Friday, December 31, 2010

On the Perfect Martini and Other Myths

For this New Year's celebration, I had a simple task: To prepare the perfect Martini. Not one of the many impostor drinks that have posed as "martinis" over decades past - but a true, traditional one. I enjoy the art of making drinks properly, and what better time to practice this than on New Year's Eve?

At the heart of a real Martini is elegant simplicity. Sugary syrups and exotic garnishes have their place, but that place is elsewhere. Neither does Vodka belong in this most classic of cocktails. A traditional Martini is gin and vermouth in just the right combination - swirled delicately over ice, strained into a classic cocktail glass, and garnished with three olives. And that is all.

But the minimalist recipe is not free of ambiguity. Even among the purists, debates rage regarding which brands of gin and vermouth are best, and what proportions are ideal. After much soul-searching, I opted for Hendrick's and Noilly Prat, at a 4:1 gin to vermouth ratio. And I found traditionally cured Perugia olives - with nothing stuffed inside and no vinegar used in preparing them.

Perfect! But, not so fast... No sooner had I happily surveyed my ingredients, than my friend - an Edwardian history specialist - informed me that I was doing it all wrong. I was fixing to create a 1920s version of the drink, whereas the "real" original is from the early 1900s and requires a different approach entirely. Furthermore, I should not be calling it "the perfect Martini" as it creates confusion with the "Perfect Martini" - which is a separate version of the drink altogether. Ah, academics... How we love to get it just right and spoil all the fun!

Well, I am sticking with my original plan - I've grown emotionally attached to the idea of making it this way. And besides, who is to say that the very first iteration is the "perfect" version of the drink? Maybe the 1920s Martini is considered classic for a reason!

There is really no such thing as a perfect anything, just our personal version of it. It's the version that we will have the most fun with, the version that happens to be just right for us - even if it's not what others consider perfect or correct. Here's wishing you all a beautiful New Year full of such experiences - on the bicycle and otherwise.

38 comments:

  1. I like Winston Churchill's recipe: Pour gin over ice, shake while glancing briefly at a bottle of vermouth from across the room.

    Cheers!

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  2. As always, beautiful pics.

    Happy New Year to you, the Co-Habitant, and all of your beloved bikes.

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  3. I have an occasional preference for a Perfect Manhattan, which takes a combination of blended whiskey and half portions of sweet and dry vermouth (as opposed to a conventional Manhattan which is all sweet vermouth).

    Assuming the Perfect Martini follows similar lines, I'd think that's a misnomer and a 'perfect' waste of sweet vermouth.

    Best wishes for the New Year!

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  4. You call something with olives in it a martini? Just a twist of lemon peel, please.
    As for the amount of vermouth, I like the technique of swirl the vermouth around the glass and dump it out. What remains clinging to the glass is the right amount!
    Of course, there are many wonderful ways to do a great martini. Happy New Year's!

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  5. Heh. I have to admit that you referring to your ideal martini as a "perfect martini" was driving me a little bonkers before I saw that someone had already addressed the issue.

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  6. Adam - I was hoping for that effect : )

    dweendaddy - No way, olives FTW!

    And to those who prefer the minimal vermouth approach - that's called a double gin in a cocktail glass : ) The original recipes are actually 1:1.

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  7. "Give life a specific goal and it immediately loses its attraction. The inexactitude of its ends makes life superior to death; one touch of precision would degrade it to the triviality of the tombs."

    E. M. Cioran

    Best wishes to you and your cohabitat for 2011.

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  8. Ah, martinis and booze of all sorts, how I miss thee. My liver on the other hand does not. :) I raise my nice hot cup of tea and wish you both a very happy new year!

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  9. A non-alcoholic cocktail for those who don't drink or need a break: Sparkling mineral water (not club soda) and lemon juice 20:1, with 1 tsp grated fresh ginger, stirred over ice and strained into a frosted cocktail glass, garnished with fresh ginger curl. Ridiculously refreshing.

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  10. I totally agree with you about what makes the "perfect" martini, particularly the lovely flavor that Hendrick's imparts. A few weeks ago, I was at my husband's club and for some reason, decided to order a martini (I'm usually a Scotch drinker in the colder months). I was a bit disappointed to have the bartender ask not only "gin or vodka", but also "up or on the rocks". After clarifying the type of gin and up, he did make quite a good martini, except for the giant, stuffed, sour olive. I love your idea of vinegar-free olives and will be seeking them out.

    Kelly (wife of "Dandy Cycle")

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  11. Sadly I read this at 11:45 pm and it's about 10 below zero outside,no gin of any sort in the house, so I won't be able to toast the new year. I'm very jealous. Thanks for being my muse in 2010. I'm always learning something lovely and new!

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  12. In your honor, Herself and I tried the 4:1 recipe tonight.

    Delicious!

    Happy New Year to one and all.

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  13. Happy New Year Everyone!

    John I

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  14. Happy New Year, everyone, and thank you : )

    Kelly, I agree about Hendrick's. Not that I am a generally a gin drinker, but I don't think I can drink any other gin after having had it. Also, for those who like "French 75", Hendrick's goes exceptionally well with Veuve Clicquot (and contrary to what most recipes say, don't add sugar - just lemon juice alone).

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  15. Leave it to Velouria to have an Edwardian history specialist in her circle.

    Love this post! Happy New Year all!

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  16. Ah! Once again I am pregnant at New Year's, but I will add what I will call your "Lovely Martini" to my to-do list for July!

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  17. Hmm one thing you may like to consider for your martini is to chill - freeze the glass. In a warmer climate (it was 40 degrees C, hear yesterday in Melbourne) this can make a big difference - it also helps keep the silver bullet look to the drink for a few more seconds if you chose to shake!

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  18. My brother, the former professional bartender, swears by this recipe:
    Plymouth gin; 5:1 gin to vermouth ratio; Stirred, not shaken.
    Splash of olive brine.
    Technically, because of the olive brine, I guess this is a "dirty" martini. May not be "perfect," but it's pretty darn good.
    If you keep this up, Velouria, you may become the Inernet's foremost expert on cocktails.

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  19. Another lover of Hendricks here - chilled, with an olive is a fantastic beverage.

    My grandfather was a Martini drinker, and I thought that I would share his recipe here:
    He would take a jar of olives and pour out the liquid, then replace it with vermouth. Then dropping an olive into a glass with chilled Gin (he preferred Gordons), finished the drink.

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  20. No alcohol of any kind in just over 3 1/2 years and I am doing just fine. Thanks for your non-alcoholic recipe. It sounds great!

    Happy New Year to you and the Co-Habitant!!

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful blog.

    Jim

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  21. Sadly, I admit that I don't like martinis. It saddens me because, I agree, they are just so elegant and sophisticated. Even more unfortunate is that I love the fruit flavored alternatives but am embarrassed to order them because they look like drinks favored by women with excessively long fake nails and overprocessed hair. Oh, the shame of it.

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  22. If you get the martini purists in a lather, you'll soon wish you had picked a comparatively peaceful topic... like bicycle helmet use.

    I've witnessed (but refused to participate in) discussions of olives vs. lemon peel that teetered on the edge of violence.

    Happy New Year, and thank you for sharing your insights with us!

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  23. While I like a good gin martini on occasion, if I'm gong to be drinking spirits, I think it'll have to be a Vesper - the James Bond martini. 3 parts Gordon's gin to one part Grey Goose splashed with a taste of Kina Lillet (though given the difficulty I've had finding it, I'll either go with a sweet white wine or dry vermouth depending on my mood). Now THAT is the perfect martini! ;)

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  24. Matthew - I am just fine with a Vesper, as long as you call it a Vesper! Kina Lillet is available, rebranded as Lillet Blanc. We have some in the house right now and mixed it 1:1 with Hendrick's last night, with a blood orange twist, for an alternative martini-like drink. I like Lillet - and it tastes more identifiably as a desert wine than vermouth does, so it works better for "lady's drinks" at parties.

    Steve - We froze the glasses, but I by the time I took pictures, the effect wore off. I love the straight-from-the-freezer effect when it comes to gin-based drinks.

    This will make me completely untrustworthy as far as drinks advice, but I don't actually drink myself much for health reasons, so I normally just make the drinks for others and occasionally sample them. Any kind of wine other than a select few white Rieslings and Zinfandels makes me ill. Any mixed drink with sugar or sweet anything in it will make me ill. But if I stick to "simple" things, like gin, vermouth and champagne, I can have a little : )

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  25. Well, since the dry martini has been the house drink at Chez Phil since before you were born, Velouria, I have to chime in. ;-) You are quite correct in saying that a true martini is made with gin. Despite Agent 007's many...ahem, successes, on this both he and his creator are out to pasture.

    You can tell if it's a proper martini by the first sip. That first sip should have just enough "bite" to make you sit up and take inventory - to make certain you are up to the task. There are several excellent gins - all the Tanqueray variants come to mind - that fail this test due to the soft leading edge.

    I currently keep three different gins in the rotation. The house staple is the French Citadelle. It is the most complex gin I know due to the 19 aromatics used. I also am fond of Hendricks when in a more floral mood. And for the classic no-frills '50s martini a la Mad Men, Napa Valley's No. 209.

    I am also in total agreement with you choice of Noilly Prat. Italian dry vermouths aren't dry enough, in my opinion. (Noilly Prat makes a nice aperitif chilled, BTW, though it's a tad short on the finish.) There are several hard-to-find vermouths that are also good, including another Napa Valley product. There's an excellent article on vermouth in the current issue of Fine Cooking.

    On the subject of garnishes, that depends on both the season and the gin. In cold weather, I'm an olive man, but just a single one please. A phalanx of olives overpowers the delicate flavors of the gin. Also, please keep things to a good Spanish olive stuffed with a real pimento. No thanks to olives stuffed with cheese, chipoles et al.

    In warm weather I'll often go with a twist if the gin is Citadelle. Try a Hendricks martini with a garnish of two or three small Niçoise olives in summer. just remember they aren't pitted (and are the devil to pit). They are a nice compliment to the cucumber and rosewater flavors. No. 209 is a year-round olive gin.

    How's it made? Keep the glasses chilled and the vermouth, too, but not the gin. Put a dollop of vermouth in the chilled glass and swirl until the glass is coated. (How much is a dollop? According to Robert Benchley, just enough to get rid of that ghastly watery look.) Shake out the excess.

    Put 3 oz gin for each drink into a shaker with adequate ice (but not to much because it impairs both the shaking and the pouring. Shake according to William Powell's instructions. :-) (In an early scene of The Thin Man Powell's Nick Charles is instructing the bar staff in proper shaking technique while the band plays. A martini is always shaken in waltz time. In the next scene, Myrna Loy knocks back 6 of Powell's martinis in succession. I fell in love.)

    I caution that this is my (highly opinionated) way to achieve martini Nirvana. It's worked going on 40 years now.

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  26. I don't really drink but for some reason I feel the need to go procure a bottle of whatever Noilly Pratt is. I should resist these urges, I have too many jars of Marmite, Vegemite, Kroil("The Oil That Kreeps"), Marvel Mystery Oil, Dr. James' patented back-hair spiraling gel and on and on. I'm a sucker for a goofy name and an ostentatious label. It explains some of my bicycle purchases as well...

    Spindizzy

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  27. Happy New Year to you and everyone who reads your blog [raises a glass]

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  28. Velouria sorry I forgot to mention olive considerations! Some times a big oily black olive (Kalamata) is a nice touch (and arguably more palatable than a hard green olive) - one that leaves a small oil slick on the surface. Also I know some people prefer gin as the thing but a well made vodka lime Martini (with the lime twisted) is not to be easily dismissed.

    Cheers have a great new year!

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  29. Right on. Gin (Hendricks) FTW.

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  30. I absolutely love Martinis. Gin, vodka, dry, sweet, olive, lemon, dirty. A crisp vodka martini (Ketel One, splash of Dolin de Chambery Vermouth, small olives) being my favorite.

    Merry New Year to you and yours!

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  31. Your non-alchoholic cocktail sounds quite tasty! I think that we may have to give that a try sometime. Thanks!

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  32. ah! Dolin de Chambery! such a nice vermouth. If only it weren't three times the price of Noilly Prat.

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  33. Many good points here. I too replacethe brine in my olives with vermouth and enjoy the results. One consideration which has not yet been mentioned is ice. I find that crushing the ice makes the martini a little more special, as compared to clumsily throwing in a handful of whole cubes and giving a swirl (in waltz time, if you prefer). The few tiny slivers of ice lingering at the top of the finished drink tell the story. In addition, if you are a bit disorganized and short on freezer space like I am, fill the the glasses with crushed ice while preparing the rest of the drink and discard immediately before pouring.

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  34. Seems to be an awful lot of "shaking" discussion going on in the comments. With all due respect to 007, any cocktail that has only clear alcohol ingredients (no fruit juice, etc.)should be stirred, not shaken. Also, if one is on a quest for authenticity, try to hunt down some 5 oz. cocktail glasses...those 9+ oz. monstrosities are a very recent development.

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  35. Ours fit 4 oz comfortably, I think 5 may send them over the edge or at rim level. I think they were designed for 3.75-4 oz drinks.

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  36. @cris: It goes pretty far when you just use a bit in Martinis. It's after you've had a couple of those when you decide to start drinking it over ice that it goes quickly!!! But ohhhh is it good...

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  37. ah, yes, I know that misfortune. We've had a very nice bottle of Fernet-Branca that was slowly being consumed by Torontos and other experiments with rye. Then we went to Argentina and came back with a taste for Fernet-Colas, and the poor bottle didn't last until month's end.

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  38. I'm a proud martini snob (if not purist). One of the great abominations of the modern age is the so-called "martini menu" - just because you serve it in a martini glass, does not mean you are serving a martini.

    If I am trying to make the "perfect" martini, I use a variation on Phil's method, above. Pour 1 oz of dry vermouth into a shaker full of ice and invert - not shake - two or three times to coat the ice. Quickly pour out the excess vermouth and add 3 oz. gin. Shake, pour and enjoy. For the classic gin martini, I use two olives. I also like a vodka martini, but will then use a twist of lemon.

    "I've never tasted anything so cool and clean. They make me feel civilized." Hemmingway, Farwell to Arms

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