Author: Emily Miles
The gleam of glassware; the clatter of ice in shaker; the careful placement of pristine, starched napkin squares and taut-skinned olives: there is an exquisite theatre that surrounds a perfectly executed, perfectly presented cocktail. And no drink better represents the genre’s credentials than a crisp, clean, classic Martini.
The Martini is a real cocktail; a finely tuned, sleek, lean, F1 race-car of a concoction – as far from sticky, saccharine, flamingo-and-umbrella-topped good-time drinks as it is possible to be. In its basic form, a Martini is a beguilingly simple combination of gin (sorry, Mr Bond, vodka really doesn’t cut it), vermouth and a garnish such as a sliver of lemon zest. Some argue the case for a dash of bitters. Many argue over the presence of brine, an olive or twist. Even more argue about the precise quantity of vermouth required or the method by which ice is combined into the liquid. But the essential fact of the drink is a requirement for very cold, virtually unadulterated hard liquor.
Martinis are unashamedly potent. Pour one into a diminutive, V-shaped glass – amidst the smoke and mirrors of a smart cocktail bar – and it appears civilised, lent an air of sophistication by its pedigree, its famous fans and its place in popular culture. The reality, though, is a roaring jolt of a drink, best consumed “quickly, while it is still laughing at you” (or so advised The Savoy Bar’s legendary bartender Harry Craddock).
That such a drink – one that can sink any person foolish enough to consume it in triplicate – should be so mythologised is a curiosity, but part of its allure lies in its mysterious origins. To date, even the most determined cocktail historians (why yes, such an occupation does exist) have failed to successfully uncover and credit the Martini’s inventor.
One of the most popular theories is that the cocktail is a descendant of the Martinez, a short drink which was based on Dutch Genever combined with Maraschino liqueur and bitters, purportedly created by bartending impresario Jerry Thomas in the late 19th century. Other historians have speculated that the Martini was first shaken up by barman Martini di Arma di Taggia in New York City’s Knickerbocker Hotel.
A more probable (though less evocative) notion is that its name came from the prevalence of Italian vermouth producer Martini & Rossi, which introduced its Extra Dry formulation on 1st January 1900 to cater to the increasing demand for dry drinks. Its adverts used the strapline, “It’s not a Martini unless you use Martini”.
Of one thing we are certain: by the end of the 19th century, the first recipe for the drink had been committed to print (it appeared in Harry Johnson’s Bartender Manual of 1888); its place in the classic cocktail canon was assured – and its timing couldn’t have been better.
The fin de siècle heralded a new beginning: the dawn of the golden age of the cocktail, a craze which only accelerated in the UK following the First World War. The new fashion for American-style “mixed drinks” raced across Europe, accompanied by a soundtrack of Jazz. American Bars began to open in London’s large and fashionable hotels – respectable enough for society ladies to be seen in alongside their male counterparts – and were considered to be the most stylish place to begin or end an evening.
As this tide of enthusiasm rose in London, Prohibition was being enacted in the United States; the day after its enforcement, bartender Harry Craddock packed up his shaker and headed for London, bringing with him a penchant for self-publicity and, it is said, the recipe for the Dry Martini. In 1930, he recorded his preferred formulation in The Savoy Cocktail Book, which has been a touchstone of British bartending ever since.
Today, the ability to mix a good Martini in your own home, or to order one with confidence –knowing your preference for its constituent parts – is one of those life-enhancing skills; a barometer of taste. Purists will doubtless lean towards the method of Martini maestro Alessandro Palazzi, who presides over the world-famous Dukes Bar. Palazzi advocates swirling just a few drops of vermouth in the glass before adding gin which has come straight from the freezer; this gives the drink a silky, almost viscous mouth-feel (for details of his method, see below).
Those with less robust constitutions may prefer a modicum of dilution; this is achieved by shaking or stirring the liquor with high-quality ice. Alternatively, should you have an eye on the latest cocktail trends, then experiment with drink-of-the-moment vermouth, which calls for a wetter ratio and has the advantage of more complex flavours.
Though the nuances of how to make a Martini may change, its status as the pre-eminent cocktail remains constant. Wet, dry, shaken or stirred: a Martini is truly more than the sum of its parts.
“This,” says Alessandro Palazzi, “is the enemy of the Martini.” He’s pointing with visible disgust at the water that has just been poured from a cocktail shaker. One might not expect international expertise from the demure bar that is hidden in Dukes hotel. But Alessandro is a master of the Martini, creator of the hotel’s legendary drinks and international lecturer on the art of mixing them.
The secret, Alessandro believes, is in the chill-factor – having an ice-frosted glass, perfectly chilled gin (with the signature viscosity that comes only with a spirit over 40 percent ABV) and decent ice. The team here makes between 300 and 350 a night, each one prepared from the fabled trolley of cocktail dreams, ice-cold and lethal.
On a Friday afternoon, the post-lunch crowd is embracing the weekend, with the all-Italian bar team providing sustenance with suitably strong pours. And, while other drinks are offered, Martinis are the only drink in sight. Regulars arrive and the softly spoken Alessandro jests with each and every one, receiving them all like old friends. It’s not just the drinks that make Dukes special, it’s an old-world service that seems oh-so-very St James’s.
So how does one craft the perfect Martini? The ingredients are key: strong gin, from the freezer, pure in flavour and London Dry in style; good vermouth that tastes of something; and organic, unwaxed lemon (Dukes imports theirs from Amalfi). The lemon is oft forgot, but it’s the essential oils from the citrus fruit that float on top of the spirit, providing a punch of flavour on the nose. Most important of all is for everything to be cold, not shaken, not stirred, not diluted in the least: the Martini is and should always be pure alcohol.
“The way we do it at Dukes, the Martini is very cold, it’s very strong,” Alessandro says. “You take your time. The Martini is a cocktail you drink and talk to your friend. You converse. It’s not a shot. As your glass gets warmer, the oils [from the lemon] go down and change. It’s the ingredients that help. From something very simple, you get something magical.” The way he does it, it really is.
The perfect Martini
Step 1: Shake a dash of vermouth into the glass. Roll it round the glass.
Step 2: Add the gin. Right to the top.
Step 3: Peel one strip of lemon. Hold it over the glass and fold it lengthways to release the essential oils, then drop in the glass.