15 July 2010

The Martini: What Once Was, What Now is, and What Can Be

Kicking off our Savvy Experts in Entertaining series is special guest, Mark Vierthaler of Cocktails, 365.

It's a sexy, slinky black dress.

A smokey saxophone solo.

Steam slowly rising from a city street after a summer rain.

It simply oozes class.

Wait. Scratch that. Oozing is much, much too base for it.

It's the-only-woman-wearing-a-red-dress-at-the-Met-Opera classy. Gorgeous, understated; the cause for many a man's turned head, lingering eye and quickening pulse. It's the Martini. Not an Appletini, not a Super Duper Chocolate Attack Martini.

The Martini. The mother of them all. The classic cocktail that launched a thousand careers and millions of derivatives. This isn't your crazy-crap-on-the-walls restaurant Martini. This is your grandpappy's Martini.

And yet, for something so ubiquitous to the bar scene, the Martini's history is pretty much unknown. It's generally believed that the Martini evolved from an even older cocktail — The Martinez. The Martinez, created 1862, called for 4 parts red sweet Vermouth to 1 part Gin, garnished with a cherry. Make one of these time capsules sometime. I don't think you'll regret it.

From there it was a slow evolution. Eventually, the Martinez evolved into what is now known as the classic Martini. Is it true? No one really knows! Not a shabby story, though!

And a simpler cocktail, you couldn't make.


Chill a Martini glass either in a freezer for at least one hour, or fill with ice and water and let sit for 30 minutes. This will ensure your cocktail glass is as cold as possible. The colder, the better. Pour a dash of dry white vermouth into your glass, swirl, then dump.

Shake 2 to 3 oz of high-quality gin in a cocktail shaker filled with cracked ice, then strain into your treated glass. Garnish with a green olive, a cocktail onion or a lemon twist.
That's it. Just that little dash of vermouth, swirled around the entire glass, is enough to infuse the gin with an unique flavor that differs from the straight gin. Of course depending on where you are, who you ask, who's making it and any number of factors, it's all a matter of taste.

Winston Churchill is reported to have given this simple, yet genius recipe for the perfect Martini:

"Shake gin with cracked ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with olive. Drink while looking at a bottle of dry vermouth."

Intense. I'm a “professional” drinker and even that's just a little too powerful for my tastes. Like many classic cocktails, it's simple, it's savory and it will knock you flat on your ass two drinks in if you're not paying close enough attention. And so, much like the Martini (allegedly) evolved from the Martinez, so has this simple powerhouse of a cocktail developed into an almost infinite array of “Martinis.”

While the technical definition of Martini is still simply a cocktail consisting of gin (or vodka) and dry vermouth, God knows we've stretched the definition to mean pretty much any cocktail using gin or vodka as a base, served in a Martini class, sans ice.

Brave New World
It's under these basic tenants that cocktaileers across the entire world have begun a sort of liquor renaissance. Amazing bartenders, chefs and mixologists forging all sorts of brave new cocktails. Some great, some just bizarre.

So, as you, dear reader, forge ahead into this brave new world of cocktails and Martinis, it's incredibly overwhelming. What goes with gin? With it's unique juniper flavor, it's easy to completely butcher something. What about ingredients? Proportions?

I say to you: calm your ass down, take a couple deep breaths and have a seat. Here are some simple steps to make your own killer Martini.

1)    High-Quality Ingredients. Now, that's not to say that price is going to guarantee a superior product. There are some amazing products out there that are incredibly affordable. Take for example New Amsterdam Straight Gin. Affordable, and a solid, sweet gin. Do your homework. The higher-quality (again, not necessarily higher price) liquors, liqueurs and mixers are going to make all the difference.

2)    Personal Taste. Make. What. You. Want. What your guests, or your patrons like. Too often, as seems to be the case in food-related professions, people tend to disappear up their own asses when it comes to cocktails. A certain cocktail is simply to base for them. It doesn't have the proper mixture of X to Y. That's a load of bunk! And, while I don't like to toss this word around lightly, it might even be “hooey.” In other words, it's crap. If you like it, drink it. The point of a great Martini is to taste killer, not impress that goony bastard down at the other end of the bar in his ironic Phil Collins T-shirt and hipster shades (I'M TALKING TO YOU, HUNTER)!

3)    Don't Be Afraid to Fail. Anyone who tells you they got a great, original, signature Martini or cocktail right on the first try is either drunk, high, or both.  It takes practice and lots of failing to hit that perfect mix. But, when you do, is it ever one great feeling! Keep at it.

4)    Be Responsible. I'm like what I like to call a “professional drinker,” meaning that I never drink for the sole intent of getting hammered. That's an idiotic way of drinking. Now, don't get me wrong. I've been drunk and I enjoy the occasional bender. But, the purpose of the classiness that is the Martini is to savor it. So take in the flavors, enjoy the taste and enjoy the company of friends — or even friendly strangers. If you're using a higher quality liquor,  you're not going to be slamming that. You just can't afford to.

5)    Finally, Have Fun. That's the point of cocktails. They bring people together, fostering conversation, discussion and socialization. Don't become so obsessed with what's going into your cocktail that you lose the joy of making these great creations. Relax. We have plenty of time. Slow down, sip your Martini and enjoy the ride.

Allen Martini
As a special treat to all you amazing Savvy Host readers, I'm also offering up an EXCLUSIVE Cocktails, 365 review! This has not appeared on my Web site, nor will it ever. It can only be found here, at Savvy Host!

This is a perfect example of using high quality ingredients to balance a solid cocktail, without much labor. And remember: slow down and have fun!

Allen Martini

3 oz gin
1.5 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo recommended)
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Lemon twist

Combine your ingredients in a pre-chilled cocktail shaker (yes, even chill the shaker. The colder the better!) filled with cracked ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with your lemon twist.

As you can see from the photo, it's simple, clear, yet complex. Well, complex taste-wise that is. Not complex to make. I tend to have the attention span of a Labrador puppy. Any more than four ingredients, my attention's wandering to the back of the cereal box.

Everything is in perfect harmony in this drink. The gin provides a great, solid, floral base to the drink, but the maraschino liqueur adds a very faint, earthy cherry flavor. The lemon comes in with a right hook and kicks you in the shins with its acidity. All in all, one damn fine cocktail.


P.S. A side note — I just wanted to offer a very sincere “Thank You” to Savvy Host for giving me the opportunity to be their cocktail expert! I'm flattered, and incredibly appreciative.

Mark Vierthaler is the editor-in-chief of the Web site Cocktails, 365 — found at cocktails365.wordpress.com. Mark is a former newspaper editor, and current newspaper cocktail columnist. Although not a professionally trained or certified mixologist, Mark's advice has reached across the US and even across the pond into Europe. Find Cocktails, 365 on Facebook and on Twitter @Cocktails_365

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