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Two highly-opinionated recipes for perfect gin martinis

When most people imagine drinking on New Year’s Eve, they picture flutes of champagne or sparkling cocktails. I even wrote about one such cocktail here, just a few weeks ago. But, truthfully, a gussied-up New Year’s Eve soiree filled with tuxedos and evening gowns makes me think of martinis.

I have romantic visions of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the The Thin Man, drinking champagne coupes filled with gin martinis, as the clock ticks toward midnight. (Pro-Tip: This 1934 comedy is a must watch for cocktail lovers.) 

To me, the martini might be the most recognized and misunderstood cocktail of all time. And while I am very obliging to people’s tastes in my professional bartending life, I have strong opinions about the martini in my own home. The base spirit is gin — a juniper heavy, London dry style, to be specific. Vermouth is treated with respect (more on this later) and bitters, mostly orange, are a factor. And please, don’t forget the lemons and olives, or your garnish game will end up weak. 

Too many figures in the mid-twentieth century muddied the waters — or gin, you could say. The fictional James Bond and the real-life Winston Churchill are two of the most egregious. Bond popularized the Cold War-era vodka variation and over-diluted the drink by insisting it be “shaken, not stirred.” As another great fictional character, President Jed Bartlet of the West Wing, once said: “Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.”

I think Churchill, on the other hand, did more damage to the martini’s character by demonizing one of its essential ingredients: vermouth. Churchill famously dissed vermouth by saying, “The only way to make a martini [is] with ice-cold gin, and a bow in the direction of France.”

Vermouth, for the record, is an aromatized and fortified wine. That means that it started it life as wine, and then a neutral grape spirit (brandy) was added to stop fermentation and preserve it for a longer shelf life. This also raises its proof from its humble 10 to 12 percent ABV to a bolder 18 percent, or 36 proof. Various botanicals are then added to the wine, giving vermouth its distinctive flavor. If it were sweet vermouth, we were talking about, the producer might then add caramel sugar for color and sweetness. But for our martini, lets stick to the clear, dry kind, historically referred to as French vermouth.  

People are always surprised when I crack open a fresh bottle of quality vermouth and pour them a taste. The pleasant, herbaceous flavored wine can even be enjoyed on the rocks as an aperitif with a slice of orange. Plus, in a martini, the herbaceous flavors play nicely with the gin, and the lower proof of the vermouth makes the cocktail more pleasant to drink. 

Below, I offer two variations on the martini. The first is following the modern style of gin and vermouth in a 2:1 ratio. The second is in more of a late 19th-century style that I make at home. I’m usually mixing this one up when starting dinner, it tastes just as nice when I'm wearing a tuxedo.

Classic Martini
Makes: 1 cocktail
Hands-on time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes

2 ounces 80-proof London Dry Gin 
1 ounce dry vermouth, such as Dolin
2 dashes orange bitters, such as Regan's
Large ice cubes
Cocktail olive, for garnish (optional) 

Place a martini glass in the freezer to chill.

In a mixing glass, combine the gin, vermouth and bitters. Add the ice cubes and stir until the cocktail is well chillled, about 30 seconds. Strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with the olive, on a toothpick, if desired. Serve immediately.

Slater House 50/50 Martini
Makes: 1 cocktail
Hands-on time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes

1 1/2 ounces Navy-strength gin, such as Hayman’s 
1 1/2 ounces dry vermouth, such as Dolin 
3 dashes orange bitters, such as Regan’s
Large ice cubes
Lemon peel
Cocktail olive, for garnish

Place a Nick & Nora or other cocktail glass in the freezer to chill.

In a mixing glass, combine the gin, vermouth and bitters. Add the ice cubes and stir until the cocktail is well-chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into the chilled glass. Twist the lemon peel over the cocktail express its oils. Garnish with the olive, on a toothpick. Serve immediately.

Photo Credit (Mixing Glass): Crafthouse by Fortessa
Photo Credit (Martini with Two Olives): Josh Cole
Photo Credit (Martini with One Olive): ricardo / zone41.net (license)

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Jerry Slater is the co-author of the newly published Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails. He and his wife, Krista, will open their new Athens, GA, establishment The Expat in early 2018.