Martini, Straight Up

A cool and clean-tasting martini
Martini, Straight Up

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”

Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms

The mystique of the martini is monumental. It’s simply a classic, the perfect marriage of gin and vermouth and recognized the world over by the shape of its glass. Fittingly, its roots are a bit mysterious, but obviously born in the United States during the early part of the 19th-century, coming of age during Prohibition. It was an era when bootleggers thrived but temperance did not. Both illicitly made gin (known as “bath tub gin”) as well as the genuine article smuggled in from Canada fueled the country’s booming speakeasies. Mixologists experimented with how to make the spirit more palatable.

Exactly who invented the martini and how it got its name is less certain. Some claim it was Martini di Arma di Taggia, a bartender at the Hotel Knickerbocker in New York; others say it was christened after Martini & Rossi vermouth. The British argue that they invented it and named it after the Martini-Henry rifle, carried by the Empire’s troops and famous for its ferocious kick.

Equally contentious is exactly what it is and how to make it. Order a martini and expect it to be gin, served straight up in a cocktail glass. When you need to preface or postscript your drink order, as in “vodka martini” or “martini on the rocks”, it is not a martini. Since the 1990s and the revival of this heavenly libation, we’ve witnessed the proliferation of wannabes. No doubt it started with the cosmopolitan and reached decadence with the chocolate martini; they’re not martinis, either.

The country may no longer be dry, but the martini is. A 1937 recipe gives the formula for a “dry” martini as equal parts gin and dry vermouth. By 1957 and the publication of the Gourmet Cookbook Volume II, the ratio had changed to six parts gin to one part dry vermouth. Today, even less vermouth if any is more often the norm.

Seemingly the original and certainly the most common embellishment for a martini is a green olive. Stuffed with its iconic red pimento, it’s not only attractive, but its saltiness lends the drink an extra oomph. When the martini reached a frenzy of popularity in the 1950s, the lemon twist began to challenge the olive as the garnish of choice. It definitely gives the cocktail a different, cleaner taste. At one time, pickled onions were so much in demand that their addition was dubbed a Gibson. Today, olives stuffed with anything and everything, lime twists and even Brussels sprouts, for better or worse, have their devotees.

With the passage of time, gin and its taste have evolved as well. We think of it as being English, but it was invented by a 17th-century Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius. Originally, gin wasn’t the neutral grain spirit that we recognize today. Though juniper has always been the prominent flavoring, the formula has changed. Added sweetening in the 19th century produced what’s known as Old Tom Gin, a product that’s recently returned to the liquor store. Today, most gin is the “London dry” style with a complex list of ingredients that include citrus peels, roots, seeds and barks. Gins favored for martinis during Prohibition were Gordon’s and Gilbley’s. By the martini renaissance of the 50s and 60s, Beefeater had become top shelf. Now, the choices seem to be ever increasing, with many imported, domestic and boutique brands. My personal favorite for a martini is one of the oldest, Plymouth.

But no doubt the biggest squabble surrounding the martini is how to make it, shaken or stirred. We all know James Bond’s preference, but the claim that shaking “bruises” the gin seems a bit farfetched. I have noticed stirred martinis seem to have less of those pesky ice shards.

What makes a martini perfect? Herman Wouk said it “sort of tastes like it isn’t there at all, just a cold cloud.” A martini should be glacial and the glass always chilled. Unfortunately, the emergence of the oversize cocktail glass didn’t make it better, only bigger. A smaller glass will eliminate those tepid last dregs. Don’t overfill the glass, either. A martini should be sipped and not slurped. Vermouth is a fortified wine, and no matter its portion, tastes best when freshly opened. So buy a smaller bottle, keep the leftovers refrigerated and replace it regularly.

The best place to enjoy a martini is at home where you can make it exactly like you like it. Second best is to get to know a good bartender who remembers exactly how you like it. Granted, the martini experience can be just as much about the occasion and the atmosphere as the drink itself.

Hot and Spicy Nuts

I’m not sure why, but nuts are the perfect accompaniment to a martini.

4 tablespoons butter, melted

1 tablespoon soy sauce

½ teaspoon onion salt

½ teaspoon garlic salt

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon cayenne

2 cups unsalted nuts or mixture of nuts: almonds, pecans, cashews or Brazil nuts

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

In a bowl large enough to hold the nuts, combine the melted butter, soy sauce, onion salt, garlic salt, cumin and cayenne. Add the nuts and toss to coat thoroughly.

Spread the nuts out in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes in the preheated 300-degree oven.

Use a spatula to transfer the nuts to paper towels and let cool completely

Store in an air-tight container.

Makes 2 cups.