The Bartender’s Blog – Stirred, not shaken!

Welcome, gentle cyberspace wanderer, back to the folds of The Bartender’s Blog. My absence, though long, has many rhymes, and absolutely no reason. You see, this battle-hardy soul was so inundated with requests to travel to distant lands and showcase one’s awesome knowledge of tipples during the festive period that my party time lasts at least a month. Fortunately, I have fought through the mass of bodies, the flow of intoxicating delights and the seismic blur that is my life long enough to plonk myself down at a keyboard and give you, kind reader, an insight into one of the most fabled cocktails of all – the Martini.

The origins of the Martini, are, perhaps surprisingly for cocktails, not shrouded in mystery. It is generally regarded that the name ‘Martini’ comes from a popular drink of Prohibition era America, the Martinez. This is one of your humble servant/writer’s all time favourite drinks, and it was a typical Prohibition drink. The gin at the time, known as Old Tom Gin, was as simple as gin gets. Nowadays, gins can be flavoured with numerous different things. Called botanicals, up to 50 wonderfully fragrant notes, such as orange peel, lavender and even cucumber are jammed into slats, and the newly distilled gin is washed through them, creating a delightful hint of each in the finished product. Early gin, however, was much more basic. With little more than juniper berries flavouring the liquor when it was first distilled in England (and shipped to America afterwards), the harsh spirit was lightened with sugar. Because of this, the Martinez is a much sweeter cocktail than the sleek and refined Martini of today. It goes a little something like this:

50ml Old Tom Gin
25ml Sweet Vermouth
5ml Maraschino Liqueur
2 Dashes Orange Bitters

Like all drinks served straight up, coldness is the key. Keep all the glass and equipment either submerged in or filled with ice. Working from the smallest ingredient to the largest to reduce dilution, pop the above into a boston glass filled ¾ of ice. Stir 25 times with a barspoon to get the desired dilution. Grab your julep strainer, and pour that delicious drink in the waiting (and emptied) martini glass. Zest of a lovely bit of lemon, and tie it in a bow to create a beautiful (and authentic) garnish.

That drink is so lip-smackingly fantabulous that once sampled, your taste in fine drinks will never be the same again. It truly is one that supports the age old theory that, “a good drink is one that you drink in two gulps. One to to taste, and another to finish.” However, through my international (and sometimes intergalactic) travels, I find that many bars do not hold reserves of Old Tom gin, so if you see one, arm yourself always with this recipe and get yourself a glassful of ice cold sensory nirvana.

In the eons I have spent on this planet, through all the millennia and different forms I have existed in, never have I come across a drink so widely talked about yet misunderstood as the Martini. First and foremost, the enduring Bond gimmicks need to be dispelled. I played poker with Ian Fleming once, and before securing the rights to all future adaptations of his work by trumping his two pair with my straight, he told me a couple of interesting things. Bond didn’t drink all that many martinis, he preferred a good old scotch most of the time. Also, don’t wear sandals and go commando when playing strip poker with Johnny Moss. Cold times ensue.

The main catchphrase associated with the Martini is, “shaken, not stirred.” Except in a few, very exceptional cases, this world weary traveller cannot bear the terror of ruining such delicate beauty by rattling it around in a boston tin. When a cocktail is grabbed by the haunches and shaken into diluted submission, the ice cubes break and crack, and the resulting chips dilute much faster than complete cubes. This means that the dilution of the drink is greater if you shake it, rather than treating the concoction on your bar with the delicate touch of a finely wielded barspoon and getting the perfect water ratio.

I digress, but this poetic imagery leads to an important point – Martinis should be stirred, not shaken. Going against this is ungodly, uncouth and definitely un-Bond.

As a devourer of souls and of cocktails, my taste, when it comes to Martinis, always swings to gin. If you want vodka in your martini, that’s fine. You’re just missing out on bucket loads of flavour and the actual taste of a real Martini. A bar I once straddled in New York stocked only two types of vodka. One was a very refined, $20 a shot Russian masterpiece to create the dirtiest of Vodka Martinis, and one was a run of the mill, 6-to-a-box, mainstream brand. At the end of every night, the staff would take this vodka out from the back, out of the box and pour it out all over the bar. The notion was that vodka is only useful in a cocktail bar as cleaning alcohol, not as an ingredient, and your faithful scribe tends to agree.

Therefore, our main spirit is going to be gin. Hooray, you should be happy. There are a couple of quick notes to make before delving into the specifics, and we will start with wetness. This is not some crude sexual gag (once you’ve met and played solitaire with the Dalai Lama, you become above such things) but a note on how much Dry Vermouth you want in your drink. If you like the taste of it, then have it wet, because all of the vermouth will be left in. If you like it a bit (as my recipe will describe) then have it perfect, where half, or maybe even all of the vermouth is poured away. If, however, you are like Winston Churchill, who pounded a couple of these bad boys daily, then there will be no vermouth for you. He said of his Martinis that the only vermouth the glass should see is the bottom of the bottle. Many who make a “Churchill” Martini to this day wave the bottle over the glass to symbolise his fabulously limited palette.

The second thing to highlight is a matter of dirtiness. Bearing in mind my games of Battleships with Gandhi, please drag your mind from the gutter and think instead of olive brine. If a Martini is dirty, it will have roughly 10ml of brine added with the vermouth. Brine is generally added to tuna in a tin, and also to Vodka Martinis to try and give a salty taste. Instead of tasting salt, don’t use brine, use gin, and allow the dozen or so botanicals to envelop all your taste buds as opposed to making you retch. Therefore, drums will roll, bobby soxers will weep and mountains will tremble as I bring you the recipe for a “perfect” Gin Martini:

60ml Gin (Miller’s Gin is pretty rip-roaring)
25ml Dry Vermouth

Fill a boston glass about ¾ with ice. Add to it the vermouth. Stir delicately 10-12 times, moving the ice from top to bottom. This coats the ice with the vermouth to give a hint of taste, yet doesn’t overwhelm the drink. Take a hawthorn strainer and get rid of at least half, and at most all of the vermouth. To your coated ice, add the gin. Stir 20-25 times, nice and carefully to allow the ice to dilute and infuse the gin with the layer of vermouth on it. As ever with a straight up drink, your barspoon should be chilled in ice, as should your Martini (isn’t life full of nice little coincidences?) glass. Once suitably diluted, take your chilled julep strainer and pour into your ice-cold, empty glass. If there is brine in your drink because you are a dirty little scoundrel, reward yourself by spearing a few olives on a cocktail stick and popping it in your creation. Tasty.

And that, brave soul, is how and why Martinis are made. I feel that was a little more entertaining than learning how and why babies were made, but then, Adam and Eve hadn’t had many opportunities to practise with people before they told me. Bill Clinton on the other hand, carries a flip-chart with him everywhere he goes. Farewell good drinker and consumer of information, and I’ll see you on the other side.

The BarMan

One Comment
  • Eric John
    12 February 2011 at 23:25
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    To whoever writes these blogs: I love you, and then I hate you a bit, for taunting me with cocktails that I clearly shouldn’t be having while writing my dissertation….ugh.

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