Ending the Dry Spell
Winston Churchill supposedly once said, “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.” He might have uttered this sentence nearly a century ago, but it still accurately depicts how most of us are drinking our martinis today—painfully dry, usually made with nothing but chilled gin or vodka. But things are changing.
There are many martini origin stories—some believe the cocktail was invented in Martinez, California, during the Gold Rush; others trace its roots to New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel—which means that there are also conflicting anecdotes regarding the first recipe. Cocktail experts agree, however, that the original’s gin-to-vermouth ratio was likely a sweeter one-to-one. But because of pop culture references like Churchill’s, the stiffest interpretation of the iconic cocktail became its most fashionable iteration.
“When I started bartending 12 years ago, vermouth was never even mentioned,” says Brandon Lockman, the lead bartender at The Red Star Tavern in Portland, Oregon. “The general mind-set was that it just got in the way of the alcohol.”
As craft cocktail culture continues to grow, however, we’re now seeing more variety in the way people make and drink martinis, with wetter, vermouth-heavy variations becoming de rigueur. Gary Hayward, Bombay Sapphire’s North America brand ambassador, suggests that this wet martini renaissance might be inspired by bartenders taking to the cocktail archives to unearth heritage recipes. “It has almost become competitive,” Hayward says. “Bartenders are trying to outdo each other with who can find the oldest recipe or resource.”
In honoring the pioneering blueprint, some bars achieve a balanced profile by swapping out the vermouth: At Brooklyn’s Sauvage, the martini still has a bracingly sharp six-to-one ratio, but bartender Will Elliott uses the herbaceous and slightly sweet Luli Moscato Chinato fortified wine, plus three dashes of orange bitters, to temper the austere booziness.
Dirty martinis are also enjoying a comeback. At The Red Star Tavern, Lockman’s Copper Kangaroo gives a dirty martini the modern treatment by flavoring both the vodka and the vermouth with olives. He washes Absolut Elyx with olive oil, infuses the dry vermouth with olives, and tops it all with a dash of proprietary salt solution. “I’d say more than half the martinis I make are dirty,” Lockman says.
Across the Atlantic, London’s award-winning Connaught Bar has two newfangled twists on the martini. The Oops I Dropped my Olive is a “blushing” take on a dirty martini, with gin, bergamot liqueur, and Galliano, while the Under A Stone is built with the earthy profile of a truffle-washed Grey Goose vodka, wattleseed- and cocoa-infused vermouth, maraschino liqueur, aphrodite bitters, and a chocolate stone.
These days, a well-made martini can take on any personality. With that in mind, when someone orders the classic cocktail at the Connaught, the staff wheels out a dedicated martini trolley, stocked with many different labels of gin and vodka, plus a variety of vermouths and flavored bitters, from bergamot to ginseng. This way, you can forgo what Churchill or James Bond or whoever else might like and, under the bartender’s tutelage, forge a flavorful martini creation of your own.