Do you think you know your Martini? Really know it? When was the last time you really experimented with the ingredients that go into this classic drink to discover how they really affect its flavor and finish?
As you might expect, I hang around a lot with bartenders and such. Sometimes in-the-flesh, while other times it is via e-mail or through some of the various spirit/cocktail forums on the Internet. From time to time, a new (and usually young) bartender will encourage me to drop by his bar, because he prides himself in making The Perfect Martini. I will often ask him what it is that makes his Martinis so "perfect". Perhaps he will respond with comments that are a little vague, but often it involves using vodka, and no Vermouth at all. Hmmm, ok. So we have a bartender that takes a beverage without any flavor, adds nothing to it, and they claim that they can make a great Martini. Something is definitely wrong with this picture. That's about the same as somebody saying they serve they can serve up the best "distilled water".
As I've been trying to make sure that I impart to you, a "cocktail" is not just a single predominate flavor, but it is a careful balance of flavors that form the basis of a cuisine. So a cocktail with just a single ingredient, is really not a cocktail. And a cocktail made with a spirit that is officially "tasteless, odorless, and colorless" (vodka), is nothing that even closely resembles a cocktail, much less a Martini.
So what then is a "Perfect Martini"?
Technically a "Perfect" of any cocktail that uses Vermouth is one that uses equal parts of dry Vermouth and sweet Vermouth. But of course when somebody tells you that they make The Perfect Martini you know that they aren't talking about a "perfect" Martini, but instead are talking about "a Martini that is perfect". Ok, so we've now gotten that out of the way lets examine a little closer what it might mean to make this mythical Martini that is so "perfect".
Let's first start with the Vermouth. It is definitely not the primary ingredient, but in order to turn a glass of cold gin into a Martini, it is a very important ingredient. An important thing to understand about Vermouth and its relationship with the Martini, is that for quite a while the only Vermouth that was used for cocktails was Italian Vermouth. So much so that when a recipe called for "Vermouth", it was generally assumed that Italian (or also known as Sweet, or Red) Vermouth was being used. It was much later that a new Vermouth came onto the scene from France. This was obviously referred to as French Vermouth, or also Dry or White. So take something like the Manhattan, which is of course made with Italian Vermouth, and if you want to have it made with French Vermouth you ask for a "Dry Manhattan", and if you want it made with equal parts of Italian and French Vermouth, you ask for a "Perfect Manhattan". Knowing this, you shouldn't find it too surprising to know that when the recipe for a Martini included "Vermouth" as an ingredient, it was expected that Italian Vermouth be used. And when the customer wanted to use French Vermouth instead, they would ask for a Dry Martini. Unfortunately, over time this concept of a Dry Martini started taking on the notion of using less, and less Vermouth, until today we have people selling little Martini misters that deliver mere molecules of Vermouth into your glass. And you have bartenders that don't even use any Vermouth at all. In fact, many bartenders have this mental barrier about the use of Vermouth and are very reluctant to use very much of it in any drink. One of the recipes that I've personally developed is the Black Feather, and it contains a full ounce of dry Vermouth. Often when I'll ask a bartender to mix one of these up for me they will be shocked at the amount of Vermouth called for and will try to talk me out of using that much. I'm not quite sure what they are afraid of, but they obviously have formed some sort of aversion to its use. Not only does Vermouth play an important role in balancing out the flavors of many cocktails, it also is a fine drink in its own right when served over ice with a twist of lemon.
Now we can address the second aspect of how to make a perfect Martini. This is something that is important not just for the Martini, but for any cocktail. Balance. Hopefully by now I've been able to impress upon you how necessary it is to create cocktails that are a finely tuned blend of flavors. So a Martini that is made with only Gin, or only Vodka, really cannot be called a Martini. Gin is a spicy spirit that is a balance of flavors in its own right. One of the notes within both Gin and Vodka is the sharpness that comes from alcohol; this isn't so much a flavor at it is a texture. On top of this, a well made gin will include a blend of spicy botanical flavors that play a complimentary role to the alcohol. While the precise flavors used in any gin is a closely guarded secret, all gins will include juniper as one of their primary flavors. Together, the alcohol and the botanicals form a spicy and sharp flavor experience. Vermouth is also a blend of various botanical and herbal flavors, but instead of being sharp and spicy like gin, it is mellow and subdued. Together these two ingredients complement each other very well, meeting at some balance point that isn't too sharp, or too mellow.
The Secret Revealed
Here then is the secret to making a perfect Martini. As always, you need to use quality ingredients, then you need to use just enough dry Vermouth to carefully round out the sharpness of the gin, but not so much that the drink flattens out from having too much Vermouth. There is also a third important ingredient to a Martini, and that is water. The water is added to a Martini from the ice that is used to mix it with, often this is from 3/4 to 1 full ounce of water, depending on how much ice is used, what size the ice is, and how long it is stirred (or shaken). The role of the water in any cocktail is to calm down the flavors all around and to reduce the "burn" of the alcohol. This is extremely important for creating a cocktail that is smooth and relaxing. I've heard of people that are so intent on making a really cold martini that they store the gin and cocktail shaker in the freezer, and the Vermouth in the refrigerator. The problem however is that if you start out with your ingredients that cold, once you put the ice in, there won't be much warmth around to melt off any water, and so your Martini will be overpowered with the burning essence of the alcohol.
The Vodka Connection
Any discussion about the Martini really needs to include some commentary about Vodka. I realize that there are a lot of people out there who prefer Vodka Martinis. You might be one of them. If you really look at how many people make Martini's this really shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Remember, the true art of the cocktail revolves around balance. Add to that the fact that many people mistakenly got the impression that not only was a "dry" Martini akin to the holy grail, but also that "dry" was referring to using less dry Vermouth then a "normal" Martini. So you have people that are now adding less and less dry Vermouth in order to make their Martini dryer then the next guys. Eventually you end up with what? Simply a glass of cold gin. For people that have truly acquired a finely tuned taste for gin, this isn't a problem, but to the novice drinker all they taste is this obnoxious botanical flavor that they think tastes like something out of the medicine cabinet. So it is no surprise that they would find a "glass of cold vodka" (which has no taste), to be preferable to straight gin. And so I expect that the "Vodka Martini" has become so popular is because few have really had a chance to try a really well balanced Gin Martini.
What then is the recipe for a perfect Martini? I could simply tell you the proper ratio of gin and Vermouth to use, but all you would then be doing is following my lead. What I'd personally prefer is that you come to your own understanding of what you actually prefer, and not what somebody tells you is the right recipe.
If you really want to understand the Martini, and to understand the concept of a balanced cocktail, then what you should do is to spend a little time and do your own experimentations in order to arrive at what you think is your own preferred ratio. The first step is to go out and buy a bottle of good gin. Plymouth, Boodles, Tanqueray, Sapphire, or some other gin if you think you have a preference. But if your preferred gin costs less then $15, then pick one from my list. Next you need to pick up a bottle of dry Vermouth, Noily Prat is my favorite, but there are of course others. Now, you need to make three Martinis. Be sure to use plenty of ice, because you need to make sure that you get enough water incorporated into the drink. You can use a cocktail shaker if you want, but the proper way to make a crystal clear Martini is to stir it instead. You're going to mix up all three drinks at once, so you can compare one against the other.
Drink #1: Make this one with straight Gin. Don't add any dry Vermouth.
Drink #2: Use an 8 to 1 ratio for this one. That means 8 parts Gin to 1 part dry Vermouth. Or to put this in measurement terms, use 2 ounces of Gin and 1/4 ounce of dry Vermouth.
Drink #3: Use a 4 to 1 ratio this time. Or 2 ounces of Gin and 1/2 ounce of dry Vermouth.
As you make each drink, you might want to store the filled glass in the freezer to keep the drinks as cold as possible until you are ready for all of them at once. And notice that I don't say anything about garnish here. Any garnish, olive or lemon twist, will change the flavor slightly, and we are mostly concerned right now with understanding the balance issues with the main ingredients, and don't want to be sidetracked by the brine or other flavors that might be added by the garnish.
Now comes the fun part, carefully taste each drink. Take a sip from one, then the next, and then the next. Don't try to be judgmental at the first, just try to see if you can notice a difference of any sort between them. Keep going back through the flight of cocktails; gradually try to pay attention to the balance in the flavors. You should of course notice that the first one is just total gin, with no dry Vermouth flavor at all. In the third drink you should be able to detect enough dry Vermouth to get an idea of what it's flavor does for the cocktail overall. Does the middle drink taste like it has too much Vermouth, or too much Gin?
The important question of course, is which one did you like best? Which one tasted like it was the most balanced. Not too much Gin, not too much Vermouth. If you look at the ratios involved, you'll see that there is quite a bit of space between them, plus the third drink definitely isn't as far as you can take it. Just as the first drink was pure Gin, you could take it to the obvious conclusion and have a drink that was pure Vermouth. However the goal here is for you to determine what your favorite Gin to Vermouth ratio is. If you liked Drink #3 the best, maybe you'd like even more vermouth? In that case you should try another round (perhaps tomorrow night) in which you use even more Vermouth, keep adding more and more, until you feel you've gone too far. Or if you liked #2 the best, perhaps a little experimentation with ratios on either side of this is what you need to focus your attention on.
If you've actually taken the time to run through this little taste test, I'd love to hear your results. In a future update to my site I'll include a summary of the comments and ratio preferences that people have sent in. What I'd love to know, is a brief description of what you thoughts and opinions were of the Gin Martini going into this, what brands of Gin and Vermouth you used, and then what the outcome of your taste tests were.