Anatomy of a martini

14 May, 2020 by
Madeline Woolway

Dry, dirty, perfect. With aromatic bitters or without. Add an olive garnish or lemon twist. In spite of the tweaks, it’s all the same — a highly recognisable drink. But when it comes down to it, there’s only one martini: it’s gin and dry vermouth, stirred. While there’s only one martini, the journey is infinitely customisable in an era where the number of gins and vermouths has exploded.

“If you have a high proof gin with a really light vermouth, it’s going to be a completely different drink to a standard proof drink with a richer vermouth; and we haven’t even talked about the proportions yet,” says Charles Casben, owner−operator of Moya’s Juniper Lounge, a gin bar in Sydney’s Redfern.

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The plethora of choices that can be made within the constraints of a relatively simple drink is what makes martinis a true bartenders’ drink. “It leaves a lot more reliance on the education of the bartender,” says Casben. It’s up to mixologists to know what combination of gin and vermouth will work in what proportion and with what garnish.

“When the scope of gins and vermouth are so vast, the person behind the bar likely has a better idea of how everything is going to go together,” says Casben. “You’ll have to rely on the bartender to tell you how gins that are completely different are going to stack up in what most people think is the same drink.”

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To begin with, not all gins are made for martinis. “Nowadays, the profile of some gins are very funky,” says Agostino Perrone, head mixologist at The Connaught in London. Some gins may taste nice on their own, but will lose their X-factor when diluted. Others will work with tonic, but clash with vermouth. “You need to find your style of gin,” says Perrone. “Based on that, the vermouth element is key. With the wrong match, even though vermouth is the smaller quantity, you can ruin the cocktail.”

The answer is to experiment; to focus on finding out why some combinations work and others don’t. Although the vermouth is equally important, it’s common to start with the gin — that’s not surprising given it usually outweighs the vermouth in proportion. Whether the chosen gin is a traditional London style, one that’s heavy on Australian natives or more floral than citrusy, the chosen vermouth can play any number of roles: it might support, highlight or contrast the gin’s profile, it might give the drink more body or it might make it seem drier. These complexities mean experimenting isn’t a matter of messing around.

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“Trying to understand what the implications will be if you change an ingredient is fundamentally important,” says Casben. “So, what’s happening if you change the type of gin? What are you changing? The alcohol content? If you put more vermouth in, is that changing the palate weight of the drink or the herbal nature? If you use a really herbaceous gin and a really light vermouth, are you going to end up with a similar drink if you used a really herbaceous vermouth and a really light gin?”

Thankfully, the technique is surprisingly simple in comparison. While the James Bond franchise has confused the matter to some extent, there’s a solid consensus around how the ingredients should be combined.

“When you shake a martini, you add aeration,” says Perrone. It results in a much lighter texture and a fresher taste, but shaking also means more dilution. Shaken versus stirred will create a completely different palate experience when gin and vermouth are used in the same quantity. When any drink is stirred with a high-grade chunk of ice, the ingredients are blended gently. When the same drink is shaken, they are forced together, explains Perrone. “The way you combine the flavour is different,” he says. “With stirring, you will end up with a very creamy, silky texture. The flavour hugs your palate. But a shaken martini can be easier to drink [because] there’s more dilution, so it feels lighter.”

Casben says stirring offers more control over dilution. “When you shake, you don’t [have control] because you can’t see it,” he says. “Shaking is quite a violent process.”

Stirring also provides perks for busy bars. “The truth is, you can half stir a drink and let it sit for a while and then finish it off,” says Casben. Although ice doesn’t make it into the glass for martinis the way it does for other classics such as the old fashioned, it’s still important to use highquality ice. “Good-quality ice is needed for the perfect balance between dilution, temperature and texture,” says Perrone. “Martinis need an oily texture; it allows the flavour to stick to the palate and stay for longer.”

There are at least two good reasons to serve straight up rather than on ice. Both are related to the iconic martini glass. With its broad brim, aromatics are exposed. As the drink sits, the alcohol warms up and enhances the characteristics of the ingredients. “If you keep it muted on ice, you’ll get a really sharp, chilled, refreshing drink that sparks your appetite,” says Casben. “But you’ll lose a lot of those subtleties that come from sipping a martini.” 

Then there’s the act of drinking itself. “One of thereally lovely things about the martini glass is that it forces you to be elegant with your consumption — you have to be graceful,” says Casben.

And, in the end, what’s a martini if not an experience?

Image:Aditya Saxena