Robb Report Vices

In search of the perfect martini

The martini, one of our most popular and sophisticated cocktails, has been around long before it became the “spirited” 1960’s Mad Men TV co-star. It was actually invented in the 1870s by a northern California saloon owner named Julio Richelieu. Consisting of a crude, sweet gin known as “Old Tom,” a splash of red vermouth, and bitters, it was originally called the Martinez, after the town in which it was created.

By 1888 the Martinez had morphed into the “martini” and in 1896 a suspiciously similar cocktail, the Marquerite, appeared in Stewart’s Fancy Drinks and How To Mix Them. It called for 2/3 ounces of Plymouth Gin – the first time a specific brand was named – plus a dash of orange bitters, and 1/3 ounce of French vermouth. Today we tend to like our martinis a little drier. Until the Cold War mentality of the 1950s, martinis were primarily made with gin. But then James Bond’s vodka martini – shaken, not stirred - temporarily pushed gin into the shadows.

Today gin has regained its rightful place upon the chilled-and-straight-up-throne (the only way a martini should be served, in our opinion) – even though vodka is now an accepted alternative. But as to whether “shaken or stirred,” there is only one answer. In a random survey of top bartenders in London, New York, and Los Angeles, almost all stirred their martinis. The reason is pretty straightforward, according to Simon Ford, Plymouth Gin past brand ambassador and now a partner in The 86 Company, distributor's of Ford's Gin.

“I always stir a Martini,” says Ford. “That way you retain the viscosity in the body of the gin and vermouth. It also avoids shards of broken ice in your drink. And the martini looks better when you stir it; shaking gin and vermouth makes them cloudy. I like my martini's cold and silky and I want to see clear and clean liquid in my cocktail glass.”

A martini can say much about the person ordering it. A gin martini is more attuned to tradition; a vodka martini reflects a penchant for lighter tastes. Many express their individuality further by specifying brands, such as the historically correct Plymouth Gin, the modernistic flavors of Bombay Sapphire East, or one of the boutique spirits such as American-made One Roq vodka.

But our vote for the world’s best martini goes to Dukes at St. James, London. In the bar where Ian Fleming once concocted the Vesper martini ordered by James Bond in Casino Royale, Bar Manager Alessandro Palazzi wheels a table alongside the customer’s chair to prepare the drink. First he pours ½ ounce of Noilly Prat vermouth into a frosted martini glass, then immediately flings the liquid onto the carpet, leaving just a thin coating in the glass. Next he pours a stream of chilled gin into the glass. He finishes the show by twisting a lemon rind over the gin to coat it with a fine mist, then brushes the rim of the glass with the rind before dropping it into the drink.

On the other hand, the world‘s driest martini is poured at The Churchill Bar at the Hyatt in London. There the hotel’s propriety Sacred London Dry Gin is stirred, then strained into a glass, straight up, and garnished with two olives. All the while an unused bottle of Noilly Prat stands symbolically alongside the glass, following Winston Churchill’s belief that this is as close as the vermouth should ever get to his martini.