The complicated history of the classic martini

A brief reflection on the world’s pickiest cocktail; photos by Tomas Flint
Tomas Flint 585 Martini 1006

Martinis have a complicated history. Once refined and a mainstay in the genesis of cocktail culture, they eventually turned sexy, swinging, and vodka-based in the 1950s and 1960s due to the clever work of Madison Avenue advertising executives. Starting in the 1970s to the early 2000s, changing trends, an emphasis on volume over well-crafted drinks, and inexpensive and premade products aided in the distortion of the original cocktail into sugary-sweet concoctions. Today, martinis have come full circle and have once again become a status symbol of taste, forgoing syrups, purees, and cocktail trends. Martinis remain an understated classic and for good reason. A simple blend of vodka or gin, with a well-produced aromatized wine, and possibly a savory splash of olive brine, bitters, or citrus peel, creates the epitome of elegance: simple, delicious, and, seemingly, effortless.

Mysteriously, no one seems to truly know the origin of one of our most beloved cocktails. Many hotels, historians, and spirit companies have claimed to know the origin of the martini. One theory is that it was an equal-parts drink created by the vermouth company Martini & Rossi. Or could it have been that the martini was derived from the Martinez, a cocktail created on the spot by a newly wealthy gold miner at a bar in Martinez, California. Nonetheless, we do know that the earliest documentation of the modern variation of the martini is from the early 1900s at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City.

The term “martini” has been misused since the early 1970s when the name was attributed to any sweet cocktail served in a martini glass. Think of the chocolate martini, pornstar martini, espresso martini, or pomegranate martini. While delicious, none of these cocktails even loosely resemble the martinis of the past except in the shape of the glassware in which they’re served. Over many decades, martinis have also become drier and drier by using less and less vermouth, in many cases omitting it altogether.

Martinis are like fingerprints—everyone orders theirs differently—no two are alike. Much like comparing womenswear to menswear, in contrast to modern cocktails, martinis are all about the minute details. Guests tend to approach martinis the same way they do their sense of fashion: it’s all about the style that you enjoy. It takes a long time to take a martini order. This is apropos, as martinis are designed for sipping and enjoying over a long period of time. In my time as a bartender, I have learned to direct guests through a survey of questions to determine exactly what their concept of a martini is. Of course, we always have our “house martini” in mind, but this rarely aligns with a guest’s expectation.“I would like a martini, please.” “Of course! Would you like gin or vodka? Shaken or stirred? Should that be served up or on the rocks? Dry, extra-dry, straight up, or dirty? How dirty would you like that? Dirty, extra-dirty, or filthy? Twist? Olives? Would you like pimento or blue cheese-stuffed?” The questions can go on and on.

Although it’s traditionally the best practice to give guests the option of their martini being served up or on the rocks, most prefer to drink it in its iconic glass- ware.The purpose of ensuring a martini is at its coldest, without being over diluted, is due to the popularity of the martini glass, serving the cocktail “up,” thus without ice. Freezer-ready martinis are excellent in this scenario, not requiring the use of any ice at all or preparation in advance at home.

In addition, martinis are often a reprieve for those of us who cannot or do not routinely consume sugary beverages or have tired from “one to one” drinks such as a vodka tonic. There are far fewer options for those of us who enjoy savory flavor profiles, but martinis fit the bill.

In the context of hospitality service, it is always enjoyable when a guest orders a classic cocktail and knows exactly how they would like it. However, ordering a martini with confidence does take some experience. I always enjoy crafting a martini for a guest who has never had one before. It is an excellent way to illustrate how a well-made spirit and proper technique can make all the difference in the world in a cocktail. Many of our younger audiences have not yet learned to appreciate these nuances, and it is rewarding to open up inexperienced minds. The joy you can take in sharing is better-crafted drinks or higher-end spirits but also the concept of taking the time to savor a beverage.

Below you will find my favorite, All-American Martini recipes. Imagine you are sitting on your porch, surrounded by family and friends, and sipping from an ice-cold pitcher of martinis. Feel free to experiment with different gins, aromatized wines, and bitters. Happy mixing!

Freezer Martini

(Fits a one-liter bottle)

  • 17 oz. gin or vodka of your choice

  • 7.5 oz. dry vermouth of your choice

  • 9.5 oz. water

  • 6-8 dashes of Regan’s No. 6 orange bitters (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a 1-liter bottle and place in your freezer until chilled. Serve up or on the rocks without stirring or shaking. Garnish with citrus twists, olives, or Gibson olives to your liking.

Classic Gin Martini

  • 2 oz. gin (Plymouth, Hayman’s London Dry, Beefeater, or other of your choice)

  • 1 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth

  • 1 dash Regan’s No. 6 orange bitters

    Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir well, until you feel the glass completely chilled on the back of your hand. Strain into a chilled cocktail or martini glass without ice and garnish with an olive or lemon twist

    Cat’s Favorite Martini

  • 2 oz. Plymouth gin, Hayman’s London Dry gin, or Beefeater gin

  • 1 oz. Cocchi Americano

  • 2 dashes Regan’s No. 6 orange bitters

  • 1 orange twist

  • 2 lemon twists

Combine all ingredients except one lemon twist into a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir well, until you feel the glass completely chilled on the back of your hand. Strain into a chilled cocktail or martini glass without ice and garnish with the second lemon twist.

Categories: Food & Drink, Taste