We’re living in the golden age of craft spirits and cocktail culture. Around the world there are inviting bars, some glamorous, others small and cosy, staffed by experts who craft innovative drinks to sip. You can be assured of never being far away from an agreeable spot to spend cocktail hour with a friend.
Despite this abundance of liquid goodness, complete with homemade tinctures and obscure ingredients, even pre-mixed cocktails in a can or bottle, one cocktail remains iconic: the martini.
Its elegant simplicity has a zen-like allure, but it also embodies more history and cultural references than any other cocktail. It had its genesis in California with both the city of Martinez and San Francisco staking a claim.
The original version appeared around the late 1880s as the ‘Martinez’ with Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, bitters and curaçao, or variations on this theme. This would be a rather sweet style to our modern palate. Over time there was a steady progression from sweet to dry, to the ultra-dry style that is seen today.
One of the earliest recorded recipes for the dry martini was from 1904 – equal parts dry vermouth to gin plus a dash of bitters. But over the following decades both the ratios and the way we drank them changed.
Up to the post-war period martinis were often served in smaller glasses and mixed in a big cocktail pitcher, which was topped up as the party progressed. After the war the glasses got bigger, perhaps something to do with a modern impulse to live a little and not skimp on the good times.
One of the reasons the martini lends itself to obsession is that even though it’s so simple, it’s like a rare orchid – finding the perfect one can be difficult; so many things can go awry. Yet, its essential elements are London Dry gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters, and a garnish, plus the means to chill it. And with thousands of white spirits to choose from, the permutations are endless. How dry? What gin? What vermouth? What garnish? What proportion of spirit to vermouth?
Starting with the early recipe with its equal portion of dry vermouth to gin (also known as a ‘perfect martini’), the less dry vermouth you add, the drier your martini.
At the far end of the spectrum you might see bars simply rinse the glass with the vermouth and discard, or spray some over the top. The modern quality of today’s spirits enables this austerity.
The popularity of vodka in martinis, particularly in the US, emerged after the Second World War. Of course, a certain secret agent had something to do with this popularity as well. And, with regard to the whole shaken versus stirred debate, the purist will always opt for the latter.
Stirring both chills the cocktail gently – adding a subtle dilution to round it out, so it’s not too austere – and opens up the flavours. One doesn’t want to navigate shards of ice, which often are a result of shaking.
For the cocktail hour mise en place, one should always put the chosen spirit, along with glasses and mixing glass, into the freezer a few hours prior. For ice, opt for larger cubes – they’re less likely to flake away when stirring. Pro-tip: keep vermouth in the fridge once opened to extend its life.
Next, the style of martini. The classics are as follows: the ‘perfect’; the sultry dirty martini which includes brine from the olive jar, ranging from a bit dirty to downright filthy; then the old-school classic, the Gibson, garnished with a cocktail onion.
The choice of garnish is another personal expression, but should complement, not dominate the flavour profile of the cocktail. There are some spirits that are better married with a lemon twist or olive. Olives should be green Sicilian style, and only in certain cocktail habitats in the US do blue cheese- or anchovy-stuffed olives make perfect sense in a martini.
Finally, a few drops of orange bitters added prior to serving harks back to the original style and elevates the aromatics in a subtle way. In more contemporary bars, flavoured tinctures may be added or fresh herbs like lemon thyme or rosemary to accentuate the botanicals in the spirit.
Many Australian gins feature pronounced personalities. For example the evocative and elegant Gin, from South Australia’s Applewood Distillery, features several native botanicals like peppermint gum leaf that can work well in a martini.
A great martini in the right setting and company is one of the finer moments of modernity, and for years drinkers have sought the perfect combination. Cheers to the search for perfection!
For an all Australian experience
50ml Applewood Gin
10ml Maidenii Dry Vermouth
Stir ingredients over ice until very chilled, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.