The mighty Martini

And so we come to the mighty, magnificent Martini.

Image: C Dixon

While other cocktails have come and gone in popularity, the Martini remains the epitome of cool. Undoubtedly, James Bond and the Madmen TV series have helped, but the creators of those fictions have borrowed the Martini’s chachet to present their character as sophisticated (or not: see below). Presented in the perfect cone of a classic Windsor Martini glass, it is cold, clean, clear and strong, requiring only a green olive for garnish. A well-made, well presented Martini draws attention by not seeking it.

As an aperitif, the Martini will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s virtually pure gin, of course, so some will find it overly strong. The secret to making such a strong drink palatable is in the mixing, but for those who dislike neat spirit, I’ve suggested some lighter alternatives below. With something this strong, you’re going to need to be careful about the number and timing of your aperitifs. I’d suggest making them quite short, about one measure of gin per person, and serving no more than two cocktails each. Your guests and your dinner will benefit from a decent gap before moving to table, too: give yourself at least twenty minutes to chat after the second drink is finished. Trust me, no-one will even notice the time passing, but a third Martini at this stage could be responsible, later in the dinner, for political arguments and some unnecessary home truths! 

A Gibson, rather than a Martini
Since the essence of the Martini is its purity, you’ll need a strong, clean-tasting gin. The complex gins that are currently most popular will struggle to shine against even a small dose of vermouth. Martini made from a lower alcohol gin (37.5%) might do on a Tuesday evening when you’ve no-one around, but it's never going to lift the spirits in the way a strong one will. I’ve always used Tanqueray as my go-to gin for Martinis. It’s clean, citrus and very strong (47%). If you prefer a little less alcohol, try Plymouth gin (42%). A relatively recent discovery for me has been Mason’s Yorkshire Gin (also 42%). It has all the cleanliness and sharpness necessary for a good Martini, is delicious in its own right and comes with the virtue of supporting a small, independent distillery. Try and get hold of a bottle if you can. You’ll need a good, full-bodied dry vermouth togo with your chosen gin. I’ve been using Noilly Prat for years. The herbs are very much to the fore, so it balances beautifully with the strength of the gin. You might also try Dolin sec, another French vermouth that puts herbs to the front, on a full-bodied wine base. I find Italian dry vermouths a little too light for a Martini. They tend to get lost in all that gin.

No good ever came of shaking a Martini. “Shaken, not stirred” was Ian Fleming’s way of hinting that Bond was not a gentleman. It puts both air and large quantities of water into the drink, destroying all the crispness you’ve spent good money on in your gin. Chill your glasses in the freezer or with crushed ice while you mix the drink. Place a handful of ice cubes in a mixing glass or tall jug. Pour on a generous measure of vermouth and give them a good mix. If you’re not making 6 Martinis at once, you’ll need to pour off some vermouth at this stage. Now add six times as much gin as you have vermouth left in the jug. Oh yes! Stir the drink steadily for about a minute, drawing the ice up through the drink as you stir. It’s important that a little of the ice melt into the drink while it's cooling it. It just takes the edge off the alcohol burn, without watering down the taste. Strain into your chilled glasses, twist a piece of lemon peel over the surface of each drink to release a little of the oil, then, discarding the lemon, garnish each with a green olive. Remember that there’s no rim on a Windsor Martini glass, and it can be difficult to handle without spilling the drink. My advice is to leave at least a centimetre of empty space above the drink, so it can slosh around in your guest’s hand without spillage.

Ideas for nibbles
The strength of a Martini demands lots of flavour, while its simplicity means you can’t over-complicate your nibbles. Stick to just one or two foods to serve with your drinks. Olives, parmesan crisps and tapenade dip all have high umami and will easily hold their own alongside the strong liquor.

My favourite accompaniment to a Martini is anchovy toast:-
Pound a small tin of salted anchovies into about 125g (4oz or half a block) of unsalted butter. Add a squirt of lemon juice, a touch of grated lemon zest and ground black pepper. You can also add chopped parsley and/or finely chopped capers if you like. Toast one side of white bread slices, then spread them generously with the anchovy butter on the other. Pop them back under the grill until the bread begins to colour on that side, too. Trim off the crusts (they’ll have burnt anyway), cut into triangles and serve immediately.

A couple of Martini variants I like:

Did you know that if you swap the olive garnish for a silverskin onion you change the cocktail’s name to a Gibson? Keep everything else exactly as you would for a dry Martini.

Try replacing the vermouth with sake or Japanese plum wine. Serve with Japanese rice crackers.

And some lighter alternatives to a Martini:

Trinity (This brings back happy memories of my time living with Jesuits.)
In a tumbler of ice, stir equal quantities of gin, dry vermouth and red vermouth. Garnish with a slice of lemon and serve.

Gin & It
In a mixer glass of ice, stir 1 measure of red, Italian vermouth and 2 measures of gin. Strain into a chilled coupette glass and garnish with half a slice of lemon.

In a mixer glass, stir together equal quantities of gin and Dubonnet. Strain into a Windsor Martini glass, twist orange peel over the surface of the drink and garnish with half a slice of lemon.


Next time: aperitif culture in France


  1. Reading this makes me want a Martini right now. Unfortunately, the hotel I'm staying in doesn't do them. Heathens!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Graham. Sorry to hear about your hotel. Perhaps you can introduce them to my blog and see if we can teach them the error of their ways.


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