The Magnificent, Mysterious Martini

Martini-0715131
A cigar and a Ketel One martini, served chilled and straight up, signals the perfect start of an enjoyable evening.

The staid gin and tonic may be ideally suited for the African veldt, but for the ultimate in after-hunt sophistication–or pre-dinner reminiscing for that matter–there is nothing like the classic martini. Whether served in its preferred guise of chilled and straight up, on the rocks or carried, as Hemingway did, in a canteen and swigged while dodging bullets as a war correspondent, this is the drink of men who know how to shoulder a double rifle or work a bolt-action with equal aplomb. And yet, like much of the exotic game we hunt, the origins of the martini are slightly shrouded in mystery.

By all accounts, this cocktail originated in 1870, concocted in the northern California town of Martinez by a bartender named Julio Richelieu. His recipe consisted of red vermouth, a crude, sweet gin known as Old Tom and some bitters. Richelieu named his drink after the town in which he had his saloon, calling it the Martinez. Evidently it caught on with more than just the locals, because by 1884 the Martinez appeared in The Modern Bartender’s Guide, except that “two dashes of maraschino” had been added to the recipe and for the first time, a lemon rind was used as a garnish. But by 1888 the Martinez name had been changed to “martini” when it was included in The New and Improved Illustrated Bartending Manual and, as an equally historic development, an olive was added.

Interestingly, in 1896 a suspiciously similar cocktail, the Marquerite, appeared in Stewart’s Fancy Drinks and How To Mix Them. It called for 2/3 ounces of Plymouth Gin–the first time a specific brand was named–plus a dash of orange bitters, and 1/3 ounce of French vermouth. Over the years, others attempted to perfect or to capitalize–take your pick–on the martini’s growing popularity. For example, in 1911, the aptly named Martini de Arma di Taggia, head bartender at the New York Knickerbocker Hotel, came up with a cocktail composed of half London Dry Gin, half Noilly Pratt Vermouth, plus a dash of orange bitters, and understandably enough, named the drink after himself. He called it the Martini.

James Bond would approve: Dennis Tamse, international ambassador for Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, makes a proper Vesper martini – shaken, not stirred – using Nolet’s Silver gin and Ketel One vodka. Note the mirrored ceiling in the distillery’s bar so guests can see Tamse‘s behind-the-scenes techniques.
James Bond would approve: Dennis Tamse, international ambassador for Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, makes a proper Vesper martini – shaken, not stirred – using Nolet’s Silver gin and Ketel One vodka. Note the mirrored ceiling in the distillery’s bar so guests can see Tamse‘s behind-the-scenes techniques.

Although bartenders continued to put their spin on the martini, one thing remained constant–it was always made with gin–up until 1951 when Ted Saucier’s classic book, Bottoms Up, called for it to be made with vodka–no doubt a reflection of America’s growing obsession with Russia and the impending cold war. In fact, Nikita Khrushchev once referred to the martini as “America’s lethal weapon.” The appearance of fictional superspy James Bond and his preference for vodka martinis, shaken, not stirred, further eclipsed gin from the scene. In fact, it was at Dukes Hotel in London that Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, together with bartender Gilberto Giuseppi, came up with the Vesper martini, which first appeared in Casino Royale and was diplomatically composed of British gin, Russian vodka and French vermouth.

Indeed, the Vesper, named after Vesper Lynd, a Russian double agent in Casino Royale, is probably the best of both worlds, for it settles the long-standing argument of whether a martini should be made with vodka or gin. Of course, the fact remains that the original martini was made with gin, and if you order it any other way in England, you will most likely be given a “Watch your muzzle!” look by the bartender. However, the percentage of ingredients has changed over the years. Most pre-prohibition recipes called for one part vermouth to three parts gin, but we tend to like our martinis substantially drier today. At The American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel, they still use Peter Dorelli’s classic 1926 recipe of three drops of vermouth along with three drops of fresh lemon, and a healthy pour of chilled Beefeater or Plymouth gin.

Personally I like my martini’s even drier. At home I pour ½ ounce of Noilly Pratt vermouth into a chilled martini glass, swirl it so it coats the sides, and then toss the liquid into the sink. Then I pour three ounces of chilled Plymouth or Nolet’s Silver gin (bigger drinks cut down on the number of trips I make to the wet bar) and one drop of fresh lemon juice. I leave the olive outside the glass, to provide more room for the gin.

As part of the finishing touch to the perfect martini at Dukes in St. James, London, bar manager Alessandro Palazzi twists a lemon rind over the drink, spraying it with a fine mist.
As part of the finishing touch to the perfect martini at Dukes in St. James, London, bar manager Alessandro Palazzi twists a lemon rind over the drink, spraying it with a fine mist.

That being said, one of the world’s best and most theatrically prepared martinis can be found, appropriately enough, at Dukes. There, white coated bar manager Alessandro Palazzi will wheel a table up to your chair in the hotel bar’s sitting room and prepare the drink as you watch, pouring from a super-chilled bottle of Beefeater directly into a chilled glass, then deftly adding a splash of chilled vermouth with the precision of an army sniper and just as precisely flinging it out onto the carpet, then finishing the show by trimming a lemon close to the rind, twisting it over the gin to produce a fine mist, then brushing the rim with the rind to leave a coating of oil before dropping the rind into the drink.

On the other hand, I can remember the worst martini I ever had. It was at an Italian restaurant in Glasgow (that in itself should tell you something), where I made the mistake of telling the bar manager exactly how I wanted him to make my martini. Rather than being grateful for this coveted knowledge, he obviously felt insulted, because when the cocktail arrived, it didn’t look or taste anything like a martini. In fact, it had an umbrella sticking out of the glass. But then, that’s what I get for ordering a gin martini in a country known for its single malts.– Richard Carleton Hacker

Leave a Reply