Tuesday, August 24

There was recently some kerfuffle, some palaver, some hurly-burly, if you will, that I am merely a link vampire, sucking on the teat (I'm a very selective vampire) of the rest of the InterWeb for the so-called "content" of this site. Problem is, writing is hard, and takes some time. And I had a wedding to worry about. Now that's behind me, I can try to feed you nattering nabobs from my own teat with some actual writing. So, in the spirit of writing about what I know, I am instituting an occasional feature, about things I actually know something about. In fact, these will be subjects about which I have exaggeratedly unreasonable and unresearched positions, in most cases.

Things I Know: How to Make a Martini

First of all, by "martini" I mean the gin martini. There is not another kind. You may chill vodka if you like, and even serve it in a martini glass. You may even call it a "vodkatini" if you so wish. But it is not a martini.

Needless to say, martinis are not to be the color of raspberries, chocolate, or sour apple schnapps. They must be crystal clear and may consist of at most three (3) elements -- four, if you count ice particles, which is not unreasonable. These three, no, four! ingredients are:

    A serviceable gin
    Noilly Pratt white vermouth
    Ice crystals
    Garnish (a misnomer)

  1. A Serviceable Gin. You must learn what gins you like. This requires hours of bent-elbow research. Even after a decade of sottery, I'm only starting to scratch the surface here. I've found I like gins that really taste of something. Vodka is a wonderful anaesthetic, but an inelegant drink -- I've never understood the appeal of a beverage whose chief sensory attribute is that it aspires, like water, to be odorless and tasteless. (If it hasn't been stressed enough before, you are not to use vodka in the making of a martini.)

    The everyday gin I recommend, available in most grocery stores in California, or in what those of you in the flyover states call "package stores," is Bombay Sapphire. It's a highly floral gin in a charming blue bottle. Tanqueray Ten is also a lovely gin in an elegant bottle (designed by Trading Spaces' bubblerific Genevieve Gorder, somewhat interestingly) with a slightly exotic flavor, which sneaks up on you in more ways than one. (In a pinch, the regular Bombay and Tanqueray gins are perfectly acceptable, but that's not really what we're going for here.) My last recommendation is a slightly pricier and difficult-to-find premium gin in an evocatively retro bottle, Hendrick's.

  2. Noilly Pratt White Vermouth. When you're manning the shaker, there's always some jagoff who repeats the hoary chestnut about simply whispering "vermouth" over the glass. Certain others, fussbudgets to a one, have elaborate schemes, like using a delicate atomizer, or coating the inside of the glass with a few drops of vermouth. These are the people we practice our icy stares in the mirror for. The proper amount of vermouth is a genrous half-capful of vermouth per martini being prepared. I mean a literal cap -- just use the cap that is on the bottle. I buy the small bottles of Noilly Pratt white vermouth because vermouth lasts a fairly long time at that rate; the large bottles can go off before you'll finish one. If you are buying the Costco size vermouth, you should probably still follow the half-a-cap rule, as your liver could probably use the reduced alcohol content of the resulting drink.

    I don't recommend any substitutions on the Noilly Pratt (who, to their credit, don't seem to have a website). In particular, if you are faced with no alternative but Martini & Rossi's white vermouth, go ahead and have a perfectly dry martini, sans vermouth. (On a related note, be very careful when ordering a "martini" in Europe -- you may be served a perfectly undrinkable glass of vermouth on ice, as I was in an upscale Paris restaurant years ago.)

    Some gins may require different amounts of vermouth; extensive experimentation is encouraged. Oddball Hendrick's, in particular, seems to benefit from being served with minimal to no vermouth. But as a rule, vermouth is an integral part of the martini.

    An historical digression: some of the older recipes for the martini call for as much as a 1:1 ratio of gin and vermouth; or a mixture of red and white vermouths; or even, nonsensically, combinations of both gin and vodka with vermouth. If you are so inclined, feel free to follow these recipes for your own historical edification, and at your own peril.

  3. Ice Crystals. These will be the side product of vigorous shaking. The ideal shaking will be with bar ice, in a pint glass, with a shaker over it. A metal shaker with a cover is acceptable; while it doesn't fracture the ice as nicely, it has the advantage of conducting the cold to your hands better than the glass, letting you know when you can stop shaking (i.e., when your hand begins to hurt from the cold). I see nothing wrong, in theory, with stirring, rather than shaking your martini, though this will lead to a distinct lack of ice crystals. If you are the sort of fop who worries about "bruising the gin" by over-vigorous shaking, please post in the comments section to explain what that actually means, and I will personally come to your house and rassle you, one-on-one, three pins takes it.

    Note that it is imperative that the glass be thoroughly chilled before serving. The easy solution is to store your martini glasses in the freezer, next to the IV bags. However, if you are one of those Type As who use your freezer for the storage of food, you may, before assembling your other ingredients, fill the martini glass to the rim with ice, and then fill with water and allow it to chill for a minute or two.

  4. Garnish (a Misnomer). In this area I will allow for some personal taste to intrude. My own preference (and both historical and contemporary research supports this) is that the appropriate garnish is a lemon twist. The twist should be stripped from a fresh lemon over the glass with a lemon zester, so that you get a delicate spray of lemon oil in the glass, adding immeasurably to the vitality of the drink.

    If you're the sort to take your three martini lunch seriously and want for a bit of nutrition with your meal, I suppose you can opt for that pimento-stuffed abomination, the bar olive. A cocktail onion, on the other hand, magically transforms your drink in to the evocatively named Gibson, which I can support on the grounds of nostalgia, if no other. Hendrick's, again a species unto itself, recommends a slice of cucmber as garnish, and the subtle fragrance of the cucumber does seem to work for it. Both olives and onions affect the odor and taste of the drink rather severely -- neither particularly positively in my opinion, but to each, in this one case, his or her own.

    Under no circumstances are you to order a dirty martini. With its 87 olives and infusion of olive juice, it's just plain wrong. I'm a tolerant man to be sure, but I can be pushed only so far.

  5. Bitters (an Addendum). Don't bother. While bitters may have been one of the defining ingredients of early cocktails, given the less subtle approach to gin production in the 20s I have a hunch their purpose was more to disguise than to enhance. While the teeniest of amounts may lend vim should you be stuck with an unappealing gin, the risk of over-bittering your shaker and ruining a perfectly good gin is too great.

  6. Bitters (a Reconsideration). Do bother. When I originally wrote this screed, I was unacquainted with Peychaud's bitters. They are to the more common Angostoura bitters what "Love, Sidney" was to "The Odd Couple," by which I mean a complete waste of the talents of Mr. Tony Randall. Angostoura bitters are characterless, apart from being slightly bitter. The Peychaud's, on the other hand, have a zesty anise aroma, which will lend your martini a suprisingly refreshing lift. It is definitely worth the trouble of tracking them down, especially as they are a great enhancement to the Manhattan, as well (but more of this, anon).

And that, as our erstwhile pal Baretta would say in happier times, is the name of that tune. Bottoms up!