Anyone who has drunk, or imbibed since we don’t want to sound as if we are alluding to intoxication, a sufficient number of martinis to use the term “perfect martini” also knows that there is really no such thing as a perfect martini. Even martinis made to your favorite recipe will obviously vary to some significant degree with the care which one takes – or doesn’t – in making (proportioning) the drink and with the particular brands of ingredients used.
That rocks glass in your hand on the patio in July, the glass sloshingly filled with cubes and gin and vermouth and a couple of olives, and which you hold in the one hand as you flip steaks on the grill with the other, holds the same nominal drink as that carefully proportioned vodka and vermouth mix poured from a shaker into a coupe glass, and then garnished with a twist of lemon zest.
In the name of decency, there are some limits though.
For example, although either gin or vodka (or both together, Mr. Bond) may be used or substituted, most people would agree that no matter how stingy the application may be, a “martini” made without any vermouth is just not really a martini as most of us understand it.
Not so much vermouth!
Speaking of vermouth, many of us, myself for instance, had become comfortably accustomed to Noilly Prat only to discover a couple of years ago that something awful had happened. I first though I had gotten a bad bottle. Instead of the usual clear liquid I was used to seeing, out came a yellow-greenish fluid with a more pronounced taste, smell, and what seemed to me to be oily character. It tasted like the abominable Gallo vermouth. It made my martini undrinkable. Until recently I could not come up with a satisfactory explanation as to what went wrong. Abandoning my theory of a heat spoiled bottle at the second disappointment, I figured my memory of what I like must have been off … very off somehow.
Turns out that the company had been bought out, and the new ownership of Noilly Prat decided that Americans would henceforth receive the European version of their “dry” vermouth; which was distinctly heavier in scent and taste than that to which we were accustomed. Apparently Noilly had for some years, and long before I ever approached a martini glass, been offering a specially dry version for the North American market. After grimacing my way through those last unwitting purchases of the Euro-style and highly scented version of their “dry”, I dropped any pretense of brand loyalty and grabbed a bottle of Martini & Rossi off the shelf the next time out. According to the blog “The Gray Report” (and Gray himself actually prefers the Euro-version), many others did as well. I certainly hated it. Enough people agreed with me implies Gray, to cause sales to plummet sufficient to get management’s attention and to promise to bring back the American version to this market.
So far, I haven’t seen it. Though I can’t say I have looked very hard.
As far as the mix portions go, I for one, have over the years developed a preference for what some web sites, Vermouth101.c0m for instance, are calling a 1950′s mix … basically 3 measures of gin or vodka to one half measure (I’m not using the technical term for “measure” here) of dry vermouth. So for example, a measure might be one of those ounce-and-a-half shot glasses. Then, three full shot glasses of gin, and one half of that ounce and a half shot glass, of vermouth.
You will notice too that as Mr. Niven above protectively recoils from that bottle of vermouth proffered by the cheerfully smiling pixie, he is simultaneously cradling an almost fishbowl sized snifter, which he’s using as the martini mixing glass.
He obviously wants his martini as dry as possible. And I agree to some extent as I mentioned just above.
But I would not go so far as the version of martini supposedly liked best when I first started drinking them during that late 1980s and 1990′s era sometimes credited with the return of the cocktail to prominence. That version, was reportedly almost pure gin or vodka, and I found it as objectionable to my palate as the early 20th century version said to be preferred by FDR: a two gin to one vermouth mix with plenty of brine added. I tried it. Yech. No wonder FDR had a stroke.
Well, no accounting for the taste of certain statist liberals who smoke cigarettes from holders.
We’ve already addressed what are from my point of view the preferable proportions of the two main ingredients in the mix. How they are mixed together is another matter.
The phrase “shaken not stirred” has become a painful cliche that causes me to actually wince when hearing it. But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t prefer the drink mixed that way. In fact, while doing research – well, while idly scanning various books and other websites for confirmation of my own prejudices – I read that martinis were originally meant to be made that way: shaken.
By the time the James Bond novel Casino Royale was published for Ian Fleming in 1953, in the very year Mr. Niven was saving his bowl of gin in “The Moon is Blue” from the debasement of too much, or almost any vermouth, the mixing process seems to have changed from shaking to stirring. Or at least swirling the mix with cubes.
Which leads us to another painful cliche: one which expresses alarm over the possibility of “bruising the gin”.
I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, so I can’t explain it to you. And when I hear it, I can only picture some dissipated country club type given to the pointless regurgitation of current mythologies as a way of cementing his image as one who is in need of constantly cementing his image. Out of respect to our early 1950s motif here, I’ll include an image of just that type of fellow as portrayed by actor Louis Calhern, in yet another William Holden movie of that same era, “Executive Suite”.
Better not be bruised!
In any event, I not only have a fictional spy on my shaken side, I apparently have the British medical establishment. You may be thinking I am referring to a recent series of articles based on the premise that James Bond liked his martinis shaken and not stirred because had he been a real person who drank as much as seemingly recorded in the spy novels he, would have had a case of the shakes which made stirring impossible … or something like that.
However, that particular bit of politically motivated kill-joy posturing by the PC crowd is not what I am referring to. What I am citing here is an article in the British Journal of Medicine titled “Shaken, not stirred: bioanalytical study of the antioxidant activities of martinis”.
Shaken martinis were more effective in deactivating hydrogen peroxide than the stirred variety, and both were more effective than gin or vermouth alone (0.072% of peroxide control for shaken martini, 0.157% for stirred v 58.3% for gin and 1.90% for vermouth). The reason for this is not clear, but it may well not involve the facile oxidation of reactive martini components: control martinis through which either oxygen or nitrogen was bubbled did not differ in their ability to deactivate hydrogen peroxide (0.061% v 0.057%) and did not differ from the shaken martini. Moreover, preliminary experiments indicate that martinis are less well endowed with polyphenols than Sauvignon white wine or Scotch whisky (0.056 mmol/l (catechin equivalents) shaken, 0.060 mmol/l stirred v 0.592 mmol/l wine, 0.575 mmol/l whisky).
With authorities like that behind you, who needs some comic book spy on your side?
How’s it to be served then? In what kind of glass? A “martini glass” obviously?
Well, there are different theories. I always specified a rocks glass in restaurants. Occasionally a self-confident middle aged waiter in the tonier kind place would good naturedly admonish me with an “Oh sir! Not really!” and I’d give in and have it in a stemmed glass. I’ve kind of gotten used to them by now. The design is supposed to have a certain logic, and I admit that the drink may taste somewhat better in one. Or at least more like an aperitif to be savored, than a concoction to be guzzled.
Still, I like a squat tumbler in some situations. Summer evening grilling is good time to load up with ice, in my opinion; and a double old fashioned glass works really well for that.
But the classic martini glass is making a bit of comeback without any assistance from me. That is to say, when I say “classic”, a sub 7 ounce capacity glass with a short pulled stem, rather than one of those 12 ounce glass funnels ill balanced on a 6 inch pillar, which has been the popular version for the last 30 or so years.
As an admirable return to basics, take this well proportioned glass sold this Christmas season as an example. Not a pulled stem coupe with that little extra cusp in the bottom (that is to say not one obviously shaped like a mold of Marie Antoinette’s left you know what …) it’s nonetheless pretty appealing all the same.
Short stemmed, made in Poland, and called “True martini” glass
And, you can still get the champagne coupe/cocktail glasses common in the early 60′s as well. From Germany, just for you: at two for sixty or seventy dollars a pair.
Coupe type glass
So, what’s the perfect martini? I don’t know really, and haven’t the authority to say. Make it 6 to one. Vodka or gin depending on mood. Rocks or Martini glass depending. Two cubes with the former, or just a bit of cracked ice in the latter. Mix shaken, well, with ice. Poured over a stuffed olive, and a twist of zest added last. Let sit about a minute. Then …
That’s perfect enough for me.
You, are entitled to your own opinion of course.
A satisfied customer