The Classic Martini 

Never watered down

These days, anything poured into a long-stemmed “V” shaped glass is labeled a Martini. To purists, this is blasphemy. “A Martini is gin and vermouth,” they say, “nothing more, nothing less.” Whatever your definition, the classic martini is just that. Or is it?

The modern definition of a classic martini is gin or vodka, a splash of dry vermouth (French-white) and a garnish such as an olive or a twist of lemon. In days of yore, however, the definition of what constituted a Martini differed greatly.

One of the earliest creation myths comes to us from San Francisco’s gold rush. Sometime during the 1870s at the Occidental Hotel, a bartender named Jerry Thomas, perhaps the Michael Jordan of mixology in his day, invented a drink for a miner who wanted something special in exchange for a gold nugget. The miner was heading back to Martinez, California, so Jerry named it for the city … Martinez. The recipe—a dash of bitters, two dashes of maraschino (a cherry liquor), a wineglass of vermouth (most likely sweet vermouth), a pony of Old Tom gin (a sweetened gin) and a quarter slice of lemon—is nowhere near the gin and vermouth of today’s definition of a Martini.

By the turn of the century some bar manuals had a listing for the Martini whose recipe was equal parts sweet vermouth and gin, sometimes with a dash of orange bitters. Again, nowhere near the modern recipe.

The Italian immigrant bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City claimed to invent the drink before World War I. His recipe contained dry gin and dry vermouth in equal parts and orange bitters. Another legend is that it was named for the Martini & Henry rifle used by the British Army for 20 years between 1870 and 1890—both the rifle and the drink delivered a strong kick.

As the years passed, the proportion of dry vermouth to gin decreased. Everyone should try a Martini made with three parts gin and one part vermouth, just for grins. This would be an extremely “wet” Martini despite the large amount of “dry” vermouth. A “dry” Martini these days has a proportion of 25 gin to one part vermouth. An extremely dry Martini may have the bottle of vermouth waved over the top of the glass.

Perhaps the popularity of the Martini has more to do with the marketing of gin by liquor companies during the 1950s, and vodka in the 1970s. Product placement in movies and celebrity endorsements played an important role. When Earnest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, David Niven and Humphrey Bogart are seen drinking martinis in public or on screen, everyone wants to drink them as well. But perhaps no real or fictional character has done as much for the classic martini as James Bond.

In Ian Flemming’s James Bond books, the agent only drank a martini variation once. In Casino Royale, a drink christened the Vesper—made of half gin and half vodka—symbolized the double agent Vesper Lynd whom Bond was in love with. After she commits suicide he never drinks another. In future books, Bond drank everything from bourbon to champagne. It was only in the movies that he imbibed the martini and made famous the line, “Shaken, not stirred.”

Stiff Martinis are not popular these days. Most bartenders are letting the delicate gin and vodkas marinate in ice for way too long, diluting the strength. “Dirty” Martinis are popular as well, another dilution of the drink with olive juice.

To some, the call of the Martini falls on deaf ears. Those who dislike them, however, may not have ever had a proper one. Oftentimes, it’s not the gin or vodka used, but the vermouth and the concentration of it. A proper French or dry vermouth should be fresh. Any opened bottle of vermouth should be used within the month and should be refrigerated upon opening. I’m always finding years-old bottles of vermouth tucked away behind the Jäegermeister in people’s home liquor cabinets. It’s a crime to use old, icky vermouth in a Martini. Do yourself a favor and buy the smallest bottles of vermouth so you can always have a fresh one on hand. It will make your homemade Martinis great. Experiment with the amount of vermouth to find your perfect balance. Write it on the bottle or inside your liquor cabinet so you’ll remember it.


The May Martini Mix-Off judging happens again this Thursday, May 13 with a power lineup of restaurants. Beginning at 7 p.m. at MilkyWay mixologist Pat Carden (a judge from last year so he should know a good drink) will be serving his famous 10 Minute Martini, the Smirnoff Twisted Chocolate Haze and La Grenade—a pomegranate Martini. From their kitchen expect the scrumptious shrimp and cracked black pepper fried taro dumplings.

At 8 p.m. the judges, still not quite staggering yet, will venture into Happy Fish Sushi & Martini Bar where bartender Jeff Kempthorne will serve up his version of the classic Martini, a half-gin/half-vodka concoction with a special ingredient we know about but are not revealing. Judges will also contrast and compare the Smirnoff Mango Martini and the Snicker Doodle. From the sushi bar we will be served Hamachi Kama.

Next judges will enjoy their limo ride to Mai Thai, which replaced Manhattan Grill on the line-up after their recent closing. A newcomer to the downtown Boise lounge lizard scene, Mai Thai’s Paul Rodriquez will serve the Smirnoff Classic Martini, the Lemon Twist and Coconut Dreams along with summer rolls.

Martini Mix-Off tickets are available for $75 at any participating restaurant. A ticket entitles you to one martini of your choice at all twelve bars and restaurants. Not only that, it gets you into the gala event on June 4 and gets you a commemorative glass. Go to each restaurant or bar by yourself or join the judges this Thursday night. There’s fun to be had by all.


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