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Food & Drink - The Martini - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

Food & Drink - The Martini - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

The Classic Martini - Class in a Glass

Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, David Niven and Humphrey Bogart - not to mention fictional secret agent James Bond - have all helped to raise the classic dry martini to iconic status: the epitome of effortless cool. Even what it's served in - the emblematic Y-shaped glass - has become an icon known the world over as a martini glass (more on the problematic glass later). First and foremost, though, this cocktail is popular because it is delicious: flavoursome and strong as well as suave.

Ernest Hemingway with his beloved Gordon’s gin, and Campari.

But let’s clear up the confusion over the name. Martini is a common Italian family name and in Europe the word “Martini” with a capital M is often used to mean a sweet vermouth - a fortified wine - like those produced by the Martini & Rossi company of Turin.

       The well-known Martini & Rossi logo

This company was founded in 1863 by Alessandro Martini & Luigi Rossi, and their range of vermouths - sweet red, dry white, sweet white ‘Bianco’ and rosé - have become world leaders. More about vermouths below.

Round about the same time Sig. Martini and Sig. Rossi were launching their venture in Turin gin, dry vermouth and bitters were first combined in bars in the USA. Some say it was a bartender named Jerry Thomas at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco who, during the gold rush years of the early 1870s, invented the drink for a miner who wanted something special in exchange for a gold nugget. The miner was heading back to Martinez, California, 50 Kms northeast of San Francisco… and Martinez got abbreviated to martini. The people of Martinez, on the other hand, claim a bartender in their town created the drink - well they would, wouldn’t they. Others say it was named after the Martini & Henry rifle used by the British Army for 20 years between 1870 and 1890: both the rifle and the cocktail delivered quite a kick. Still others maintain it was invented at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel by an Italian immigrant bartender named Martino from Arma di Taggia in Liguria, in the early years of the 20th Century. Who knows, but a link with the Martini & Rossi vermouth company cannot be ruled out as adding a shot of gin to a shot of their aromatic dry vermouth must have been something of a no-brainer!

Ingredients for the classic martini cocktail :

Shake ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled glass and garnish. One or two ice cubes in the drink is perfect, but not a whole glassful: will dilute the liquors and looks like you’re hiding small measures.

Class in a glass

At its simplest the martini is just gin and dry vermouth. However, over the years it has been modified, for example by adjusting the ratio of gin to vermouth, by adding Angostura or other Bitters, by choosing a different garnish like a green olive possibly stuffed with pimento, or by adding a shot of vodka as is James Bond’s preference - known as a ‘vodka martini’ or a ‘Vesper martini’ (from the film CASINO ROYALE). This makes it a mighty strong drink - but Bond sipping a namby-pamby tequila sunrise with an umbrella in it wouldn't exactly match his sophisticated tough-guy image, now would it.

What do these ingredients bring to the martini cocktail?

It may only have a few ingredients but it's a complex, multi-layered flavour experience - one of the reasons why it's such a satisfying drink.

The particular flavours of a good gin - and as with all cocktails you should use the best quality liquor you can afford - come from the botanicals added during distillation. They will include juniper (vitally, it's where the name gin comes from), coriander, angelica (a plant), zest of lemon & orange, orris root (root of the Iris), spices cardamom, cinnamon & Cassia bark (a relative of cinnamon), and licorice.

Vermouth takes its name from the German word "Wermut," meaning Wormwood (an aromatic plant) and is a fortified wine flavored with herbs, roots, bark, flowers and other botanicals. ‘Dry’ vermouth is used in a martini for its slightly bitter and less sweet taste than red vermouth. It contains about 18% alcohol, in contrast to spirits like gin, whisky and vodka which contain about 40% alcohol, or more.

My Forcalquier dry vermouth

Martini & Rossi’s Dry vermouth.

Cinzano’s Dry vermouth.


Bitters are a concentrated liquor (44% alcohol!) flavored with botanicals characterised by a sharp or bitter flavour, typically used for flavouring drinks or, less often, food. Only a couple of drops are needed per drink. The most famous brand is Angostura Bitters made in Trinidad and Tobago and based on gentian, cassia, orange peel and spices.

Now, time to address the vexed martini glass issue. You can see why its become an icon in its own right: that slender stem, the inverted cone - it looks so elegant, sleek, stylish. But let’s be honest: because of the steeply flared-out shape it’s also a nightmare to drink out of. And anyone who’s ever tried lifting one off the counter and threading his or her way back to their table in a crowded bar will confirm that it struggles to contain liquid. The glass is half empty by the time you get back to your seat and your hand is wet and sticky. The Martini glass is all form and no function. It fails miserably at its main job, which is to contain your drink. So, distressing though it may be, you should bin your set of vintage martini glasses and replace them with almost-as-stylish and much more functional coupe glasses. And enjoy your entire cocktail, every time, from now on.

The more functional coupe glass

The cocktail of choice of celebrities for decades

As regards 007 and his poor liver, by MOONRAKER we started to question how the booze-soaked Bond can beat up the baddies after a succession of vodka martinis, wine, neat vodka, Dom Perignon, cognac, brandy & soda, bourbon and Scotch. And by DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER we wonder if it’ll be the bottle not a bullet that kills him as he downs Irish coffees, old fashioneds, stingers and black velvets with countless more martinis, champagne, bourbon and beer. No wonder they have to change the lead actor every few years!

Churchill enjoyed a cocktail

Churchill enjoyed a cocktail

Sir Winston Churchill - unlike Bond not a fictional character, but one with considerable very real national security responsibilities weighing on his shoulders - liked a strong martini ...along with his Pol Roger champagne, his claret, his Johnny Walker Red Label whisky and his brandy & sodas (sounds like Bond though!). And there was a macho bravado about his limiting the ‘weaker’ vermouth mixer in his cocktails: he was reputed to make his dry martinis by merely chilling gin and bowing in the direction of France, where the famous and widely appreciated Noilly Prat dry vermouth was made - and still is, in Mèze southwest of Montpellier. Once asked how much vermouth he'd like in his martini he replied “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.”

Sir Noel Coward - English playwright, singer, songwriter, actor and director, known for his flamboyance and wit that was “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise" [TIME Magazine] - could never have been described as macho, but he too argued that a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, and then “waving it in the general direction of Italy where the vermouth comes from”. It's possible of course that veterans of World War II like Churchill and Coward were scornful of vermouths originating from Italy, a country they'd have come to regard as an enemy, and France whose support had not always been unstinting.

Sir Noel Coward

The expression “Dry martini” originally and logically referred to the addition of dry vermouth to the gin. More recently, however, as shown above, a “Dry martini” has come to mean one containing a lot less than a third vermouth: sometimes 5 pts gin to 1 pt vermouth, or even a truly arid version at 10:1. And a “Bone Dry Martini” simply has the vermouth rinsed around the inside of the glass and then discarded before pouring in the chilled gin. That way only a trace of the fortified wine is left in the overall mix, making it an even stronger punch-packing drink.

In the 1970’s hit movie M*A*S*H and its long-running TV spin-off series main characters Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers), US Army surgeons in the Korean War and highly cool, brew their own sanity-preserving martinis in their mess tent. A valuable promotion for the enduring martini in the anti-establishment era of the 1970’s and 1980’s when endorsements by mid-20th Century Hollywood celebrities were losing their lustre.

Trapper (L) and Hawkeye (R), the anarchic US Army surgeons in M*A*S*H

So after a hard week’s work, kick back and enjoy a real martini: it tastes like a reward - and the fact that Ernest Hemingway downed them by the dozen doesn’t do them or you any harm at all.

A Marguerite

Other permutations

Martini Spritz : soda water, tonic or Perrier are added to make it a long fizzy drink.

Dirty Martini : the alcoholic ingredients are diluted by the addition of olive juice.

Gibson : same drink but garnished with a cocktail onion instead of the olive and lemon.

Perfect Martini : with both sweet (red) and dry (white) vermouths.

Marguerite : equal parts gin and dry vermouth, plus a dash of orange bitters.


Next week: Spotlight on the innocent-looking but potentially lethal Bloody Mary. How did Mary get blood all over her? Join us for another drink.

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The Bloody Mary

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