Martinis are, and always have been, cool. If you know what you’re doing, that is. If not, it’s one of those drink orders that can feel more complicated than ordering a steak. And knowing how to order the martini you want can make or break whether you even like the drink you’re paying ten bucks for.
Personally, my order is a gin martini — stirred, straight up, perfect, with a couple of olives. If I’m feeling a bit salty, I’ll go dirty instead of perfect. Why bother with all those specifics when you can just order an Old Fashioned or Manhattan or Mai Thai and know what you’re getting without all the extra language?
Because a well-made martini endures as one of the best cocktails you can hope to drink. It’s devilishly smooth and packs a wallop of alcohol.
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Below is a guide to help you know what the hell you’re ordering the next time you walk into a (competent) cocktail bar. The higher end places will want to make you the perfect drink, so expect them to ask you details. If they don’t, maybe just order their house craft beer.
WHAT IS A MARTINI ANYWAY?
There are a lot of drinks out there called an “x martini.” Those are your appletinis, espresso martinis, etc. These are not martinis. They generally get the “martini” moniker from being served in a cocktail glass, which is often erroneously called a “martini” glass. A cocktail glass is that conical glass that comes to mind when you envision a martini. That glass is also used to serve Manhattans, Rob Roys, El Presidentes, Cosmopolitians, Grasshoppers, and so on — hence, “cocktail” glass.
Martinis are a cocktail that’s 2 parts spirit (gin or vodka generally), 1 part fortified wine (white or dry vermouth generally), and water. Garnishes of lemon, onions, or olives are optional. That’s it. Over the nearly two centuries since its invention, martini recipes have ebbed and flowed with the times, becoming more or less alcoholic and dressed with garnishes but those basic elements remain unaltered.
Martinis can be served in an array of glasses. While the classic conical cocktail glass is the most common; the old school coupe, Nick and Nora, and even an old-fashioned glass are perfectly normal vessels. The point is to have an open glass that allows you to take in the alcohol without it getting concentrated and overwhelming the nose.
VODKA vs. GIN
Let’s just get this out of the way. Order your martini how you like it. If gin isn’t your jam, don’t drink it. Definitely, don’t let anyone sneer at you for ordering vodka instead of gin in a martini. They’re both great for different reasons.
Vodka is a clean, well-filtered distilled spirit that’s almost flavorless (well, the good ones anyway). Ordering a vodka martini allows the botanicals in the vermouth to shine a bit more broadly. Overall, you’ll get a cleaner, crisper cocktail with vodka that’s easier on the palate.
Gin is less filtered than vodka and goes through a secondary distillation wherein botanicals are added and infused with the spirit. This means gins have a bit more going on at all levels. Gins tend to be juniper forward which balances nicely with the subtle wormwood and chamomile of a good vermouth.
At the end of the day, it really just comes down to your taste. However, there are variables at play here since vodka and gin are not the same spirit. Which leads us to…
SHAKEN vs. STIRRED
This is probably the order you’ll hear the most argument over. And it’s valid. Shaking a drink is very, very different than stirring it.
As a general hard-and-fast rule, shake vodka and stir gin. Classically speaking, a shaken vodka martini is actually called a Bradford or a “Kangaroo Cocktail.” But unless you’re at The American Bar at The Savoy in London, you’ll probably get blank stares ordering a vodka martini by those names.
Without getting too science-y about it. Gin is filtered less and essential oils from botanicals attach to the molecules in the spirit. That makes gin a lot more delicate than vodka. When you shake gin vigorously with hard cubes of ice, you start to separate the oils that are holding peroxide molecules to fat molecules and the spirit literally starts to fall apart. You don’t want that, mostly because it’ll start to taste like peroxide and get oily. All of that has been filtered out of vodka (generally), so shaking vodka is a lot less detrimental to the spirit.
At its core, shaking is for emulsification. You shake whiskey sours or daiquiris or pink ladies because you need acids, sugars, proteins, and fats to blend into a single whole while cooling the elixir. Stirring is about blending spirits while chilling without breaking down the components. Think of shaking like baking a cake and stirring like making a bowl of cereal. With one, you have a wholly new product at the end. With the other, you’ve married two components into a single product that still highlights each.
WET vs. DRY
A dry martini is a pretty classic order. Originally, this referred to the Dry London Gin that was used in the cocktail. That’s changed over the years. Now dry tends to mean that you have less vermouth in the mix — that is, more dry gin. A wet martini then means that you have more vermouth in the mix — that is, less alcohol.
So, ordering a martini “very dry” will mean that the amount of vermouth should be about a drop. Technically, it should be 6:1, but that varies. Some bartenders joke that an extra dry martini should only see the shadow of the vermouth bottle. And there are great recipes for extra dry martinis where the chilled glass is simply coated with the vermouth before it’s discarded and the chilled gin or vodka is strained into the glass.
At the end of the day, this comes down to your taste. Experiment. Find what you dig and love that.
STRAIGHT UP vs. ON THE ROCKS
“On the rocks” is self-explanatory. Generally, this is a great way to order a martini if you want to drink a few extra and still want to walk upright at the end of the night. Martinis are straight alcohol and drinking them on the rocks gives you a little more leeway by upping the water content, thereby lowering the ABVs. On the rocks should also always be served in a rocks or old-fashioned glass (which otherwise would only be used for double martinis).
Straight up means chilled with ice (shaken or stirred) then strained into a chilled glass without ice. It is sometimes confused with the cocktail glass being stemmed and up above that stem. That’s not really why. It really just means no ice in the glass. There’s not much else to say here as most bars will automatically serve you a martini straight up unless you specifically ask otherwise.
PERFECT, DIRTY, BURNT
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So, here’s where specificity comes into the ratio of gin or vodka to vermouth. Perfect is a 50/50 or 1:1 ratio recipe. It’s a balance of both that is often the best place to start exploring martinis. A classic martini will be 2:1 or even 3:1 if the bartender is being generous.
A dirty martini will add in a measure of green olive brine to the mix. Generally speaking, the ratio will be 2:1:0.5 spirit, vermouth, brine. Again, this varies by who is bartending. The more olive brine you add, the dirtier the martini gets. You can theoretically order a “Filthy Martini” that’s got more brine in it than vermouth.
A burnt martini has a drop of peaty scotch on top like a float. It’s a pretty uncommon order, but a damn tasty one.
TWIST vs. OLIVE
Garnishes are a later addition to the martini. There are still some purists out there who discount using an olive or lemon peel. It’s really up to you so try it all three ways. See what you like and go from there.
Overall, olives on their own add a hint of brine and give you a counterpoint to chew on while drinking. It’s a mouthfeel component that some love.
Lemon, on the other hand, changes the drink completely. Spritzing a martini with the oils from the lemon rind adds a burst of light to the drink. Those oils work best with vodka since it’s already pretty neutral. Of course, lemon also works with gin, but a little less so, as the lemon oils can clash a bit. Again, this is down to your palate.
VARIATIONS: GIBSON, BRONX, VESPER
There are a lot of variations to the classic martini. Some of those variations have become so popular, that they can be ordered by their own aliases these days.
A Gibson is an extra dry gin martini (6:1 ratio) garnished with pickled pearl onions.
A Bronx is kind of like a perfect martini with orange juice. You’ll be ordering a drink that’s 2:1:1:0.5 that’s gin, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, and orange juice. It’s an acquired taste.
The Vesper brings is all together. It was invented by Ian Flemming in his seminal Casino Royale. It’s 3:1:0.5 parts gin, vodka, and Lillet Blanc shaken that’s then garnished with lemon oils and rind. Lillet Blanc is a fortified aromatic wine that’s in the general arena of vermouth. So the Vesper is kind of the best of all worlds if you can’t decide between gin or vodka with your martini order. Just make sure the barkeep shakes it very gently so as not to damage the gin and Lillet too much.