this weekGood Libations

April 11, 2005

The Martini

Why everything you know is wrong

A Martini

As a San Francisco resident, I like to brag that my city is where Important Things were invented. The television. The jukebox. Bay windows. Denim jeans. The slot machine. Cable cars. The fortune cookie. Chop Suey. And yes, Rice-a-Roni. It’s also reputedly the birthplace of quite a few alcoholic beverages, including Irish Coffee, the Mimosa, the Mai Tai, and the Martini.

Although the martini is apparently less than 150 years old, records of its invention are sketchy at best, and several other municipalities would like to take credit for it. A great many widely divergent stories about the drink’s origin are in circulation, each one as plausible as the next. But since this is a question that cannot be answered definitively, I choose to believe the story I like best. That story says that in the mid-1800s, a miner about to board a ferry in San Francisco for the trip across the bay to his home town of Martinez asked a bartender to whip up an interesting drink for him. The resulting mixture was named after the traveler’s destination, and years later, when the drink had become more popular, the name was shortened to “martini.” This story, I hasten to admit, may be entirely apocryphal, but it does at least seem likely that the name “martini” is in fact derived in some fashion from “Martinez.”

Mixed Messages
In addition to the drink’s uncertain provenance, no reliable documentation of its original recipe exists. Among the ingredient lists I found claiming to be the original are these:

  • 4 parts sweet vermouth, 1 part gin, dash of bitters, two dashes of Maraschino, slice of lemon
  • 3 parts gin, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1 part dry vermouth, dash of orange bitters, slice of lemon
  • 3 parts gin, 1 part dry vermouth
  • 2 parts gin, 1 part sweet vermouth, (sometimes) dash of orange bitters
  • 1 part gin, 1 part dry vermouth

(In addition to the ingredients listed, every martini is mixed with ice to chill it; the ice is strained out before serving.)

You will notice, of course, that all these recipes contain gin—not vodka—and vermouth (a type of wine flavored with herbs and spices). Vodka martinis are a more recent invention (and, according to some, an egregious misuse of the very term “martini,” since vodka is all but tasteless). The same is true of the ubiquitous olive garnish, which is suspiciously absent from early ingredient lists. But the uncertainty of the recipe is precisely what’s at issue here. Since there is no canonical reference as to what the “one true” martini should contain, anyone who gets uptight over the fact that a certain martini recipe is “wrong” is arguing from a position of ignorance. (More on this in a moment.)

How Dry Am I?
In any event, it is clear that over the last century, the commonly expected ratio of gin to vermouth has steadily increased to the point that some martini aficionados consider even an extra-dry 8-to-1 ratio too “sweet.” If you want to be extremely hip, you can buy spray bottles designed expressly for “misting” a few microdroplets of dry vermouth onto cold gin to give your hyper-desiccated martini the mere suggestion of a hint of vaguely vermouthish essence.

This change is apparently no accident. Some sources claim that the gin commonly available a century ago was much more bitter than what we have today, that the purpose of the vermouth was to mask this bitterness, and that the decreasing proportion of vermouth has thus been nothing more than a natural adjustment to expose more of the gin’s flavor.

Shaken, Not Stirred?
But the biggest (and silliest) martini controversy is, of course, whether they should be shaken or stirred. Everyone knows James Bond’s choice, and I’ve read countless criticisms that Bond orders his martini the “wrong” way—that a sophisticated international spy ought to know better. One could perhaps justifiably criticize Bond (or, to be more accurate, Ian Fleming) for preferring a vodka martini, since the one thing we can say with certainty about the traditional recipe is that it uses gin. But surely the manner of combining the alcohols is of little consequence? Well, you’d be surprised.

Putting the ingredients (including ice) in a covered container and shaking will result in a colder beverage—ordinarily considered a benefit. But purists never seem to tire of saying that shaking a martini bruises the gin, as though this were a self-evidently ridiculous thing to do. You cannot bruise gin. You can bruise yourself or even a piece of fruit, but you simply cannot damage gin in any way merely by shaking it.

OK, say the critics, maybe “bruise” was a poor choice of words, but by shaking gin with ice you do change it—you aerate it (a tiny little bit) and you probably melt a little more of the ice, diluting it a smidgen more than you would by stirring. The presence of air bubbles (and perhaps a few ice fragments) can in fact make the martini slightly cloudy, but this appearance dissipates quickly. The real question is whether you can taste the difference between a shaken martini and a stirred one, and let’s just say that innumerable blind taste tests have yielded inconclusive results but a lot of bruised feelings.

Even if a shaken martini does taste different from a stirred martini, who’s to say the difference is objectionable? Some people like carbonated water better than still water. Some people like Pepsi better than Coke. Some people like their orange juice without pulp. These are all merely preferences, not matters of right and wrong. And so what if Bond, for whatever fictional reason, preferred his martini shaken? The point is that he knew stirred martinis were the norm—otherwise, there’d have been no point in ordering his specially. So he’s not betraying ignorance, but rather expressing a preference.

Or maybe he was doing it for his health. As crazy as it sounds, the British Medical Journal published a study showing that shaken martinis have measurably higher antioxidant properties than stirred martinis. Higher enough to make any real difference? Probably not. But at least when your know-it-all friends give you a dressing down for being clueless about proper martini preparation, you’ve got a great comeback.

By the way…the right way to make me a martini is to use 2 parts gin and 1 part sweet (yes, sweet) vermouth, shake with ice, and garnish with a twist of lemon. Cheers! —Joe Kissell

More Information about The Martini…

To learn more (including a lot of contradictory claims) about the martini, see for example:

For more on the James Bond connection in particular, see James Bond and the Martini at AMC TV or Shaken or Stirred at DrinkBoy.

Shaken, not stirred: bioanalytical study of the antioxidant activities of martinis really did appear in an honest-to-goodness medical journal.