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The Dry Martini, often called the Martini cocktail or simply the Martini, is unquestionably the ultimate mixed drink. Though not the first, it is by far and away the best known. The distinctive inverted-cone Martini glass has become a universal symbol for mixed drinks and alcohol in general, and has become known by the more generic (but inaccurate) cocktail glass term.

If you can't mix a Martini, you can't mix drinks. If you've never had too many Martinis, you've never been drunk. It is the most elegant, the most lethal, the most sophisticated and most controversial drink ever invented. I could go on in this vein, but I think you've got the idea.

History

No-one knows for sure where the Martini came from. The story that most people seem to believe is that the first real Martini was mixed in 1910 by a Manhattan bartender called Martini di Arma di Taggia, for none other than John D. Rockefeller. This quaint tale is wrong, however, because bartender's manuals from the early 1880s mention the drink. Initially it was called a Martinez, essentially a Manhattan made with gin instead of whiskey, and it's not until 1888 that Harry Johnson's New And Improved Illustrated Bartender's Manual or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style (I'm not kidding) first contracts the name to Martini.

Some Britons will claim that the Martini was born in London sometime during the 1870s. Going back even further, there was a legendary San Francisco bartender who mixed something that looked suspiciously like a Martini in 1862.

And of course some Italians will claim that it was named after Martini and Rossi's brand of vermouth.

Whatever; the earliest Martinis were nothing like the clear, subtle drink we know today. They were often made with triple sec (Curacao), bitters and the like. It took a good few decades for the recipe to be distilled down to its present bone-dry form, which has been the norm since the 1930s or thereabouts.

Martini Lore

The Martini has cropped up all over the Twentieth Century. Presidents, Prime Ministers, writers, musicians, sportsmen, models and millionaires have all guzzled way more than their fair share - and all paid the price in the morning.

Noel Coward was once overheard to say that he "would never have been caught dead without a full Martini glass and a tailor-made tux on his evening out." Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin plotted the downfall of the Nazis over a few. Krushchev referred to the drink as "America's lethal weapon".

Ernest Hemingway, a hardcore drinker and then some, was also a big fan. In The Sun Also Rises, a character reminisces: "We sat on high stools at the bar while the barman shook martinis in a large nickelled shaker... We touched the two glasses as they stood side by side on the bar. They were coldly beaded. Outside the curtained window was the summer heat of Madrid. 'I like an olive in a Martini,' I said to the barman." In actual fact, a Martini with an olive is a Gibson, but the prose is still beautifully evocative. From A Farewell To Arms: "I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized."

But the best - and perhaps the most accurate - Martini quote is attributed to the great Dorothy Parker: "I like to have a Martini, Two at the very most, After three I'm under the table, After four I'm under my host."

These days you can't mention the Martini without people thinking of James Bond. The odd thing is that Bond never drank a real Martini. He always ordered a "Vodka Martini", and even that is wrong.

And then of course there were the Rat Pack, The Kennedys, Monroe and Russell, the lounge revival...

Mixing It

The trouble with Martini recipes is that they're always wrong. Everyone makes a Martini slightly differently, everyone thinks they know the best percentage and everyone has their own little rituals. And the truth is, they're all right. The best Martini is the one you like best. You just have to experiment - what a shame, eh?

Here's a good starting point (in my humble opinion):

What you need:

  • Gin. Of the widely-available gins (at least in the UK), I think Bombay Sapphire is the finest - it's got that wonderfully different flavour to it and the results are brilliant. Plymouth Dry is also superb, and for some real kicks-like-a-mule flavour try organic.
  • Vermouth. Don't use Martini! I usually go for Noilly Prat.
  • A cocktail shaker, with its strainer.
  • Lots of ice. The ice should be 'dry' - that is, frosty and not yet starting to melt. Don't crush the ice: it should only chill the drink, not dilute it.
  • A nice fresh lemon. Don't slice it until you need it.
  • Martini glasses - the wide V-shaped ones that are usually known as 'cocktail' glasses. Make sure they're chilled.
  • Good company and good conversation. Preferably with people who won't mind you messing about with cocktail paraphernalia all night and who can drink heavily without getting too messy.
  • Lounge music in the background... low lights... a warm breeze from the balcony overlooking the city... all that stuff.

What you do:

  1. Cut some half-slices of lemon, one half-slice per glass. Remove the flesh from the slices and throw it away, so you're just left with the rind.
  2. Put some gin and some vermouth in the shaker. That's the hard bit - see below for the ratio of gin to vermouth. Use a spare glass as a measure to get the right number of drinks.
  3. Throw in a good quantity of ice.
  4. Gently swirl the drink and the ice around in the shaker. This is the 'stirring' that James Bond objects to. About five seconds is fine, ten at the most.
  5. Strain the Martini into the glasses.
  6. For each glass, take one of those pieces of lemon rind and squeeze it so that the puff of spray from the *outside* of the rind (you know, like you see when you peel an orange) lands on the surface of the drink.
  7. Drink and enjoy. But be warned. The Martini is a stylish and sophisticated drink but it's still bloody strong, a fact that Bond himself often used to, er, win the hearts of women.
Simple really. But the ratio of gin to vermouth is critical.

The Gin:Vermouth Ratio

Like I said, the correct ratio is the one you like best. Opinions differ hugely. Here are some:

  • 50:50. This is just wrong. No.
  • 60:40. A pretty typical ratio but a crude result.
  • 75:25. Easy to measure out and just right in my opinion, unless you want bone dry.
  • The 'pink gin' method: Put just the vermouth and the ice in the shaker. Swirl. Strain: throw away the vermouth but keep the ice in the shaker. Now add the gin. The idea is that just enough vermouth clings to the ice to flavour the drink. Seriously.
  • 100:0. One famous bartender used to say that just letting the shadow of the vermouth bottle fall across the glass was enough for the perfect Martini ratio.

Go for it. But whatever you do, don't drink more than three.

Acknowledgements to several sources on the web, whose content I've shaken rather roughly, and not stirred. Go and find them, they're worth it.