Fords. In the others it made the flavors less clear.
(3a)… with the obvious exception of Hendrick’s, which was admittedly a very close call, maybe the closest of this whole experiment.

(4) If you’ve got to guess, go 3:1. It was best 5 of the 8 times, and even when it wasn’t best, it was never bad.

(5) Even my least favorite of the eight, Hendrick’s, was still damn tasty at 3:1 with orange bitters. A well made Martini is a wonderful drink.

My Favorite Martini

2.25oz Aviation Gin (for elegance/licorice accents) or Tanqueray 10 (for brighter fruit accents)
0.75oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

Stir briskly in a mixing glass, over ice, for about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled Martini glass, and express the oils of a lemon peel over the top.

[martini] glamour shot

Notes from the Martini Trials:

1st (tie): Aviation Gin, 3:1

More licorice, like licorice candy (good & plenty). Bubblegum. Has an elegance that’s hard to touch. Deep and strong and balanced. 2:1 with orange bitters was a close second… it had more flavor, but muddied the clarity of 3:1 without bitters. Savory. Wonderful.

1st (tie): Tanqueray 10, 3:1

Made with whole orange, grapefruit, and limes, as well as chamomile, this had a much more citrus forward clarity. Lemon Starbursts. “All kinds of candied citrus,” I wrote, “I could drink these all the time.” Radiant. Dynamic. This pops.

3rd: The Botanist, 1:1

Nice sweetness. Surprisingly balanced at 1:1. How weird. The gin complements the vermouth very well, and makes the overall cocktail almost savory. This is a great drink.

4th: Ford’s Gin, 3:1 + Orange Bitters

Nose is great. 1:1 without bitters was actually pretty good here too, but 3:1 with takes the day. Probably my favorite of the classic London Dry style martinis.

5th: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength, 5:1

Nice cucumber dryness. This is the gin in which I actually taste cucumber, and that note is highlighted here, as opposed to masked. This is an example of why gin martinis are so cool.

6th: Plymouth, 4:1 + Orange Bitters

Very nicely textured. Orange bitters bring a candied orange flavor that’s quite nice, and make it a little front heavy. This is very nice but not extraordinarily memorable, like a white dress shirt.

7th: Beefeater, 3:1 + Orange Bitters

At its most balanced. It’s still a little raw, but 2:1 is too weak and 4:1 is too much. It’s a stiff, tasty drink, meant for those who want their drinks stiff and tasty, and care about those adjectives in that order.

8th: Hendricks, 3:1 + Orange Bitters

This was a really tight choice between orange bitters and not. 1:1 was good too, but a little tart. 3:1 had nice acidity, mouthwatering. Clean. Floral. Probably cleaner without bitters than with, but I thought the round orange flavor made it more dynamic.

  •     •     •     •     •     •     •

Footnotes:

(1) A Martini is made with gin and vermouth. It doesn’t matter at all that 95% of the “martinis” I’m asked to make are with vodka. This is a gin drink. If you want a 5oz cone of 19°F vodka, fouled with tepid olive brine and made murky by lactose wisps of dissolving cheese, fine, but a martini it ain’t.

(2) Martinis may or may not contain orange bitters. Orange bitters are traditional, satisfying the original requirement of being called a cocktail, but most people these days choose to omit them. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not. We’ll deal with it case by case.

(3) A Martini is stirred, not shaken. If you shake it, you lose the velvety texture, overdilute it, and make it all turbid & ugly. James Bond has gauche taste and he should keep it to his fucking self.

(4) Our garnish will be a lemon twist, not olives. I hate olives. Sorry. Bias.

(5) Yeah, I’m really using footnotes.

Go back to where you were.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Shugart permalink
    November 26, 2014 8:44 pm

    Well done, Jason! A nice piece of “work,” if you can call it that. I don’t get around much any more, but the next time I do, I’m going to stride straight up to the bar and say, authoritatively, “Aviation and Dolin.,3 to 1, with lemon peel.”. The folks at the bar may look at me like I’m a snob, but fuck’em. I’ll tell’em to read your blog.

    • December 2, 2014 10:57 am

      I like to think they’d appreciate the clarity. Ordering a Martini is more the beginning of a conversation than an actual order. Thanks again!

  2. Mark permalink
    December 1, 2014 3:30 pm

    The picture is incorrect in its labeling. It should say “wetter” on the left 2:1 ratio and “drier” on the right 8:1 ratio. More vermouth makes a martini wetter, while more gin and less vermouth makes it drier. Other than that, great article.

    • December 2, 2014 10:56 am

      My god, you’re right. What an embarrassingly obvious mistake. I’m not going to correct it in the name of intellectual honesty, but…. wow. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. December 2, 2014 10:07 pm

    Well said!! No love for the 7:1 though? 3.5 oz Old Raj 110 to 0.5 Dolin Dry with a dash of regans and a twist.

    • December 3, 2014 10:56 am

      Thanks Christopher! I didn’t have Old Raj on hand for my experiments, obviously. It’s my experience that beyond 5:1 the bitterness of the ethanol kind of takes over the balance of the cocktail, and you’re essentially drinking cold gin.

      That being said, there is nothing in the world wrong with drinking cold gin.

  4. Charlie Marcela permalink
    December 3, 2014 9:02 am

    What brand of orange bitters did you use? I know that Regan’s tends to be the popular choice, but it’s a bit candied for me, especially in as clean a drink as a martini. I prefer Bitter Truth myself.

    • December 3, 2014 10:54 am

      That is an excellent question, and one that I probably should’ve addressed in the footnotes (but the thing was so long already…). I did a blend, as is I’ve been told SOP for many bars, of equal parts Regans, Fee’s, and Angostura Orange. Thanks for asking.

  5. December 10, 2014 1:28 pm

    I always enjoyed the dilution ratio achieved by opening the bottle of vermouth near the glass.

  6. December 11, 2014 12:59 pm

    What would change it it were a gibson we were making?

    • December 12, 2014 10:18 am

      That, David, is an excellent question. The lemon peel is not merely cosmetic, although it is, comparitively, an ornament on the tree. The structure is all from the ratio.

      Now, the salt & vinegar twang that comes with pickled onions may push it one way or another, and I’d love to try that out. So short answer: I don’t know, but either way, it would be interesting.

  7. Robert Hess permalink
    December 16, 2014 10:22 am

    A great and dedicated approach to the question, and one which clearly shows the importance of understanding the characteristics of the products being used. I recall once Gary Regan recounting a visit to the Ritz in New York, when Norman was bartending (is he still there?) and Gary saw Norman serve out several Manhattans, but also noticed that the ratios were different for almost each one. When Gary asked Norman about this, he replied “Because they were made with different whiskies of course! You don’t think you would use the same amount of vermouth for a whiskey with light character as you would for one with a stronger one?”

    The one gin I see that is clearly missing from your lineup is regular Tanqueray. I personally see it as the gold-standard for gins, with the trifecta being Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Plymouth.

    -Robert

    • December 18, 2014 10:17 am

      Thanks so much Robert, for reading as well as your insight. I’ve been watching your videos for years.

      In hindsight, the conclusion does seem obvious. The principle is so much more dramatic with Manhattans I suppose, with common products swinging wildly from Rittenhouse to Templeton.

      And as far as Tanqueray goes, I absolutely agree with you. This was never meant as a definitive Martini guide, though it did end up reading that way. I was just looking to investigate why there’s so much recipe diffusion out there. These are merely the gins I had 6+oz of at home.

      Thanks again.

  8. Joanne williams permalink
    July 30, 2015 9:11 am

    I have never been so entertained reading a recipe. This was well written, informative, funny and just plain good. At my advanced age I decided to finally try a martini. Directions were tedious, useless, and boring until I found yours I can’t wait to make my 1st. Martini.

    • July 31, 2015 10:32 am

      Thank you Joanne. That’s the nicest thing you could possibly say to me (the first part at least – putting down everyone else’s recipe is just icing on the cake)

  9. December 1, 2015 1:27 pm

    Jason I have been enjoying your T 10 and Aviation recipes. can’t get enough…. I was drinking Vodka before your article and now I’ve stopped…. I’m even growing a few converts along the way… Thank you again. Looking forward to your next articles

    • December 3, 2015 6:49 pm

      That’s so very kind. So glad to have been able to influenced you, even just a little bit, for the better. Thank you.

  10. Paul Baker permalink
    September 12, 2016 2:29 am

    Hi Jason! Late to the game, but I’ve been catching up on your posts and love them. The quest for the ultimate martini is an enduring search, safe in the knowledge that no matter how good the one you’re drinking, the next one might be even better! Would be really interested to hear your views on what makes a good gin for martini…

    Keep up the good fight!!

  11. Brian Dill permalink
    May 18, 2017 11:05 am

    An interesting and well written article. You hurt my pride a tad when you compared my every day cocktail, the Plymouth/Dolin 4:1 w/ Orange Bitters, to a white dress shirt. I then looked down and noticed that I was wearing a white dress shirt. Accordingly, I am going to embrace your comparison as I am unwilling to give up either my go-to gin martini or my white dress shirt. In my defense of being called boring, however, I must say that when I opt for the blue dress shirt I push the utter limits of the Martini and choose the St. George Botanivore/Dolin 3:1 w/ Orange Bitters. 😉

    • May 31, 2017 11:56 am

      I can’t believe I missed this comment when you wrote it! Hilarious, and thanks so much. And you know, sometimes, a white dress shirt is exactly what you need.

Trackbacks

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