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Colder, smaller, weaker: Better martinis

By Lavender February 26, 2009

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The diplomatic way of defining the “best martini” is as “the martini that you like the best.” But, really, if you’re pulling a jug of vodka out of the freezer and pouring it into a glass, you’re not drinking a martini at all. You’re drinking a glass of cold vodka. Add olives and you’ve got vodka with a snack.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I drink cold vodka all the time, and who doesn’t enjoy a string of olives for dinner? But a martini is a mixed drink, necessitating more than one ingredient to mix into it.

The working theory is that the martini started as a spinoff of the Martinez, a cocktail made with sweetened gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters (with a lemon twist). As tastes in cocktails shifted away from sweet drinks, the “Dry Martini” made with dry vermouth became more popular, and eventually most everybody forgot about the bitters. Vodka didn’t become an option until later.

Given the variations over time, you could rightfully order your martini made with gin or vodka, sweet or dry vermouth or none at all, bitters or not, olives or a twist—and you could find a published recipe to back it up. None are the “right” way to make a martini, but I would encourage experimentation to find the way that’s right for you.

While jumbo-sized martini glasses used in many bars provide a lot of liquor for the dollar, by the time you get to the bottom half you’re drinking room-temperature alcohol. That is bad. Or worse, it’s a warm salt bath if you’ve got the extra-large-sized olives in there that help to heat it up. The very classiest of bars serve their martinis in very small, very cold glasses—with an additional quantity of the drink in an ice-chilled container on the side. That is lovely. At home, I use vintage (small) glassware and keep the remainder cooling of the strained drink in the freezer.

Do not fear vermouth. Try it and you might find you actually like it—but probably not the 4-year-old, mostly full bottle gathering dust in the back of your liquor cabinet. Use a fresh bottle. Vermouth spoils like wine after opening, so buy small bottles and keep them in the refrigerator to lengthen their life span.

Ice, too, is an ingredient in the drink. If you keep your vodka or gin in the freezer, not much water will melt into your martini. Dilution brings the drink down to a manageable level of alcoholic strength to keep you from making that too-strong scrunchy face that gives you wrinkles. A martini should be refreshing, not painful.

The shaken-versus-stirred decision is not worth the weight given to it. Shaking adds ice chips and air bubbles that make the drink look cloudy and taste fizzy, whereas stirring results in a clear and smooth cocktail from the get-go. I prefer a stirred martini when I’m at a nice cocktail lounge, but I do often shake them at home. Not because it tastes better, but because shaking is more fun.

Camper English is a cocktails and spirits writer and publisher of Alcademics.com.

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