Wet or dry all the tips you need to perfect your own Martini
Before we can take our first sip of a perfectly-balanced Martini, let’s get one thing out the way, a certain Vodka company managed to popularise the concept of a Vodka Martini with the help of Britain’s best-loved spy. In all honesty, this should stay entirely fictional as real Martinis are gin-based! The Gin Martini is a delightfully simple drink and certainly one you can and should master as they are as personal to you as your fingerprints are. In fact, if there was ever a time to have a strong opinion, it’s when you order a Martini at the bar. That’s why reading this will give you the confidence and know-how to ask for exactly what you want and not a drop more. For the intrepid and curious amongst you, fair warning, you may even get hooked to mixing your own carefully crafted martinis.
How to chill your Martini & keep it cold
007 does have a lot to answer for, ‘shaken not stirred’ has its place, but it’s probably not here. Shaking a Martini or any cocktail chills it very fast, but it can also rapidly dilute the serve. Such treatment is only rarely appropriate. A Dry Martini should be served very cold, but not overly diluted otherwise that unmistakeable unctuous silkiness is lost. Stirred with a large piece of ice that can be removed is a quick way to achieve this without over dilution, but perhaps the best way is to place your Gin and Martini glasses in the freezer. Don’t worry, if the alcohol content is high enough it won’t freeze any time soon, but it will feel delightfully cold, thick and oily in the mouth once served. You can even put a few extra glasses in the freezer so that you don’t need to rush enjoying your perfect Martini as you can always decant it into a freshly frozen glass if it gets too warm.
With that out of the way, we can start to understand what the Martini is really all about. Even a cursory look at Martini recipes will introduce you to the other core ingredient; Vermouth is a wine based drink mixed with gin in the classic Martini serve. Vermouth is made by fortifying wine with additional spirit and is a type of aromatised wine that is further flavoured by macerating with herbs and botanicals, most importantly the bitter herb Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium – also to be found flavouring Absinthe). Vermouths are typically broken down into Italian (typically sweeter) and French (typically drier) styles. It really is the perfect partner to a fine Gin, but like any good marriage, it can take time to find the right match. Martinis are often described by how ‘dry’ they are, this directly relates to how much and what type of Vermouth is added as they are usually the only source of sweetness. Ergo, the drier the Vermouth the drier the Martini and, perhaps more importantly, the less Vermouth the drier the Martini. There is great variety in the botanicals used in Vermouth although they must contain the aforementioned Wormwood, many bittering agents are used and, similar to Gin, the complexity of the recipes varies immensely.
As with all great cocktails, the aim is to find the ideal balance between the ingredients, whether sweet and sour or bitter and dry. It’s very important to remember that this is going to be subjective to your own palette, so do not be afraid to experiment. A good starting point is a traditional recipe, those that have stood the test of time have often done so for good reason. Unfortunately, you might find less agreement as to what ratio to mix your Gin and Vermouth (anything from 50%-50% in a Martini variation called the Gin & It – which ‘It’ stands for Italian Vermouth or 100%-0% for a Desert or Churchill Martini is perfectly acceptable!). Indeed discovering what types of Gin or Vermouth to use to make your perfect serve could arguably be your finest hour.
Dry, wet, dirty & perfect
Martinis were very popular in prohibition America and initially were probably made with illicit Gins of dubious origin, and potentially, quality. So perhaps it’s not surprising that earlier recipes called for more Vermouth (up to 2:1) and sometimes even bitters or lemon zest, which might have helped to mask the taste of the Gin. Vermouth contains quite a lot of sugar to balance the often bitter and strong herbs that are infused into the wine. So, even a ‘dry’ white Vermouth has a fair bit of sugar and a Martini with a lot of Vermouth in the recipe (2:1-4:1) is often referred to as a ‘wet’ Martini. In fact, a good wet Martini is a rare example that can benefit from being shaken, not stirred.
After prohibition and the wider adoption of the Coffey still, Gins became much better, lighter and drier with the familiar London Dry style gaining popularity and becoming a stalwart cocktail ingredient, which in turn led to drier Gin forward Martinis. Terms like ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ can be rather confusing at first, particularly if you’re not a wine drinker, but as alluded to earlier ‘wet’ typically means ‘sweeter’, but in the context of a Martini which, classically, is far from sweet it usually just means ‘less dry’, or specifically more Vermouth in the Gin. Conversely drier Martinis have a higher ratio of Gin to Vermouth and some aficionados would actually extol rinsing the glass with an extra dry white vermouth and discarding before adding the Gin or not including anything more than whispering ‘Vermouth’ over the Gin!
Suffice to say finding out how ‘dry’ you enjoy your Martini is a personal and very enjoyable journey. To add another layer of complexity, Vermouths can be red or white wine based and are classified from extra dry through to semi-sweet or sweet (the former tends to be white wine based and the latter red). A safe starting point would be an extra dry white Vermouth like Noilly Pratt, but there are many excellent options like Lillet Blanc, which features in the Vesper Martini (another thing to thank Bond for, although this time with more sincerity). In fact, one serve aptly named the ‘Perfect Martini’ contains both dry Vermouth and sweet Vermouth.
How to garnish
Once you have worked out how to chill your Martini without overly diluting it and roughly how dry you like it you’re 2/3s of the way to your ideal serve. The final layer to discovering your own perfect Martini is all about the garnish you choose. There are two classical options, olives or lemon. We’ll talk about olives first, the Martini can be a delightfully savoury sipping experience with a nice fat salty olive or three in the mix, particularly with flavoursome black sun-dried olives. In fact, a tiny pinch of salt (do be very careful here, it’s easy to overdo it and ruin several measures) can work very well in an olive or lemon garnished Martini. You can also go for a ‘dirty Martini’ and add a little bit of salty olive brine into the mix, just be sure to keep dilution in mind. Alternatively a slip or twist of lemon peel, ideally express some of the oil onto the surface of the drink by pinching the skin, makes the ideal zesty and bright garnish for a Martini. Whether to chose lemon or olive is up to you, or indeed a cherry tomato or pickled onion – yes, really – the world’s your oyster (that would probably also be delicious!). But a good tip is to look to either complement or enhance existing flavours in the Gin and Vermouth e.g. wet Martini with Lillet Blanc and Gordon’s or Beefeater Gin with a lemon twist or to contrast and balance flavours by providing something absent e.g. dry Martini with Noilly Pratt and Slake’s Sussex Dry Gin with two sun-dried black olives and a little salt to give a savoury kick that compliments the herbal character.
Martinis now share their namesake and inspire a whole range of sophisticated contemporary cocktail serves from the Vesper to the Pornstar Martini and much more besides. So, don’t rush, take your time to explore this classic drink.
Lastly, two things, rules are made to at least be bent, if not broken, so keep experimenting and be sure to write down your recipes as you create them. Martinis are notoriously strong drinks, often around 40% ABV – that’s 80-proof for our American friends, as they are essentially made up of neat spirits. So, make sure you’re taking notes as when you find your perfect-serve you won’t want to forget it!
CIN CIN! #slakegin
Thanks for reading our guide to the perfect Martini. At Slake Spirits we’re proud to make fine British Gin designed to be sipped neat that showcase our unique Sussex flavours. They really are the perfect base for a stunning Martini or two *hic* – slake your thirst below!