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Friday Cocktail Blogging: The Martini Debate

with 19 comments

A cold one....

“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.”

– Dorothy Parker

Till a couple of years ago, when I was a poor graduate student, alcohol (the drinkable variety) was just alcohol – didn’t really matter what variety it came in: cheap, or preferably free with the fewest strings attached, and simply getting drunk was all that counted.

Martinis belonged to a separate planet. It was something James Bond sipped while impressing all those sexy women, and cost near about a dinner meal to order. I remember the first experience trying to order a Martini in the snappy Bond-ish style, but messing up as the bartender kept asking me all these questions about what brand of liquor etc till I was reduced to a blabbering slob. And then I didn’t even really like the drink that much !

Thanks to a better pay-check, strong personal interest in the art of mixology, and experimentation with many bottles of gin and vermouth, I am in a much better position today to appreciate the drink. Not only can I order without making a fool of myself, but I can fix Martinis (and quite a few cocktails) at home much better than many professional bartenders. Note that in enjoying your Martini, and I will stress this again later, ‘better’ often depends on your taste. Still, some bartenders mix the drink in manners that are Not Done. But I digress.

This sophistication has also meant that I now need to have a Position in the Martini Debate, namely what constitutes Martini ingredients, ‘vodka or gin’, how ‘dry’ and ‘shaken or stirred’ ? I have touched on this briefly before, but here is a more detailed analysis.

Ingredients: I am a purist (or, depending on which way you look at it, a snob) and insist that anything outside of gin, vermouth, perhaps bitters and garnishing, cannot constitute a martini. All those colorful drinks with fruit-juices and tropical rain forests hanging out that are part of a ‘martini menu’ just because they are served in Martini glasses, are simply cocktails, not Martinis. Period.

Vodka or gin: Gin – see above. Vodka martinis, supposedly popularized by Ian Fleming through James Bond, should be called vodkatinis. Case closed.

Dryness: This is where there is flexibility depending on personal taste. Dryness, which depends on the amount of vermouth used with less corresponding to dryer, is a slightly misleading term. Vermouth is an aromatic wine, and as such adds sweetness to the drink. So a dryer Martini will have less sweetness imparted from the vermouth.

The quest for dryness in Martini is stuff of legends and apocryphal stories. Sir Winston Churchill, perhaps the most famous of Martini-lovers apparently simply looked at France (or across the room, depending on the version of the story) – the birthplace of vermouth while mixing his martini.

‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, the sardonic surgeon from M.A.S.H, while not brewing the stuff in his tent was always in the quest for the driest of all Martinis: “I’d like a dry martini, Mr. Quoc, a very dry martini. A very dry, arid, barren, desiccated, veritable dustbowl of a martini. I want a martini that could be declared a disaster area. Mix me just such a martini.” he said.

The way I prefer it, I fill up roughly quarter of the vermouth bottle cap, add it to the glass portion of a shaker filled with ice. Swirl a bit so that the vermouth mixes with the ice and coats the inner surface of the glass and drain away the rest.

Shaken vs Stirred: Another one that can be debated endlessly and as one web-site calls it, a question on the theological level. Shaking the gin/vermouth mix with ice obviously cools it much faster than gentle stirring. Proponents of stirring however (the ‘Bond got it all wrong’ camp) are fond of saying that shaking causes the gin to ‘bruise’. What that means is anyone’s guess – because I am not sure the gin’s feelings are being hurt either way. Somerset Maugham, another famous Martini-lover, apparently made this intriguing statement on the topic: “Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other”. Maugham’s way with words is unparalleled, but I am not sure how sound this statement was chemically. However, shaking does introduce fine chips of ice and tiny air bubbles into the drink. The ice-chips cause dilution of the drink with water which affects taste. The bubbles make the drink look cloudy, not an aesthetically pleasing outcome and according to some, screws the taste as well.

Personally, I prefer stirred. Its not a big difference, but overall seems to provide a more pleasing sensory experience.

Garnishing: They can range from one to three olives to onions to lemon twists. Some people also prefer a splash of olive juice (making it a dirty Martini) to make the drink saltier. I personally frown on the practice, and prefer two olives.

Lost in these debates is the most important factor, and I have noticed it is often missed even at regular bars, that is to make sure that the drink is cold, cold and cold. Warmth kills the taste of the martini. I really get irritated when they forget this basic principle at bars (happened just this week at a fairly classy restaurant). While some people actually keep their gin in the freezer, it is not necessary as long as you pre-chill your glass (by keeping it in a freezer or filling with ice and soda) and properly mix the drink in ice. Speaking of ice, always use good quality – not the ice that has been lying in your freezer for the last few years under the fish and the pile of steaks you forgot to cook. If possible fresh ice made with filtered water. You could go overboard and use bottled water for making ice – but unnecessary.

Hopefully, armed with these tools, you will be able to pass yourself as a snobbish sophisticated man/woman about the town while ordering a Martini, or making one for your guests. Not to mention enjoying the cold one at the end of the week at home.

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Also of interest, a New York Times article on Martini tasting – they talk of similar gin-snobbery, and this helpful FAQ on Martinis.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

May 4, 2007 at 11:03 am

Posted in Martinis

Tagged with , , , ,

19 Responses

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  1. AMEN!!
    Raising first drink to thee, sire!
    Though mine is going to be a cheap beer :)

    Sakshi

    May 4, 2007 at 4:22 pm

  2. Can you show some mercy on poor graduate students? Think of some drinks which we can afford.

    Confused

    May 4, 2007 at 10:52 pm

  3. Well, I was somewhat busy on Friday, but I’ll take the one in the picture, minus the olives, which would just get in the way of my drinking. Also, if people want to put all sorts of stuff in a certain shaped glass and call it a martini, thats OK with me, as long as I don’t have to drink it.

    Brian

    May 7, 2007 at 9:55 am

  4. @Sakshi: Athough its a bit late (was swamped since Fri eve and the weekend to comment) – cheers to you!

    And fret not, you shall be a post-doc (or even better, an actual job-holder) pretty soon in the land of cheap(er) alcohol. (Trader’s Joe in San Diego has good deals on liquor)

    @Confused: Sire, you commanded – we shall obey.

    @Brian: The olives are in case you need some solid food :-)

    Anyway, I thought you were more of a Martini-Nazi than I am – what happened to the general disdain of fruity, squishy and cute-looking stuff ?

    BongoP'o'ndit

    May 7, 2007 at 10:03 am

  5. The shaking bruises the gin because vermouth mixes better that way (different diffusion constants). You like the shaken martini better because you start tasting the vermouth right about the time your martini is begining to dilute…BTW what kind of a post doc are you?:) I am jealous and poor!

    curiouscat

    May 7, 2007 at 4:22 pm

  6. Errata : “You like shaken” in prev comment should be “you like stirred”

    curiouscat

    May 7, 2007 at 4:23 pm

  7. @BongoP’o’ndit: A philosophical question.. If one has access to Vodka, why have a Martini?

    Vivek Kumar

    May 8, 2007 at 3:28 am

  8. @Curiouscat: Aha – now we get into the molecular physics of it!

    But I wonder if the diffusion constants would be so different for the small alcohol molecules in shaking v/s shirring. Obviously shaking would mix things much better – but even in stirring, shouldn’t the random diffusion be sufficient to mix the two ? I should set-up a better experimental system to verify this.

    Btw, individually I am still ‘poor’, but combined paychecks help ;-)

    @Vivek: Err….to have a Martini – you need Gin, not Vodka ;-)

    But good question. It is a peeve of mine to see fine vodkas being diluted by colored liqueurs, fruit juices and sugary syrups.
    Basically, any good (or the really bad) quality liquor should be drunk on its own – leaving the moderate ones for cocktails.

    BongoP'o'ndit

    May 8, 2007 at 10:56 am

  9. @BongoP’o’ndit: You got me right, I meant “cocktails” rather than a specific one like Martini.

    Vivek Kumar

    May 8, 2007 at 12:33 pm

  10. @bongo: Ok, I was a little blithe when I made that statement. I am not thinking molecule, I am thinking mixing theory of liquids. What happens is vermouth likes to stay in between water and gin. Implies when water is only ice (and pre chilling the glass ensures it stays that way for a while), vermouth prefers to stay on the surface of the ice. I’ll try and find the reference for you. (and apparently does not work this way for vodka!)

    aside: disappointed to learn that one more straight thinking guy is already hitched :):(

    curiouscat

    May 8, 2007 at 5:34 pm

  11. @curiouscat: That certainly does make sense. I should have remembered from my Chemistry background (feels like eons ago). Gin is pretty much vodka re-distilled with juniper berries – wonder how that affects mixing.

    Errr….thanks for the compliment :) !

    BongoP'o'ndit

    May 8, 2007 at 6:43 pm

  12. Bongo, just saw this…

    I have to admit that curiouscat is right that shaken is better (surprising you don’t find them too different) and gin iiiisss the way to go! One needs little else with Martini in hand (although I love a good wine too).

    Chandra

    June 7, 2007 at 3:46 am

  13. […] The Martini is my usual pre-dinner cocktail of choice, but lately I have fallen in love with the […]

  14. Nice detail in the post.. shows the author’s interest in the drink!
    I love anything which has Tequila as an ingredient! :)
    Daiquiris come a close second..

    Ms Taggart

    August 1, 2008 at 8:39 am

  15. Loved the post! As a martini fan, I couldn’t agree more.

    Lainie Levin

    July 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

  16. […] that the kind of Manhattan you prefer, like Martinis, is a personal choice: the type of whiskey, on the rocks or straight up, dry or sweet and cherry or […]

  17. […] Being Gourmet magazine, they also obviously get their stuff right:  Martini is  to be stirred (not shaken), the vermouth is ‘to taste’ (and they stress this fact) with nary a mention of vodka. We can but only appreciate. […]

  18. […] The Daily Grill: The bar at the hotel I stayed; not too memorable other than the fact I got into a mild argument with the bartendress about how a Sazerac should be made (she was shaking the stuff, and I was telling her to stir) – but I bowed to the fact that she’d been bartending much much longer than I’d been making Sazeracs. I ended up drinking two of her concoctions and then going back later in the week for more. Now if it was a Martini, I’d have fought till death (though I doubt a good bartender would dare to shake when asked for stirred martini). […]

  19. […] any of the more sophisticated cocktails – such as a well-made ice-cold Martini (prepared the right way), or perhaps a Side-car is ideal. But for heaven’s sake, don’t have a […]


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