"The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived." - Bernard DeVoto
On National Martini Day, June 19, this quote from historian Bernard DeVoto is particularly apt, describing a concoction that truly is greater than the sum of its parts, a noble evocation of what a classic cocktail can be when made correctly.
But "correctly" doesn't have to mean completely old-school. Yes, those sticky sweet "tini" drinks at chain restaurants are an abomination. But you can still have fun with the classic. This is, after all, alcohol, not nuclear physics. We even found a bartender who will explain how to snort a martini (more about that in a moment).
The history of the martini is convoluted. Some claim it was invented in Martinez, California (particularly the denizens of Martinez), in the form of the Martinez cocktail. Other histories say that a New York bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia introduced the cocktail. Neither is conclusive or completely verifiable. Then there's the debate over the ratio of gin to vermouth, whether there should actually be any vermouth, and exactly what garnishes should be included (olives, onions, lemon or orange twist?).
The one rule that all true martini drinkers will agree upon is that there is no such thing as a vodka martini. Yes, if you go to a none-too-classically-oriented cocktail bar and order a martini, the bartender may ask "gin or vodka?" And, yes, if you order one at TGI Friday's, your martini is likely to be vodka-based by default.
Nikki Sunseri, beverage director at Dominick's, is fairly passionate about the subject. "First of all, a martini is a drink, not the glass with whatever you decide to put in it," she says. "A martini used to be made with gin, sweet vermouth and bitters. So when people called for a 'dry martini,' they used to mean with dry vermouth, not sweet. The vodkatini became popular since people were drinking on their lunch break and vodka doesn't leave a smell on your breath. Thus the big shot of bruised vodka came about. Jesus Christ, now a martini is thought of as an alcohol delivery vehicle that is literally just vodka in a glass."
Jason Schiffer, owner of 320 Main in Orange County, whose bar is nominated as one of America's best restaurant bars at this year's upcoming Tales of the Cocktail, is equally firm.
"I will say that apple martinis, Cosmos, lemon drops and anything with the suffix -tini is not a martini, unless it's made with gin, vermouth and orange bitters," he says.
In the mixing glasses of every well-versed bartender, the gin martini is sacrosanct. As William Grimes, in his book Straight Up or On the Rocks, writes: "The martini is both classic and individual, public and private. As a two-ingredient drink, it should logically have a set form pleasing to all martini drinkers, yet it seems to demand endless tinkering. It is the cocktail of a thousand idiosyncrasies."
So, for National Martini Day, we offer up two recipes, each of which offers its own drinking experience: one more traditional and one more, well, idiosyncratic. Both are made with gin but only one involves your nose.
From: Nikki Sunseri, Dominick's
2 ounces London Dry gin (Nikki uses Broker's) or genever
1 ounce Dolin dry vermouth
2 dashes Regan's orange bitters
1. Combine first three ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass and stir until well chilled, about 20 seconds.
2. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass.
3. Twist the lemon peel to expel the oils, run the peel around the edges of the glass, and then place in the glass. Can also be served with olives.
Martini And a Bump
From: 320 Main
2 ounces Plymouth gin
1 ounce grapefruit-infused Dolin dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
1. To make the grapefruit-infused vermouth, infuse one 750-ml bottle of vermouth with five long strips of grapefruit peel. Leave to steep for 5 to 6 hours. Strain and re-bottle.
2. Combine first three ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass and stir until well chilled, about 20 seconds.
3. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass.
4. Circle the grapefruit twist around the rim of the glass.
5. Place a shot glass upside down next to the martini and add a dash of the drink onto the dimpled top.
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6. "Snort" the liquid atop the upside-down shot glass before you enjoy the real drink.
Schiffer was introduced to the awful practice of "snorting" vodka off a shot glass in his early bartending days. The idea for the martini "snort" came from a joke between him and cocktail legend Dale DeGroff when, at a competition, Schiffer offered DeGroff a drink that required him to snort a bit of tequila before taking a shot.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at email@example.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.