Here in the second week of the May Martini Mix-Off, I realize the second-most-often-asked question I get during this contest is “What is a good martini?” (The most-asked question being rhetorical in the form of “You must have a tough job, huh?”) The answer is not an easy one, nor is it the same for everyone. So, here’s a little lesson on what goes into making a good martini. But first, we need to define what is a martini.
A martini, by most definitions, is a cocktail served in a signature stiletto-heeled glass, containing one or more distilled spirits and whose volume is primarily made up of those distilled spirits. In other words, it’s mostly alcohol. Purists believe it can only be made with gin and vermouth, although some will concede that vodka is an acceptable substitute for gin. These days, martinis in restaurants are anything served in the signature glass. I’ve been to some upscale bars that don’t even have an old-school martini on the list of sweet concoctions being labeled martinis on the menu.
Vodka, by the U.S. federal definition, is a colorless and odorless spirit. However, anyone who has done a blind tasting of even just two vodkas side by side will tell you different. Temperature has a huge effect on the taste of a spirit like vodka. Freezing vodka can change the texture and consistency of some vodkas—like Stolichnaya—into a velvety cream. We call that “mouth feel” in professional martini judging circles. One of the best (and cheapest) vodkas around, believe it or not, is Burnett’s. I have hosted several blind tastings over the years and Burnett’s has consistently come in the top three.
Gin, on the other hand, is an older spirit that came from medicinal origins in the Netherlands where it was used to treat diseases including lumbago, gallstones and gout. Traditionally flavored with botanicals such as anise, carroway, coriander, angelica root, cinnamon, cassia bark and bitter orange, the flavor most taste in a gin comes from the juniper berry. London Dry Gin is the traditional gin that most people think of when ordering a martini. Plymouth gin can officially only be made in Plymouth, England, but has a sweeter flavor than many other gins. A genever, also known as Dutch gin, is the precursor of London Dry Gin. It has characteristics more like whisky as it is sometimes aged in wood. If you are just starting out on martinis, however, stick with a London Dry or Plymouth gin. Different brands of gin tout their “secret” recipes and many have unique botanicals. Hendrick’s Gin is infused with traditional herbs, cucumber and rose petals. Bulldog Gin is infused with poppies.
Vermouth is key to a traditional martini. It is a fortified wine flavored with spices and herbs, most often a secret recipe closely guarded by its producers. There are many brands and experimenting with them is important. Dry, French or white vermouth is usually in a green bottle. Avoid the red, sweet or Italian vermouth as that is used primarily in Manhattans. Also, make sure you are not reaching deep into your liquor cabinet for that old bottle you inherited from your parents’ liquor cabinet. Vermouth is a wine, and like any wine, will turn within a few weeks of opening. And always refrigerate your vermouth.
To make a martini, pour gin, vodka or a combination of both over ice into a cocktail shaker. If you like a wet martini, pour in a tablespoon of vermouth. If you prefer a very dry martini, forego the vermouth altogether. If you’re not sure what you like, experiment with different amounts. Shake, stir or let the martini just sit for a few minutes. There are some theories on “bruising” gin, but the objective is to let the ice chill the spirits and mix a little bit with the drink. Pour into a martini glass and garnish.
Garnishes for martinis take two main paths. Some swear by the pimento-stuffed olive. Others swear by the lemon twist, which has the unique effect of absorbing some of the bitterness from gin. The saltiness of an olive also has the same effect when eaten; it combats the bitterness on the tongue. Another take is a cocktail onion in place of the olive, making the drink a Gibson. Of course, you can modernize your garnishes with blue cheese stuffed olives, lime or orange peel twists, caper berries, mini dill pickles, slices of cucumber or any variety of salty or sweet vegetables or fruits. For many martini drinkers, a splash of olive juice makes a martini much more palatable. This is known as a “dirty martini” and will “soften” up the drink. The key here is to experiment.
I normally do not discuss the martinis in this column after I judge them but I think Pair’s Cocytus classic martini is worthy of note, just for it’s uniqueness. It was the first time I’ve encountered a martini chilled with dry ice, and if my physics are correct, it actually seemed to have the opposite of the intended effect of diluting the high-proof spirits, increasing the proof instead by boiling off the water in the spirit. (Are there any scientists out there that can support my theory?) I did discover a slight tingling on my tongue either from frozen tastebuds or the increased CO2 content in the spirit. The garnish was one of the more unique ones ever in the competition.
On May 15, the quintet of judges will visit Bittercreek’s Johnny Abens at 7 p.m. At approximately 8 p.m., we’ll mosey on over to Chandlers and see what Pat Carden and Nick Sparks are shaking up. We’ll finish up at 9 p.m. at The Modern Hotel, where Michael Bowers has some new creations in store for us.