There are literally thousands of martini recipes, as well as a considerable body of lore regarding the proper way to mix the drink, and at the same time ongoing experimentation and exploration in search of “the perfect Martini” are intrinsic aspects of the Martini experience. Still, here are some instructions on how to prepare yourself a martini.
Step 1: Chill your glass
The Martini glass is the first ingredient you need. Remember: no martini glass, no martini. Two main reasons for this. First, it has a stem, that you should hold – when drinking your martini – in order not to warm it up by your hand. Second, the wide mouth creates a large surface area for the gin to open up and present its botanical aromas, which is key to this spirit-forward cocktail. In addition, style and presentation are significant aspects of the Martini experience, and a proper glass is essential for these.
Martinis should be served as chilled as humanly possible, so your glass must be as cold as possible. You have two ways to go. Either you fill the martini glass it with ice (and maybe top it with soda water), or you simply keep your glasses in the freezer.
2. Choose the right ingredients
Ingredients include high quality London dry gin, high quality dry white vermouth, an ample supply of fresh ice made from good water.
It’s all about the gin, so pick a good one. The martini is a cocktail that makes its spirit base the star of the show. It is not masked by flavor, so you want to make sure you’re using a high quality gin. The following non-exhaustive lists suggest good brands to try. Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay, and Boodles are all reliable, worthy London dry gins. Try Booth’s, Gilbey’s, or Gordon’s if you’re in the mood to experiment. Tanqueray No. 10 and Bombay Sapphire are both premium gins: they both cost more, and they’re both very good. Plymouth Gin is not a London dry gin, but it is steeped in history as well as botanicals, and makes a damn fine Martini. Then there’s Hendrick’s which has cucumbers (yes, cucumbers!) as a leading member of its botanicals bill, and seems to be on the verge of gaining a cult following among Martini aficiannados (ca. 2010).
It’s also about the vermouth. Once opened, vermouth should be kept in the fridge where it will last about three months. If you still have vermouth in the fridge after three months, it is a sign that you don’t make enough martinis. People often have a bad perception of vermouth because they’ve been served Martinis made with vermouth that has been left out of the fridge, which alters how it behaves when mixed with cold gin. Noilly Pratt, Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, and Stock are all good dry white vermouths.
Ice is an important ingredient. Ice cubes that are more that one inch in diameter are good if you have them. Smaller ice dilutes too quickly, watering down your martini too much before it’s chilled. The quality of the ice is equally important. During mixing, the ice will partially melt, with the result that the final drink will be up to 1/4 water. This dilution is highly desirable: water is a hidden but essential ingredient in the Martini, serving to smooth and marry the flavors of the gin and vermouth. If the ice is covered with frost, or has picked up flavors from other foods stored in the freezer, or is made from poor quality tap water, the quality of the Martini will be impaired. If the tap water in your area is pure and flavorless, then the freshest ice from an automatic icemaker will suffice. Otherwise, use bottled still spring water in freshly frozen ice cube trays.
3. Prepare your garnish
Immediately before mixing, carefully cut a slice from the peel of the lemon. The resulting strip should be 1.5 — 2.5 inches long and 0.25 — 0.75 inches wide. Cut just deeply enough to include a bit of white pith to give the twist some stiffness; avoid cutting into the yellow pulp of the fruit. (Trimming the edges of the twist, giving it a tidy rectactangle shape, is very easy and quick, results in minimal wastage, and makes a surprising difference to the drink’s presentation.) Set the twist aside.
Garnish your martini with a lemon twist, and serve olives on the side. The lemon oils from the twist floating on the surface of your martini add a brightness to the drink. It is not a coincidence that olives go well with martinis. If you look at flavor guides, you will find that olives and juniper (gin’s key ingredient) pair well together, however placing a warm olive into a cold martini isn’t necessary. It only acts as another element to warm your nice chilled drink, and it takes up valuable room in the glass that could have been used for more gin. Serve olives on the side and save yourself the mission of fishing them out of your glass as you enjoy your cocktail. Olives should be fresh. One of my biggest pet peeves is when [bartenders] keep them out of the fridge. If left out all day, the olives dissipate their oils into the drink. They’re going to hit the gin completely differently and have a sour note if landing at a warmer temperature
4. Mix your drink
Add gin and vermouth to a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until cold. Once you have stirred a drink for 20 – 30 seconds, it’s about as cold as it is going to get. Further shaking or stirring will increase the level of dilution, but won’t make the Martini any colder. Strain into a chilled glass.
Hold the strip of lemon peel horizontally about one inch above the surface of the Martini, yellow “out” side facing downward. Gently but firmly squeeze along its length, expressing the volatile citric oils onto to surface of the drink. Then, holding the strip by its ends, twist it into a spring or corkscrew shape. Still holding it just over the drink, briefly tug on the ends, and then squeeze it back into a compressed spring shape. Gently drop the twist into the Martini.
Serve immediately on a napkin or coaster.
- Less vermouth equals a drier martini, and the more vermouth you add, the wetter the martini. Don’t be afraid of the vermouth though, it’s the marriage between the gin and the vermouth that makes the martini so special.
- Stirred not shaken. Stirring your martini maintains a silky texture between the vermouth and gin. Ultimately, stirring yields a smoother drink.
- Using bitters to add extra dimension to your martini is encouraged. A couple dashes go a long way. I like to use orange bitters but if there is a flavor you like, add it. I had a martini with cardamom bitters at London’s The Connaught Hotel recently, which complemented the gin and vermouth really well. It was delicious.
- It’s okay to drink vodka martinis, they also are delicious. I recommend using less vermouth with a vodka martini, as it can overpower the vodka.
Experiment your martini
Sound practice suggests that your first variations remain within the bounds of what we might call “canonical Martinis”… Regular, standard Martinis, as opposed to new-wave variations. The reason is not that the latter are in any way too advanced or complex, but simply to establish a baseline. When you are familiar with the tastes and virtues of canonical Martinis, you will be better able to judge the merits and weaknesses of noncanonical variants.
The most straightforward variation is to experiment with the dryness of the Martini. Try using more or less vermouth. And, of course, you can try different brands of gin and vermouth.
You might also vary the length of time you shake the Martini. There are no fixed rules here, but standard practice is to shake between 8 and 15 seconds. Your goals in shaking are (1) to lower the mixture’s temperature to the ideal (about 38 degrees Fahrenheit), and (2) to achieve a pleasing level of dilution. Of these, the latter is the more complex: ideal shaking times will vary because of the proof of the gin, the intensity of the gin’s flavorings, and your personal preferences. Working with a single constant (“The longer you shake, the more the ice will melt”), experiment with different durations and note your impressions.
Another simple variation is to try the other traditional garnish, green olives, in place of the twist. Any good brand of pimento-stuffed Spanish olives such as you would find at the grocery store is fine, but be aware that a range of alternatives exists: olives stuffed with garlic, cheese, jalapenos, almonds; olives that have been marinated in vermouth rather than brine; etc. A single olive may either be placed by itself in the glass, or skewered on a toothpick or bar pick. If more than one olive is used, they should be skewered. NB: High tradition dictates that you must use an odd number of olives. One olive is fine; so are three (five is excessive). Using two or four olives is a faux pas.3
Or, you might try cocktail onions in lieu of olives, in which case your drink is known a Gibson rather than a Martini. (The proper number of onions in a Gibson is two.)
Next you may wish to try stirring rather than shaking your Martini. To stir a Martini, you need either a large mixing glass (such as that provided by one half of a Boston shaker) and a bar spoon, or a Martini pitcher and its matching glass rod. A mixing glass and spoon are ideal for making Martinis one at a time; a pitcher is the best way to prepare several simultaneously. In either case, use the same proportions of gin, vermouth, and ice as described above. Stir briskly-but-not-violently for 27 seconds, in a conventional circular motion (if a circular stirring motion feels “cramped” or “crunchy,” take advantage of the tool in your hand: twirl the bar spoon between your fingers and move it up and down in the mixing glass while stirring… imagine that you are “caressing” the drink), and then strain the mixture into the glass. If you are using a mixing glass, you will definitely need a strainer for this (either a coil-rimmed Hawthorn strainer or a spoon-like julep strainer). Most Martini pitchers have a sharply pinched spout to allow pouring without a strainer, but even here a strainer will help. (In the main, informed bartenders agree that clear drinks such as Martinis should be stirred, rather than shaken. For this FAQ, I have chosen present a shaken version first, since James Bond’s signature phrase, “Shaken, not stirred”, has probably done more than any other single factor to introduce new cocktail drinkers to the Martini, and it’s likely that they would want to start with a shaken cocktail.)
To round out your first experiments, try a Vodka Martini. Actually, you’ll need to try a great many, varying the dryness, brands, garnish, and mixing method in the same way you did for gin Martinis. The preparation of a traditional Dry American Martini and a Vodka Martini are exactly the same, with the one obvious exception: vodka is used in place of gin.