Staring down the menu at a cocktail bar can be an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated. What’s the difference between “Martini” and a martini? What’s an old-fashioned no. 1 versus a no. 2? What makes a daiquiri a daiquiri exactly? And it never helps that every bartender in the country makes their own variations of classic drinks with (often) superfluous ingredients.
This post isn’t here to teach you the finer arts of mixing a cocktail — that takes years of practice to perfect. We’re here to give you a gateway into the world of cocktail menus: what to look for when ordering, how to spot an over-wrought recipe, and a general introductory syllabus to help you get into the world of mixology. Enjoy!
The dry martini is the most iconic cocktail on any menu. It’s the perfect cocktail hour drink because it’s light and strong at the same time. You can literally drink them all night. It’s important to remember that Martini is a mid-range brand of vermouth that provides a vital ingredient in a dry martini. The ‘dry’ part of the name comes from dry gin being the main ingredient. Dry (or London) gin is the clear, twice distilled version of gin that has little to no added sugars.
What you’re looking for in a great dry martini is a 1:1 ratio of a decent gin (Bombay Dry, Old Tom, and Tanqueray will suffice) and a great dry or white vermouth (Noilly Prat, or Dolin if you’re trendy) with a single dash of bitters (Angostura only). It should always, without question, be stirred, and strained into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. The biggest reason shaking is out of the question with gin in this case is that the ice bruises the oils in the spirit when shaken and releases peroxide into the cocktail, making it cloudy, and thereby overwhelming the botanicals of both the gin and vermouth. This then changes the balance of the drink from something that has a herb-forward smoothness to a watered down shot of alcohol.
It’s also true that over time “dry” has come to mean less and less vermouth in the concoction. The measurements range from 1:1 down to 6:1 (commonly called a Gibson), which gives rise to the old adage that “the best martini is the one where the bottle of vermouth only casts its shadow over the gin.” Lastly, purists will never garnish their martinis. Twists of lemon or speared olives were seen as abomination when they were introduced. Today, we seem to have collectively gotten over it. So the only advice one can give here is: If your gin is more South Asian, go for the twist, and if it’s more Dutch or English, go for the olive.