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Lightly Toasted: Chronicles of the Friday Night Cocktail Club

Seattle Man Outwits Gin Martini 
May 15, 2009 3:11 pm 
Updated: Jun. 8, 2009 3:43 pm
I finally figured out the martini. I mean, I broke it down and worked it out like I was sequencing a genome.

Fine, you raise a valid point: it’s two ingredients mixed together on ice -- what’s to figure out? In terms of degree of difficulty, martini-making would seem to rank right up there with turning a spigot to fetch yourself a cool glass of water.

Even so, I’ve gone years making mediocre martinis, and thinking maybe I just didn’t like 'em all that much.

Turns out I was doing it all wrong. The problem was, my martinis were not entirely minding the meaning of “dry."

Everyone always wants a "dry” martini, particularly those of us who grew up on M*A*S*H: “I’d like a dry martini…a very dry, arid, barren, desiccated, veritable dustbowl of a martini.”

And when people talk about a “dry” martini, they’re always talking about the vermouth -- as in, don’t put hardly any in there. “OK, I’ll go into the kitchen and pour the gin over ice while you drive by the house in a convertible, preferably under a steady rain, holding up a bottle of vermouth; I’ll wave to you from the window.” In the course of my fairly brief martini career, the sink has drained more dry vermouth than I.

But here’s the deal: “dry” doesn’t mean “keep the vermouth in the cupboard.” Cutting back so severely on the vermouth is going too far.

Here, as with wine, the opposite of “dry” isn’t “wet”; the opposite of dry is, instead, “not sweet.”

A dry martini is essentially a cocktail that has dry vermouth not sweet vermouth in it. I know these are fighting words for some (and by all means, please leave your comments below). For me, though, coming to terms with this critical distinction was the beginning of martini wisdom. Likewise, here are a few additional definitions of “dry” that would also seem to relate to good martini making: “not yielding milk” (so true, a good martini almost never yields dairy products of any kind), “served or eaten without butter, jam, etc.” (yes, certainly), “plain or unadorned” (right, if you’ve slipped a diamond engagement ring into someone’s martini, it’s no longer dry).

At any rate, since being enlightened, I’ve been experimenting with just how much vermouth I’m comfortable mixing into a martini. I’ve gone from one extreme to the next, from the austere -- rinse out the glass with vermouth (swirl and dump) -- to the extravagant: use equal measures of vermouth as gin (which is way too much vermouth).

Anyway, from the extreme of equal parts, I gradually pulled back on the vermouth by slight measure until I hit it just right. I can’t really tell you what that perfect amount is. There’s just this nick on my shot glass, and I fill the vermouth to the top of that nick. It’s not exactly exact, my science. And I guess I’m screwed if I ever lose that shot glass. Anyway, preference is a personal thing. Everybody’s gotta find his own nick, I suppose.

Oh, and here’s the other secret I’ve learned: I put a dash of orange bitters in with the gin (Plymouth’s) and dry vermouth, and then I stir the mixture over ice. Shaking’s fine, too. With all this trial and error, I’ve learned over time that I like the taste and the clarity of a stirred martini better. But this is mostly aesthetic. There’s something about watching the remarkable clear liquid poured from a stirred martini pitcher that makes me think of fresh clean water bubbling up from an impossibly pure spring somewhere. Makes me feel like dressing myself up like a cocktail olive and diving off the end of a lemon twist into the clear, cold, deep end of an old “frosty see-through.” Dry meets wet, indeed.
A few martini recipes to fiddle around with:
Shaggy's Perfect Martini
Dan Fay Martini
Bond's Vesper
Photo Detail
in my country, a black cat stirring your martinis on halloween is considered good luck.
Photo Detail
May 15, 2009 4:25 pm
, i'm thirsty.
May 15, 2009 6:16 pm
I'm thirstier
May 16, 2009 7:49 am
I used to think ordering a martini was the epitome of glamor. Just the thought of it made me think of Hollywood and movie stars. Sounded soooo "high brow". Don't know why but could just see myself dressed to the hilt, sitting in a posh nightclub saying "I'd like a martini, dry please". Ha, didn't even have my first alcoholic drink til 28 (and then it was as "zombie", 1/2 of which laid me low). When I did get that martini, many years later, I'm sure the look on my face was far from the "classy", glamorous image I thought I was going to portray. Ugh, double ugh! Now you've got me thinking....I'll bet that silly bartender didn't have a nick in the shot glass and he just screwed up an otherwise delightful drink. Ya think?
May 16, 2009 11:32 pm
Thanks for another good read, Lorem. My favorite lines are : "“plain or unadorned” (right, if you’ve slipped a diamond engagement ring into someone’s martini, it’s no longer dry), and "Makes me feel like dressing myself up like a cocktail olive." ~~~ Since you enjoy wines, I recommend that you try the magnificent Cream of Champagne Soup that Laughingmagpie created. The recipe & my comments are on her blog :
May 16, 2009 11:33 pm
How common are gin versus vodka martinis?
May 17, 2009 8:25 am
Wow, thanks for the comments! The martini you had, patricia3096, reminds me of a David Wondrich description: "a fiery chalice of unmixed tanglefoot." The martini as a glass of only slightly-watery gin, essentially, is really what the martini has become. It wasn't that way initially, though. If you were interested in giving the martini another try, I might mix 2 oz of gin with 1 oz of vermouth (I really like Plymouth gin) and mix in a dash of orange bitters and enjoy it with a lemon twist. It's nice and mellow that way. I should say, too, that I'm probably in the minority here. Many, many martini drinkers will say I've ruined it by adding too much vermouth and orange bitters. Reminds me of what my grandfather always called coffee degraded by the addition of cream and sugar: "coffee twice spoiled." Any let me know what you think!
May 17, 2009 8:45 am
Thanks for your nice comments and the interesting soup suggestion Rhianna. I'll give it a try and check out the blog! Your martini question is interesting. You know, I'm not sure which is more common these days. The martini did originate with gin. When vodka became popular later, it was substituted. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if vodka is more common than gin these days. Generally, a "martini" has gin, and a "vodka martini" as advertised. Personally, I prefer gin, but I have a friend at work who only drinks vodka martinis. And somehow we still manage to get along.
May 17, 2009 1:52 pm
Oh, didn't know that it was gin originally, or at all ~ thought martinis were made with vodka (but then again, I don't that much about cocktails). ~~~ Glad you'll look at her blog & are open to trying the truly elegant (but not pretentious!) soup! She owns a wine shop in Brit. Col., Canada.
May 18, 2009 1:19 pm
Have you ever tried Bombay Sapphire? Wonderful Gin. Also, my husband discovered several years ago that pouring the vermouth into the shaker, swirling then pouring off, adding the gin and carrying on made for the perfect martinit. Lord knows we gulped down many a less than palletable version before we made this discovery...
May 18, 2009 1:33 pm
Seems like the joy to discovering a True Martini may lead one to many a hangover!!
May 18, 2009 2:04 pm
i'm a part time bartender and i have a nick in my 'jigger'...if i ever loose that i'm screwed. i can completely relate!!! xo.
May 18, 2009 2:09 pm
I've never tried a Martini! At 42 years old I tried my first Margarita... I always thought Yuck! Who would want a sour drink with salt at that! Boy was I wrong! So on a hot day in Mexico, by accident I was given a Margarita (bought by a nice drunk guy on our tour bus for DH and I)... I loved it!.. The day was HOT!.. The drink was refreshing, cold, limey (not a British sailer), salty, well you know. It has since become my favorite drink! Maybe some day someone will slip me a Martini by accident. :)
May 18, 2009 2:11 pm
Thank God you're talking real Martinis. These days, some folks have decided that anything served in a Y-shaped glass is allowed to call itself a Martini. "I'll have an Apple-choco-lager-schnapps-atini" with cocoa butter and a twist." Arrgghh.
May 18, 2009 6:25 pm
Hey Lorem, maybe the reason why you and your friend at work manage to get along--even though you rock the gin and your friend tips the vodka--is because you're
May 18, 2009 6:28 pm
Whoa...I meant to finish that post but my cat walked across my keyboard and must have pressed "post." Bad kitty. Bad, bad kitty. No martini for you.
May 18, 2009 7:54 pm
Okay I'm glad you figured it out!! I don't like them myself but I have to say this blog cracked me the H#$% up ;) Thanks for an end of evening laugh =) Heidi
May 18, 2009 7:55 pm
Lorem, you've got such an extensive knowledge of this booze thing. ;) I'll admit to never having tasted a "real" martini. My martini experience consists of the "Boston Creme Pie" martini. I'm dying to try the Cremesicle variety and the strawberry cheesecake, Milky Way, and pumpkin pie martini. My recipe box reads more like a dessert menu than a bar menu. LOL Thanks for the insight! It's surprising these are even called martinis since they bear so little resemblance to the real thing.
May 20, 2009 5:20 am
Hi Lorem! I'm a martini fan also! But I think I'm a bit of a wimp--I don't strain the ice! I use a glass very much like in your photo completely filled with ice, then I fill the cap from the vermouth bottle with vermouth and pour that over the ice. Then I pour the gin over all to fill the glass. I then stir it with the olive on the pick and sip away!
May 20, 2009 8:39 am
Nice blog about the martini Lorem! I have never understood why vodka martinis weren't called something other than martini. Anyway, you write marvelously... you really gave the martini a personality, for those who may not be so familiar. BTW, when I make a martini for myself, I add one teaspoon of vermouth. Thanks again.
May 20, 2009 3:33 pm
A pro bartender friend of mine gave me a tip on Martini-making: first, add ice and water to the lip of your cocktail glass (to chill it). Now pour your gin (as much as you like, and your favorite -- I like New Amsterdam for martinis) over ice in a shaker. Dump the ice and water out of the glass. Add 1/2oz or so vermouth (which is a wine, by the way -- it should be kept fresh in the fridge) to the empty glass, and swirl. Watch the vermouth cling to the side of the glass as you swirl -- it's fun. Dump the excess vermouth, and strain in the gin. Add three olives (live large -- there's nothing better than a gin-soaked olive) and away you go! If you chilled the glass long enough, tiny ice crsytals will site on the top of your drink.
May 20, 2009 6:23 pm
Loving all the Martini talk, gin (Bombay Saph, the best). On a side note to actual martini construction, I was told by more than one customer (when I bartended a lifetime ago) that it was very important to have an odd number in the garnish, 1 twist, 3 olives or 1 olive, or 5 for me, but otherwise something bad may happen. I wish I had some gin now. sigh
May 21, 2009 9:57 am
Thanks for all the interesting comments. I’ll look for New Amsterdam, derbbre – is that a small-batch NYC gin? It doesn't sound familiar, but I’ll do some sleuthing. I like the comment about always having odd numbers for your garnish! That’s a great excuse to plop in extra olives or onions! I’m going to adopt that superstition. I lvoe it. Thanks, ConnorsMom. And thanks everybody. It’s fun reading these comments.
May 23, 2009 6:00 am
This was great fun reading, many thanks! I agree New Amsterdam is a fine Gin, I like it as much as Bombay. Thanks for the Martini talk!
May 23, 2009 7:47 am
Thank you for your tireless work on this project. I wrestled with the same thing and then in the 80's found a recipe in the "cocktails" chapter of "Modern French Culinary Art" by Henri-Paul Pellaprat (1966) that specified a 5 to 1 ratio of gin to dry vermouth for a Dry Martini. This proportion has served me well for 20 years, and believe me, I have monkeyed with the ratio on various whims, to mostly dismal results.
May 23, 2009 12:00 pm
Having been a bartender for a couple of years, and for a time in a "martini bar", these days martini means any drink based predominatly of liquor and served in a martini glass. Being a purist myself, when someone says they'd like a martini, my first question is always "vodka or gin?" and the second question, just as important, is "up or on the rocks?". The standard is usually to coat the glass in vermouth and dump it out before pouring the liquor into the glass, but I find that isn't enough for most customers. Another factor is the "dirty" martini. After you add olive brine, it's harder to discern the vermoth flavor. A popular hotel bar I worked in had a multitde of garnishes, including marinated aspargas (NOT pickled). It was marinated with garlic cloves & dill, and was a very popular garnish. I prefer my martini with Absolut, dry vermouth & the marinated aspargas juice. It looks strange but is delicious. If you are ever in Spokane, WA, go into the Peacock Room in the historic Davenport Hotel and ask for "the dirtiest martini you've got" :)
May 23, 2009 5:26 pm
This is not a recipe blog but a first experience account. Years ago...many, many years ago.... I was an airline hostess with a now defunct airlines. It was Christmas eve and our crew was in Miami Fl. Well, since it was Christmas eve the crew decided to be magnanimous and invited my fellow hostess and myself to join them in the hotel bar for drinks and dinner afterwards. When we arrived the captain was drinking a martini and asked if we would care for one. Well, I was just getting used to drinking rum and coke :-) but decided "what the heck!"so accepted the offer. My martini came and after the obligitory Christmas eve toasts, I took my first sip. My god!!! I have never tasted such vile stuff in my life. But not wanting to appear "unsofisticated" I continued to drink it until it was gone at which time the captain asked if i would like another...oh what the hell, why not!!! Well, I had no idea..the first martini tastes like but the second one is quite good and the third is downright wonderful!!! I can't tell you what a fourth tastes like, as I was practically carried to the room by my thought I was going to say the captain, didn't you?...and I didn't have another martini for nearly 20 years and then it was a vodka martini. My husband and I then got to liking our vodka martinis so dry we decided to skip the vermouth altogether and just put a bottle of Stoli's in the freezer and have it over ice. It goes down like a fine elixer. Needless to say my husband no longer drinks and I only have a glass of wine(or 2) on the occassion tonight is that it is the Saturday before Memorial Day.!!:-)
May 24, 2009 10:34 am
can't tell you how happy I am to read this blog! I am a purist, but never make martinis myself at home because the few times I've tried have been less than perfect -- and drinking a less than perfect martini is never worth it! I just have one comment -- does putting onions in a gin martini make it a Gibson? I love my olives, but once in awhile want onions... Also, I don't think a Martini is anything but Gin - otherwise it's a Vodka Martini. And anything that's sweet and colorful in a martini glass is just a mixed cocktail! It's very irritating to me to hear someone say: I love Martinis! I love Apple Martinis and Chocolate Martinis and Lychee Martinis ! Curses on the drink industry that started that fad! Live on, Bombay Saphire - Go forth and conquer!!
Caitlin R 
May 24, 2009 5:27 pm
My father says that if you're ever stranded alone in a desert, if you want to be saved, you should say outloud what you think is the perfect martini recipe. You will then be surrounded by about a hundred people telling you why it isn't perfect, what you're doing wrong, and what they think is the perfect recipe.
May 25, 2009 5:28 am
First time log-on for me... Your screen name: LOL!! I don't claim any expertise in martinis, but your comments seem wise. Fun readin too!
May 25, 2009 3:31 pm
There are so many great comments here! I love reading them, and I think Caitlin summed it up perfectly with her father's "stranded island" scenario! Perfect. Oh, and threeolives, I have these delicious "tipsy olives" that are soaked in verouth. Even when I plop in onions, I still call it a "martini," but that could be because in the heat of the moment I'm likely to confuse the word "gibson" with "gimlet" and have it come out "giblet."
May 25, 2009 5:44 pm
New Amsterdam Gin down here is down-right-give-away-cheap! It competes with Bombay and Citadel in my opinion - resting somewhere between the 2. But at about $24 for 2 (yes two!) 750ml, It kicks both their, uh, giblets. I feel almost guilty saying it here, but Gin & Tonic is WAY better than a martini for me. the only couple I have had tasted like gasoline. Though I must confess that I am a brewmaster and don't partake of that much liquor. It tends to bring out the Anti-Clark! To each his own! Prost! -CiT
May 26, 2009 12:07 pm
So, LI, when are you going to try a bacon vodka martini? Do let us know how that turns out...
Jun. 1, 2009 9:36 am
Just a note on olives and onions. I had one of the best martinis of my life at a restaurant called Taj in New York, pretty famous Indian place. The baretnder marinated pearl onions in something very spicy and chutney tasting. Two or three of those in an EXTRA dry martini was like heaven! I guess it would have been an Indian Gibson??
Jun. 8, 2009 3:43 pm
I like my vodka martinis dirty (with olive juice) and dry. And the way I always made a martini (gin or vodka) when I was bartender was to fill a glass with ice, coat the ice with dry vermouth and drain it off. Then pour the liquor of choice over the ice and shake or stir and drain in to the chilled glass. They seemed to be pretty good, rarely a complaint! :)
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About Me
My wife and I and our two devilish kittens live on Capitol Hill in Seattle. A few years ago, I got a masters in gastronomy. I'm a food/wine writer. I’m also blogging about cocktails.
My favorite things to cook
We cook fairly simple dishes using fresh local ingredients that we pick up at the Seattle farmers market. My favorite thing is making a nice slow-braised or long-roasted something on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I like cooking with wine (in the dish and in the glass...and in the cook).
My favorite family cooking traditions
My mom never liked to cook, but she did well despite herself. Her mother, my omi, was from Munich and made delicious rouladen, sauerbraten and other traditional German and American dishes. Always bins and bins of home-baked cookies at Christmas. Wonderful rye bread. And beer. Opa would say, "Brotzeit ist die beste zeit."
My cooking triumphs
We’ve made the signature timpano dish from The Big Night a couple times. And for Thanksgiving 2007, we made Turducken. My wife and I are always volunteering to cook the big holiday meals with the family. We mix a signature cocktail, and get down to it.
My cooking tragedies
I made Thanksgiving Dinner for myself once when I was snowed-in in Denver. I nearly burned down the neighborhood.
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