Shake it Up – 8 Steps to a Better Martini

By Pete Prown

Oh, the things we martini drinkers do in pursuit of the perfect “silver bullet.” So many restaurants and bars try to shorthand us with too much vermouth, sneaky drops of water, and sugary mixers — even sprigs of cilantro. Horrors!

Here, fortunately, are eight tips to make your martini quest a more satisfying and life-affirming endeavor.

1. Spirits in the night. It doesn’t matter if your primary spirit is gin or vodka, either one is core to the experience. Use bourbon if you want a Manhattan or scotch for a Rob Roy, but otherwise, a distilled clear spirit is mandatory. Both vodka and gin are derived from the same distilled base — ethanol — though the latter is flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals for its unique flavor.

2. It’s not “shaken or stirred.” Today, it’s more often shaken or frozen. It’s perfectly valid to keep your spirit in the freezer for on-the-go pouring. Mixing your martini in a shaker, however, has the advantage of old-school ritual, plus the ensuing shards of ice can help soften the blow. The harder you shake, the more ice fragments you can enjoy.

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3. To vermouth or not to vermouth. I personally regard a little vermouth to be essential, as it confers a bit of perfume to the concoction. The more you add, of course, the lower the alcoholic punch of your martini, which might be preferable. I don’t measure scientifically, but a ratio in the neighborhood of 6:1 seems correct. Enough to give deliver fragrance without diminishing the brute appeal of the spirit.

4. Pick your garnish, sparingly. I like a twist of lemon peel, but won’t turn down a Kalamata olive, which I prefer to traditional green ones, stuffed or not. A Gibson, with cocktail onions, is also quite acceptable. You get into trouble when you start combining olives-and-twist, or twist-and-onion. Too much of this and your martini turns into something of a liquid salad. Keep it simple, folks.

5. A lemon trick. For an extra-lemony potion, put a second twist in the shaker before you give it your all. Once shaken, this will invoke a wonderful citrus scent — without the perils of bitter lemon juice.

6. Liners and limitations. In a restaurant, I only ever have one martini, as they tend to serve them rather large — perhaps 4 oz. to 6 oz., which is ample. At home, two is plenty, provided you don’t use absurdly oversized glasses. (It’s hard to find medium-sized martini glasses anymore, but it’s worth the effort.) Also, have a small something to nibble on before you drink. The martini is a potent brew and requires a little priming of the pump. A few peanuts or crackers will help, as will a slow sipping pace.

7. Speaking of restaurants. Like the eternal battle between lions and hyenas on the African savanna, the struggle between martini drinkers and bartenders goes back to the dawn of time. The cost-conscious bar manager may try to decrease the amount of spirit and fill the void with too much vermouth (or even water), while the imbiber wants a good, stiff drink. There are two courses of action here. First, ask for an “extra dry” martini, or even an “extra, extra dry” one, so your server can’t miss the point. The more direct approach is to ask for your choice of gin or vodka straight up, or on the rocks, but no vermouth. That way the bartender can’t slip in anything else, save too much ice. In a worse-case scenario, send back your drink and ask the bartender to do it right. (In Media, I’ve enjoyed good extra-dry martinis at Azie and Belle Epoque.)

8. A question of taste. Today, our servers and bartenders will try to tempt you with all sorts of colorful, creative, and ethnically inspired drinks that purport to be martinis. They are, categorically, not.

If you want a fun, sweet drink, these are fine, but calling them a martini is an insult to the oeuvre. Keep your elderberry juice, lemongrass, and pomegranate extract, as well as your bottled “dirty martini” syrup. Like many others, I enjoy a silver bullet the old-school way: straight up, ice cold, and in a proper martini glass. That’s the ticket.

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