H.L. Mencken once called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.” But just as every sonnet writer can’t be Shakespeare, countless drinkers are terrible martini makers. This includes James Bond. We’ll cut him a break about going with vodka instead of gin, but having it shaken instead of stirred? Unforgivable. It waters down the drink and will leave chips of ice in the glass, disrupting what should be an otherwise perfectly smooth surface.
Now, if Bond can’t get it right, that just goes to show how truly tough this famed drink is to master. “The classic martini is one of, if not the absolute hardest drinks in the world to make,” says Matt Seigel, owner and chief operator of The Spirit of Hospitality and former bartender at New York City hot spots such as The NoMad and Eleven Park Madison. “It’s the only drink that no matter how you make it, you are always both right and wrong. It is such a personal drink for people that everyone wants it the way they want it.”
The proper way to make a martini is always up for debate, but we submit that there is really only one way to do it right—and no, it doesn’t involve olives. It doesn’t involve vodka, either. For a great classic martini, you need only three things: 4 ounces of dry gin, 1 ounce of dry vermouth, and a lemon twist. Period. So put that shaker down and start taking notes. And don’t forget the one occasion where you definitely don’t want to drink a martini: when you’re hanging out with your boss.
This is the easy part. “Pick a gin that really works for you,” says Seigel. “If this is going to be the majority of your drink, make sure you really get a gin that tells the story you want to tell.”
Classic London gins such as Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, or Tanqueray are safe bets. Greylock from Mountain Distillers and New Amsterdam are also worth considering—they’ll add some subtle spice or citrus flavor to the drink without overpowering it.
But just as if not more important than your choice of gin: Be careful about which vermouth you select. It should be dry—Noilly Prat is a good one for this—and Seigel emphasizes that it should also be fresh and cold. Vermouth is a fortified wine, and like a white or sparkling wine, it’s best served chilled and kept cool to ensure freshness.
“I don’t want to come to your bar and see my Martini made with a dusty bottle of vermouth that you just grabbed from the back of the backbar,” says Seigel. And for more great drink recommendations, here are the 10 Best Nightcaps That Will Impress Her Every Time.
Fill your metal shaker with cracked ice. You may want to crack it yourself by holding large cubes of ice in the palm of your hand and cracking them with the back of your bar spoon. Pour in 1 ounce vermouth and give it a brisk stir—be sure it’s just an ounce, no more or less. “With these classic cocktails that are only three ingredients you have to make sure your martini measurements are absolutely perfect,” says Seigel. “The slightest tweak or mis-pour and the whole cookie crumbles.”
Add the four ounces of gin to the shaker and stir for 10 seconds in a circular motion. You want a slight dilution of the spirits to release the flavor of the botanicals, but stir for too long and you’ll end up overdiluting. Give it a taste to be sure you’ve got the right balance. If not, stir for another few seconds until it’s just right. “Learn to recognize your drink as it changes so you’ll know when it has reached its perfect balance of temperature and dilution,” says Seigel.
Using a Hawthorne strainer, pour the liquid into a cocktail glass. Be sure you are using cold—make that freezing—glassware. “A warm stirring glass and a warm coupe will make for a less than favorable martini experience,” says Seigel. “Temperature and dilution is everything.”
This is one of the toughest steps. Use a small knife to cut a one-inch chunk of the lemon peel, with some white pith intact. Make sure it’s looking beautiful and fresh. “If that’s going to be the only color in the glass don’t have some thin, ruffled, limp, ugly excuse for a twist,” says Seigel. “As they say where I come from: make it nice.”
About four inches above the glass, squeeze the twist, bringing out the oils it contains. Rub the peel along the glass’ rim then float the twist on top of the liquid, yellow side up.
Once you’re done, sip your perfect martini, and know that in at least one way, you’re smarter than James Bond.
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