The Problem with the Martini
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.
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.
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:
(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.
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.
• • • • • • •
(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.