Drinks & Mixology

The Vodka Martini

One of the most popular podcasts from the early days of Being James Bond, was certainly the series I did on the specific cocktails that James Bond enjoyed through out the film series. I focused on six signature cocktails that seemed to personify Bond, and also gave an understanding about the world of mixology in general. I referred to this series as ‘The Cocktails of James Bond’. So here is the first, and possibly the most obvious, The Vodka Martini.

I can recall being a young man in my mid-twenties, with an early fascination of cocktails, completely mesmerized at the sight of the more sophisticated patron ordering a Martini.

There was just something about the simple, yet elegant, look of this clear cocktail swirling around in the classic stemmed-glass, and hearing these connoisseurs order their beloved cocktail with such specificity and attention to detail, while calling upon an entire terminology dedicated to one simple cocktail. While most of the clientele only need specify, “bottle or draft,” the Martini drinker would say, “a medium-dry Boodles Martini, straight up, and a little dirty.”

WHAT IS A MARTINI?

Just the word “Martini” sounded like something infinitely refreshing, yet incredibly complex. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that the Martini is actually one of the simplest cocktails ever created. When I give an instructional lecture on the Martini, I grab the bottles of gin and vermouth from my speed rack to illustrate its simplicity. I’ll raise the gin and say, “Here is your steak,” raise the vermouth and say, “and here is your seasoning.”

When explaining the Martini to young, potential mixologists, I like to start the discussion by asking them to recall how James Bond orders his Martini. The classic cocktail order of “Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred,” reveals a great deal about what the traditional Martini really is.

When it doesn’t go without saying, James Bond specifies a Vodka Martini. Therefore, we can assume that he is ordering a variation on the traditional Martini, which is made from Gin. The classic Martini is made up of two ingredients: gin, with some dry vermouth added as a flavoring, or a “spice.” Vermouth is a perfect complement to the herbal qualities of gin. The amount of vermouth that is added, (better known as the “dryness” of the Martini) is based simply on personal preference, as we will discuss.

Furthermore, as the iconic phrase, “Shaken, not stirred” implies, the traditional Martini was stirred. Think back to those classic black-and-white films where one of the impeccably dressed characters would announce that they were going to “mix a batch” of Martinis.

The debate over ‘shaken, not stirred’ still rages today, but we’ll discuss the merits of each technique later on.

PREPARING A MARTINI

What started out as a very simple cocktail, has certainly evolved over time. Every Martini enthusiast will ask for his cocktail to be made to certain specifications, making the final product unique to each person’s individual palette. Here’s a little bartender’s insight: if a customer walked up to my bar and meekly requested, “A martini, please,” then my immediate assumption is that I’ve just met a man (much like myself in my early twenties) who has no idea what a Martini is, and is curious to see what all the fuss is about. A more seasoned martini drinker will boldly order, “A medium-dry, Bombay Sapphire Martini, straight up, with olives.” So to all you younger guys, get to know your martini preference, and order with confidence.

There are five essential variables involved with preparing (or ordering) a martini. So here’s what you need to know:

Gin or Vodka?
As we mentioned earlier, the rage of the Vodka Martini has lead to great confusion over the ingredients of this once simple cocktail. A bartender can no longer assume that a request for a Martini automatically implies gin. He must always ask his customer which type he or she is asking for. Which leads directly to the second question…

Which Brand?
While it’s certainly a good rule of thumb to always use good-quality liquor, there are some simple cocktails wherein the bartender can get away with grabbing whichever no-name booze resides in the speed-rack; the Martini is not one of them. Any time you are preparing a cocktail where the spirit is the primary ingredient, (and I can think of no better example than the Martini,) then you need to stick with high-quality liquors, and your Martini drinker will very likely have a preferred brand.

How Dry?
Here’s a perfect example of the vernacular that defines the unique qualities of the Martini. Put simply, the “dryness” of a Martini refers to the amount of dry vermouth to be used. The more ‘dry’ the Martini is requested, the less vermouth is needed. More dryness equals less vermouth. But, how dry is ‘dry’? There is much debate over the exact measurements of the vermouth versus spirit.

For a Gin Martini, I like to use a hearty splash of vermouth. As I said earlier, the gin is your steak, and the dry vermouth is your seasoning. If a customer orders a Martini, and asks for it to be ‘medium-dry (or if the dryness isn’t specified at all), then I will use about a 5 to 1 ratio; 2.5 ounces of Gin, and one half ounce of Vermouth. Since I’m probably in a hurry, and not planning to physically measure out my percentages, I’ll probably just use a heavy ‘splash’ of Vermouth. If my customer says ‘dry,’ then my splash will be reduced to a dash. For ‘extra-dry,’ my dash will be reduced to a single drop.

For a Vodka Martini, I will use the game general theory, but with smaller amounts of vermouth. Therefore, if a customer requests a ‘medium-dry Vodka Martini,’ I use a dash of Vermouth, while ‘dry’ may mean one or two drops. If a customer has emphasized ‘extra-dry’ or even ‘extremely dry,’ I will take this as an indication that they really want no Vermouth at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with serving your guest an ice-cold vodka in chilled cocktail glass if this is what he or she wishes.

Shaken or Stirred?
As we also mentioned earlier, the classic Martini was stirred. But, because of the ‘shaken, not stirred’ phenomenon, most bartenders today will shake a martini. Once again, leave it to James Bond to change the landscape of cocktails forever. The argument about ‘shaken versus stirred’ goes on, but for now, I stir Gin Martinis, and I shake Vodka Martinis.

Which Garnish?
The last thing you need to know when preparing and serving a Martini, is the garnish. While the modern Martini culture may be expanding to include many new and exciting garnishes, the traditional Martini will be garnished with olives or a twist of lemon peel. (I always remind my young bartending students to simply recall the book, “Oliver Twist.”) So which garnish is correct? As always, it’s a matter of personal preference, but if the customer has not offered a specific request, I will add olives to a Gin Martini, and add a slice of lemon peel to Vodka Martinis, as I personally believe these to be the perfect compliments.

PREPARING THE VODKA MARTINI

1. Take a cocktail glass and fill it with ice to chill. Set it aside.

2. Take your cocktail shaker (or a pint glass) and fill it about ¾ with ice.

3. Add your vodka. You can measure out 3 ounces of vodka, or you can simply fill the glass enough to fill a cocktail glass, usually about to the top of the ice. (Bartender’s Trick: Fill a cocktail glass with water, and then pour the water into your ice-filled shaker. This will determine your ‘fill line.’)

4. Add your vermouth. A quarter-ounce splash should give you a good medium-dry Martini.

5. Place the top onto your shaker (or your Boston-style shaker over your glass), and shake vigorously. Shake it until frost forms on the metal shaker.

6. Empty the ice from the cocktail glass, and strain the Martini into the cocktail glass.

7. Garnish with a lemon twist.

8. Serve and enjoy.

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