Author E.B. White called the martini “the elixir of quietude.” It seems, however, that another author, Ian Fleming, created quite a stir. Though the signature cocktail of “Bond, James Bond” was the Vesper, the suave 007 regularly ordered either a traditional martini or “a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.” This seemed contrary to the customary, gentle, precise handling of the sophisticated cocktail. Fleming’s fictional character, who epitomized gentlemanly style and taste from a bygone era understood the difference. But do we?
The classic martini cocktail was traditionally a blend of 2 parts London dry gin, 1 part dry vermouth and an optional dash of orange or Angostura bitters, garnished with an olive or a twist of lemon peel and stirred, not shaken. Whether mixed by stirring in a shaker until frosty cold then strained into a well-chilled cocktail glass, or built on the rocks and stirred to perfection, it’s not just about snooty bartending preferences. MIT scientists have concluded that shaking gin actually dissipates the high notes of the subtle aromatics from the fine botanicals carefully crafted therein, causing it to taste dull.
Now a mainstay, the vodka martini was non-existent before the 1950s. Even then, it was more often called a kangaroo cocktail, perhaps because it was jumping up and down in a shaker. Shake vodka all you wish, you can’t hurt it. Bond knew.
Vermouth, (both dry and sweet) is fortified wine infused with various herbs and spices, originally mass produced and consumed alone as an aperitif – to entice the appetite before dinner. It is unknown whether the combination was intended to give the gin more subtlety or give the vermouth more power. Perhaps both are true.
Classic Martini & Vermouth Variables
The Gin: Bombay Sapphire, a standard of excellence, made with carefully sourced botanicals from around the world. $25-30
The Vodka: Belvedere, excellent rye vodka from the birthplace of vodka, Poland $25-30
Three Vermouths: Noilly Prat ($7/375 ml., France) Noilly invented dry vermouth in 1813, but does not indicate the use of the original recipe.
Dolin ($16/750 ml., France) From Louis Dolin’s original 1821 recipe.
Priorat Natur Vermut ($23/750 ml., Spain). This is special, hand-crafted boutique vermouth from Spain’s premier wine growing region. Chilled, a delicious aperitif on its own!
Simplicity is key. All have been built on the rocks, equally and carefully measured (including ice cubes) in the classic 2-1 style with a single basic olive (Mario Queen olives, $5) and stirred until ice reduced by ½.
The Noilly Prat with the vodka and the gin, while tasty, seemed a touch overly rich, with the vermouth itself lending an olive-like characteristic of its own to the cocktail. The Dolin with Belvedere showed lovely balance and hinted at a tinge of anise up front with wormwood and citrus notes in the finish. The Dolin with Bombay Sapphire didn’t show individuality, but blended in seamlessly and integrated itself, enhancing the gin’s own nuances. Very nice!
Priorat Natur with the Belvedere exhibited brilliant flavors of orange and lemon zest, quince, hints of anise, fennel, coriander... wow! Truly lovely and enticing! With the Bombay Sapphire, the fruit and spices from the gin were softened into a seamless work of art, all the while enhancing them, lending definition and power, creating a delicate balance like a perfectly created sauce from a great chef enhances its entree. Exquisite!
The martini’s origin is unknown, but the results are timeless. Invest in some quality vermouth. Add a bold amount. You will be surprised. Just remember – shake your vodka, stir your gin and enjoy the classics!