At its root, a martini is simple, which makes it one of the very best cocktails to practice making for yourself at home. But more than any other cocktail, the martini is a drink you customize; you need to dial it in to your own taste.
And it always has been that way: throughout the drink’s history, there have always been many different martinis—variations and choices and a plurality of recipes that all fall under the same name. “If you look in the old cocktail book from the late 1800s or early 1900s, you’ll often find the Sweet Martini, Medium Martini, Dry Martini, Martini No. 1, Martini No. 2,” Robert Simonson, author of The Martini Cocktail (an indispensable guide to the drink) wrote me in a recent email. Just as you have opinions on precisely which way is best for cooking a steak or a burger or eggs, Simonson notes, the martini is the kind of drink you like a certain way. Your way.
Today, there are a dizzying array of new ingredients and new martini recipes, clever techniques and retro moves that are back with a vengeance. For a drink that’s simple—just gin (or, okay, another spirit), vermouth (or yes, another aperitif), ice, bitters (sometimes), and a garnish—there are a lot of choices to make. This guide will take you through, one element at a time.
In 2020, you’re going to find your martini. Let’s start with the spirits, shall we?
Not long ago, vodka-shaming was commonplace—it was a badge of honor if a fancy bar didn’t even serve the stuff. But vodka’s back, baby—if you want it to be.
While plenty of vodkas are largely devoid of flavor—and plenty of vodka fans like them that way—there’s a new wave of vodkas to try that offer distinctive texture (and yes, some flavor) to your drink. Haku, a Japanese rice-based vodka, feels almost creamy. There are high-end potato vodkas, and fragrant vodkas distilled from honey, like Barr Hill, and even vodkas made from milk! There’s also Polugar, a rustic, earthy and malty-tasting range of spirits made from rye, wheat, or buckwheat that aim to emulate the flavorful proto-vodkas of Russia. (The makers call it “breadwine,” and when you taste the stuff, you’ll see why.)
If you want to sound erudite, you can call a vodka martini its proper name: The Kangaroo. It’s not as old a drink as the gin version, which first appeared in cocktail books back in the 1880s, but there’s history here, too: Smirnoff ads in US newspapers urged readers to try a vodka martini back in 1935, and it really started to pick up steam in the ‘50s.
Cocktail nerds decided that gin was cooler than vodka in the early 2000s. But the reasons to choose gin go way beyond that. The cocktail is perhaps the ideal way to showcase gin’s best qualities: its aromatic juniper and pine, its citrus and pepper, its occasional floral side. BA’s drinks editor, Alex Delaney, goes classic with Tanqueray, which he likes for its spicy, herbal personality. “It’s what a martini gin should be: crisp, clean, and available. Having a go-to martini gin that you can't find at a bar kind of defeats the purpose of having a go-to martini gin in the first place,” he says.
Wise words. But when you’re making martinis at home, you can use whatever you want, be it an old favorite or a special new gin you’ve just found. I’ve long loved Ford’s, Sipsmith, Terroir, and Blue Gin, which is made by one of Austria’s greatest schnapps makers. (If you wanted to add a drop of his carrot schnapps to the mix, I wouldn’t stop you. In fact, plan on doing this when you invite me over.)
Use your martini to celebrate the current golden age of new gins from every corner of the country and of the world—or focus on your local distilleries. I’ve fallen for Automatic Sea Gin from Oakland, which is subtle and oceanic, thanks to the addition of nori and lemongrass. It’s more foggy-day-on-the-beach than walk among the pine trees, and it makes for a delightfully briny martini (no olive required.) If you like a little more of that foresty spruce-and-rosemary flavor, there’s Vikre Distillery’s Boreal Spruce Gin from the Northwoods of Minnesota. Roku Gin from Japan is unusually aromatic, with more yuzu and cherry blossom than juniper. It reads as classic at first blush, but interesting savory and floral notes come out as you sip. But my favorite Japanese gin of the moment is Ki no Bi from Kyoto, which also incorporates yuzu (along with gyokuro tea, green peppercorns, and Japanese cypress) but is less floral and more crisp. In a martini, it’s peppery, fragrant, and bracing.
You can customize your house martini even further by mixing in your own blend of gins. Just keep the same total amount of spirit, but split the drink’s base between two favorites to round out the qualities of each.
If you find yourself wishing for cocktails that veer savory, it’s time to reject the gin vs. vodka dichotomy and bring a little aquavit into your life. Strictly speaking, these spirits are flavored with caraway or dill seed, though the ones you’ll find on your local liquor store shelves may be quite varied. For a martini, says Jacob Grier, founder of Portland’s Aquavit Week, “I generally go with a clear, unaged, botanically assertive aquavit like Brennivin.” If he’s craving more caraway, he picks Aalborg Taffel. My favorite so far is Norden, which is citrusy and anise-forward, just slightly savory. Try two parts of it stirred with one part Lustau Blanco Vermut. If you really want a blast of savory herbs, seek out Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit, a Wisconsin-made spirit that’s jam-packed with fresh dill. It wants to be mixed three parts aquavit to one part luscious Comoz Vermouth Blanc—set up a platter of gravlax, dark rye, and capers at its side. A little caper brine in the drink’s not half bad, either.
To temper the potent savory side of the aquavit, some folks choose to cut the caraway-scented spirit with gin, say, two parts aquavit to one part gin.
I guess you could stir your spirit with ice and nothing else and call it a martini. But… can you not?
The point of a cocktail is the magic interplay of ingredients, whether you opt for a very-dry drink with just an aromatic spritz of vermouth, a five-to-one (that is, five parts gin to one part vermouth), a three-to-one, or a sopping-wet half-and-half situation, like the cool kids were drinking circa 2005. The Fifty-Fifty was, as Simonson writes, “a punk-rock move at the time. Gin was a hard enough sell. But vermouth?! You were showing your true rebel bona fides if you drank that stuff publicly.”
Now we can drink our half-vermouth martinis with pride. (Though, did you know Julia Child favorite martini went even further, with one part gin to five parts vermouth?) One bit of advice, though: If you’re going fifty-fifty, consider choosing a Navy strength gin (which is more potent around 57% ABV than your standard 40- to 45-percenter.) Bartender, writer, and illustrator Andrew Bohrer says, “A 50/50 is great and all, but plenty of regular proof or subtle gins get trampled by vermouth.”
Ok, but which vermouth? No matter where you live, your options have widened in recent years, and in many places, it’s not hard to find a small bottle of Dolin dry for about ten bucks. Stock up. (And note that plenty of pros still use Noilly Prat, which is even cheaper.) Sometimes I crave the warm spices of Ransom Dry, especially with their malty hop-laced gin. At a good liquor store, you might find Lustau Vermut Blanco, which is made from sherry and wine and gives you a real wine-drinking experience: bright, mineral, and oystery, with a touch of fruity sweetness. It’s my favorite (for now). Feel free to mix two vermouths (or combine vermouth with a bright, bittersweet aperitif, like Suze, Cocchi Americano, or Kina L’Aero d’Or) to make your own signature version.
You’ll note that I’ve mentioned some vermouths that aren’t dry vermouths, and their resurgence in martinis may be a sign that the drink is flirting with going back to its sweeter roots. (Have you heard about the bartender who adds a dash of simple syrup to martinis? Would you go there?)
The point, though, is that it’s your martini. So you can play and find the pairing of spirit + vermouth in the ratios that fit your personal taste.
Psssst! While I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, I’m going to: Since it’s wine-based and not that strong or sweet, vermouth goes bad. So once it’s opened, you need to store it the way you would store a bottle of opened wine. I find that a bottle will keep in my fridge for about a month, depending on how much airspace there is at the top. Want to try multiple bottles? Chip in with some friends and divide the liquid into smaller containers so everyone can sample a few ounces before it falters.
We’ll get into more substitutions and riffs below, but if you’ve got a spirit and vermouth, you could go ahead and chill that sucker down. Let’s talk about ice.
HOW TO CHILL A MARTINI
Stop pretending to be James Bond and please—please!—stir your martini.
In I’m Just Here for the Drinks, bartender Sother Teague explains why James Bond’s martini order shouldn’t be emulated: While a stirred drink is bold and lush, a silky ribbon of flavor that rides down your tongue, “a shaken drink is less bold, with tiny air bubbles in temporary suspension.” Air bubbles work well in sour drinks, sparing your tongue the intense tartness of, say, a daiquiri. But if you’re making a martini with good ingredients, you want to taste it. Why did they shake martinis in the movies? “Because it’s more theatrical,” Simonson writes. “A bartender stirring cocktails makes for a dull scene.”
Simonson thinks we’ll see more thrown martinis in the year to come: Tossing the cocktail between two glasses looks awesome and doesn’t require any specialized equipment. If you don’t want that aeration, though, know this: you don’t need a fancy bar spoon to stir your martini. A chopstick works just fine in a pinch. Really fill the glass with ice—don’t just do a few piddly cubes!—and stir for about 30 seconds. The outside off the glass should feel cold when you’re done.
On the Rocks
The first time I was offered my choice of a martini “up or on the rocks”, I sputtered and then felt remarkably welcome. A bartender that will make a drink your way, without judgement, is a bartender who wants to see you have a good time. According to Simonson, people have been drinking their martinis in ice-filled rocks glasses since the early 1950s, but for plenty of us, what’s old is new. Martinis-on-the-rocks work especially well in hotter weather, when a drink in a stemmed glass becomes tepid and unappealing quickly.
Our food editor Anna Stockwell describes herself as “a big fan of a martini on ice, because it lasts longer. It will keep diluting as the ice melts, which means I won’t get tipsy too fast, so I can enjoy sipping the flavors longer.”
If you want your martini-on-ice to retain its bold flavor as it dilutes, choose a robustly juniper-flavored gin, or consider a higher-proof option like Perry’s Tot.
Martinis for a Crowd
At a bar, the ceremony of stirring is part of the joy of the martini. But at home, there’s more joy in taking a bottle of martinis out of the freezer, pouring them into pretty glasses, and putting your feet up. What’s more, you can pour mini-martinis which stay perfectly cold as long as anyone’s sipping, and keep the rest on ice in a Champagne bucket, or put the bottle back in your freezer.
Here’s how to do it: Take your favorite martini recipe. Multiply it by the number of drinks you want to make, and add a quarter ounce (half a tablespoon) of water for each serving. That’s the dilution that normally would be added by stirring each drink before serving. Combine all the liquids in a freezer-safe, well-sealed container, such as a flip-top bottle or mason jar. Freeze.
MORE MARTINI RIFFS AND RECIPES TO TRY
Simonson’s book is a treasure trove of martini variations, including many moves to jazz up your cocktail with just a dash or a teaspoon of something beyond the basics. Here are a few recipes to start with:
- Tuxedo No. 2: Start by rinsing the glass with absinthe, add almondy maraschino liqueur.
- Obituary Cocktail: If you really like absinthe, try this one, which pairs gin with a quarter-ounce each of vermouth and the anise-tinged liqueur. (Some versions of the recipe chicken out, though, just calling for an absinthe rinse.)
- Puritan Cocktail: Take your regular two parts gin / one part vermouth and add two teaspoons of yellow Chartreuse for honey and spice.
- The Allies, circa 1917, seasons a savory 50-50 with a few dashes of kümmel, a caraway-scented liqueur.
- Tuxedo: Yes, another one called the Tuxedo. This one changes out your martini’s vermouth for salty, dry fino sherry.
- Vesper: Both gin and vodka, plus the French aperitif Lillet or its cousin Cocchi Americano. You might recognize this drink from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.
Many recent variations go even further. Sake gives your martini a slightly floral, mineral character, epitomized in Kenta Goto’s Sakura Martini, which has more sake than gin, and a teaspoon of maraschino. I’ve also had very pretty martini riffs made with sake, vermouth blanc, and pisco, the fragrant and floral Peruvian grape brandy.
Many of the riffs mentioned above are basically ways to be nerdy about the martini in 2020. But you might find that the martini that you like best feels like a bit of a rebellion against all that.
My colleague Emily Johnson’s go-to martini (err, Kangaroo) is dirty and made with vodka plus a splash of stfu. She learned, she said, “that it was incorrect and not the pro move” after college—that “a dirty vodka martini was kind of signifier for a certain kind of woman, a stereotype. But that only made me want to lean into drinking them more,” she notes. “A lot of women I think are really cool like a dirty vodka martini.” There’s an argument to be made for the flavor, as well. “I love how salty they are,” she explains, though she believes that not every martini works with the brine: “I feel that if you specifically want your martini to be dirty, the juniper or floral qualities of gin actually do not work flavor-wise and really clash with the olive.” So vodka it is, for Emily at least. (I’m encouraging her to try this batched martini recipe—or, ok, martini-adjacent recipe—which gets extra-savory by pairing the vodka with a little earthy Scotch, plus olive brine, sea salt, a little olive oil to finish, and—get this—frozen olives to keep things chilled.)
Martini innovation hasn’t left out the dirty martini drinker. The brine in many jars of olives leaves room to be desired; it’s basically water, salt, and preservatives, and whatever was on your hands when you were fishing around for olives. Besides, you simply might not be eating olives at the rate that you’re sloshing in brine, which leaves your olives uncovered and unhappy. Hence the rise of bottled brine. I like all the versions I’ve tried: Filthy is bright from a bit of vinegar and vermouth, Dirty Sue is rich and salty, the one from Ancient Olive Trees is mellow and earthy and comes in a giftable tall glass bottle. Start with a third to a half ounce of this stuff in your drink; it’s bold!
Or make your own house blend of brine, mixing your favorite with other pickley liquids. Try adding a touch of caper or onion brine, pickle brine or sauerkraut brine, pepperoncini, whatever your salt-craving tongue desires. (Or just add a little saline—meaning salt dissolved in water—if you want to keep things clean and light!)
Want more olivey richness? Fatwashing your gin (or other spirit) gives it a velvety texture, changing the martini experience without the interference of all of brine’s tartness and saltiness. It’s really not hard to do: Start with about six ounces of gin and add two ounces of olive oil in a clean mason jar. Let it sit, sealed, for a couple of hours or up to a day, turning occasionally, then move the jar to your freezer. The oil will solidify overnight; pop it off (or poke/carve a hole with a knife) and strain your gin through, making sure to remove all solids. Then use the booze as you would any other. The result is subtly earthy and olivey rather than salty, and delightfully plush, almost thick, in texture.
Other Martini Additions
Many martini recipes also call for bitters—think of them as a way to season your martini with a bit more citrusy flavor—or a touch of something else. Early on in the martini resurgence, many folks liked to mix Regan’s or Fee Brothers orange bitters for the most well-rounded flavor, but now there are shelves and shelves of options. Olive bitters, anyone? Eucalyptus? Yuzu?
When it’s summer, though, you can add a touch of something fresh. Dan Saltzstein of The New York Times likes to salt some good in-season tomatoes until their juices pool in a bowl. Strain and add a quarter ounce or so of the resulting liquid to your martini. (Basil garnish optional. This isn’t a salad.)
Martinis are often praised for their briny, oceanic quality: Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters, brings the sea to the glass in his recipe, using the liquid from a just-shucked bivalve instead of vermouth. “The oyster liquor provides salty, savory notes, so it’s kinda like vermouth and kinda not. It’s its own thing, but it’s good,” he told me in a recent email. Different oysters, he notes, will give you very different martinis: “Oysters from the Pacific Northwest are extremely cucumbery, so they are good with Hendricks, playing up those cucumber notes. East Coast oysters are going to be briny and maybe a tad less interesting. I suspect French oysters, which manage to capture both the brine of Eastern oysters and the iodine/minerality of Pacific oysters would be best of all.” And here’s where the recipe gets daring: before drinking, Jacobsen plops in the meat of the oyster, too. Cheers!
Garnishing Your Martini: The Last Step
You can drink your martini without a garnish—and I often do. But garnishes add aroma (and flavor) and jazz up your drink’s appearance, too. Olives are iconic, of course. Onions are nice too. But BA’s Alex Delany votes for a lemon twist: “ “Lemon is just a flavor I think lends itself to juniper and adds the illusion of more clarity and focus to gin,” he says. “It’s like looking through a window that's a little dirty and kind of being able to see, then wiping the window with Windex and really being able to see.” You can express a bit of the lemon oils top top of the drink by pinching your twist, but don’t overdo it: You still want to taste the other elements of the cocktail.
Made it this far? Whew. Shall I fix you another?
Originally Appeared on Epicurious