A martini
Beverage Cocktail Drink Gin Alcohol Martini Glass

Although the martini is only about 150 years old, records of its invention are sketchy at best. Most sources say it was invented in San Francisco, but several other municipalities would also 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. The story I like best 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.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: there’s a brand of vermouth called Martini, and vermouth is one of the two key ingredients in a martini; thus, ipso facto, the name of the drink must derive from the name of the vermouth. The problem with this explanation is that Martini brand vermouth wasn’t introduced until 1863, and it didn’t make its way from Italy to the United States until 1867, so the timeline doesn’t work—there was definitely a cocktail matching this description in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1860s. It could be that the cocktail was originally called a “Martinez” and later shortened to “martini”—and it may even be that the vermouth brand triggered that name change. But we may never know for sure.

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 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.” And so, various techniques have emerged for making a much drier martini. For example:

  • Ernest Hemingway liked to order a “Montgomery,” which was a martini mixed at a gin:vermouth ratio of 15:1 (these supposedly being the odds Field Marshall Montgomery wanted to have before going into battle)
  • Alton Brown swirls a half ounce of vermouth around in crushed ice, then pours out the vermouth and adds two and a half ounces of gin.
  • In the 1958 film Auntie Mame (based on the 1956 play of the same name, which was in turn based on a 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis), sophisticated pre-adolescent Patrick offers a visitor a martini, which he prepares by swirling a small amount of vermouth in a glass, then tossing it out before filling the glass with gin.
  • Similarly, in the 1958 film Teacher’s Pet, Clark Gable mixes a martini by shaking a bottle of vermouth before running the moistened cork around the rim of a glass filled with gin.
  • 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.
  • Winston Churchill is said to have looked toward France (or bowed in the direction of France) while ritually passing the bottle of vermouth over the gin (without pouring any in).
  • Legend has it that Franklin Roosevelt liked to shine a light through a bottle of vermouth and into the gin.

This change to a preference for less vermouth 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. But if all you want in the first place is a glass of gin, well, you could just order that. No need to call it a martini. Meanwhile, some of us (including me) actually like the flavor of vermouth, and prefer more of it, not less, in our martinis.

Shaken, Not Stirred?

It goes without saying that the biggest (and silliest) martini controversy is 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. Martinis are supposed to be stirred.

Well, maybe, or maybe not. One can 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. (That is to say, if Bond wanted a vodka-based cocktail, he arguably shouldn’t have called it a martini.) But given that he did call it a martini, the fact that he specified vodka may in fact be the reason he asked for it to be shaken. According to a post at New Scientist, the type of vodka common in Fleming’s time had an oily texture, and shaking it would have dissipated the oils more effectively than stirring.

What if Bond had ordered a conventional gin martini, though? Or what if you do? Then can we say it’s entirely uncouth to shake it?

Again, not necessarily. Putting the ingredients (including ice) in a covered container and shaking results 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. Sorry, but 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 if you know that martinis are “supposed” to be stirred and you order yours shaken, for whatever reason, you’re not betraying ignorance, but rather expressing a preference. You need no more justify that preference than James Bond does.

However, you could say you’re doing it for your 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 dry vermouth, shake with ice, and garnish with a twist of lemon. Cheers!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 11, 2005.