The martini is a drink that has stood the test of time. It can be wet, dry, dirty or filthy; made with local or imported spirits and served with an olive or a citrus twist. It’s taken on various forms since its inception and is equally lauded for its simplicity and versatility.
Hospitality speaks to Maybe Mae’s Ollie Margan, The Everleigh’s Michael Madrusan and Maybe Sammy’s Martin Hudak about the most common iterations of the martini, their spirits of choice and tips to achieve a flawless execution.
The martini is instantly recognisable; not only by its namesake glass, but by the clear elixir that comprises just two elements: dry vermouth and gin or vodka.
The cocktail is perhaps the most foundational in the bartending world, and like all the classics, it has a highly disputable origin story. Made in the Shade Group Co-Owner Michael Madrusan is of the belief cocktail origins should be taken with a grain of salt.
The Everleigh bartender estimates the martini’s birthday sits somewhere between 1860 and 1870. “When it comes to drinks like [the martini], there is no real definitive origin of the drink itself,” he says. “Because they are so old, the origins are a bit murky.”
It’s quite possible the martini evolved from the Martinez; a similar drink made with sweet vermouth. “Some would say the martini was originally made with sweet vermouth and some would say the Martinez was actually the original martini,” says Madrusan. “But the martini as we know it today with gin and dry vermouth is probably the most popular recipe to hold true.”
When it comes to the core components of a martini, gin is the most favoured, with vodka swapped in upon guest request. In the latter instance, the drink would be called a vodka martini.
Maybe Mae Co-Owner and Bartender Ollie Margan isn’t against using vodka, but says gin lends itself better to the drink overall. “I definitely lean more towards classic-style gins,” he says. “While you can make a lovely, clean, textural drink with vodka, I prefer to have that extra savoury, oily complexity you get with those high-juniper spirits.”
Maybe Sammy’s Martin Hudak prefers to use Roku vodka when a customer calls for the spirit. “We make any drink as the guest requires because we try to please everyone,” he says. “But if you ask which one we make more of, we make more gin martinis than vodka martinis. We have around 30−40 different gins.”
Purists typically stock their bars with London dry gins such as Beefeater and Tanqueray as well as Plymouth, but the boom in local spirits has seen bartenders experiment with some more botanical-heavy options.
Never Never, Four Pillars, Archie Rose, Anther and Melbourne Gin Company are the most commonly used brands, but some venues have a more unique offering up their sleeve.
Madrusan tips Cadenhead’s Old Raj as his go-to, but it’s not easy to get your hands on. “It’s quite a boozy gin and it has a really high proof, which I absolutely love in a martini,” he says. “But it’s not widely known here; you have to find it in specialty stores.”
The vermouth is of equal importance as the gin, with Noilly Prat and Dolin the most prevalent at bars. “Dolin has a really clean, great profile with not too many complicated aromatics; it just makes for a really nice, bright, gin-focused drink,” says Margan, who also stocks Margan dry vermouth at Maybe Mae.
Executing the basics makes all the difference between creating an average martini and one that keeps guests coming back. Temperature is a key pressure point, with bartenders encouraged to chill cocktail-making equipment to ensure a controlled process.
“You’re looking to have everything as cold as humanly possible,” says Margan. “You want your mixer — whether it’s a stainless-steel cocktail shaker or a glass vessel — to be cold before you put anything in it. Storing the glass in the freezer is also a great idea.”
Hudak works with stainless-steel shakers and stirring spoons to maintain low temperatures. “You want to keep them frozen or in the fridge as much as you can,” he says. “We use stainless-steel mixing tools because they hold temperature better than glass and the transfer of temperature is faster, so your drink is going to get much colder faster when you’re stirring.”
Selecting the right ice is the next step to ensuring a constant chill. Madrusan is the brains behind Navy Strength Ice Co; a boutique hand-cut ice company. Navy Strength make ice with Clineblock ice makers, which are globally recognised for producing unrivalled results.
The bartender favours the use of an anchor block to get things started. “We use very dense crystal-clear ice; its rate of dilution is a lot slower and there’s no gas,” says Madrusan. “We use a large block to go down the middle first and it starts to chill the ingredients. Then we add more and more ice all the way to the top.”
Mardrusan also prefers to add the ice to the spirits mix. “If you’re adding liquid over your ice, it’s already starting to melt and dilute and that gives you a lot less control when you’re actually making the drink,” he says.
A drink that’s as straightforward as the martini leaves plenty of room to venture beyond the foundational formula. Different iterations see everything from mini versions to the addition of herbs or alternate spirits.
Maybe Sammy has a dedicated martini trolley, with bartenders mixing two options for guests: a classic dry or an Australian dirty martini. “In the Martini Australian, we’re using a blend of vermouths infused with mango and lemon myrtle,” says Hudak. “If we’re doing a dirty martini, it’s usually made with a salty olive brine, but we infuse our own blend of vermouths with Italian sundried tomatoes, thyme and oregano.”
In addition to the trolley, the bar also has a mini cocktail menu that allows guests to try a selection of options. Hudak says customers who typically steer clear of stronger cocktails such as the martini are more open to a condensed version.
“When we were thinking about introducing classic cocktails to a wider audience, we came up with the idea to serve mini cocktails,” he says. “The small martini is exactly the right size and is the perfect opportunity to show younger demographics the beautiful world of cocktails. In 2019, we sold 1,000 mini cocktails; people really like them, it’s like a tasting for them.”
In addition to downsizing, there are plenty of ingredient substitutions to look at. The Everleigh delivers a number of cocktails that could be called cousins of the martini including the Tuxedo Number Two, which uses maraschino and absinthe.
Another popular order is Death and Taxes, a drink that combines gin, scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine.
There are also some minor additions that go a long way to altering the flavour profile of the martini. “There are simple tweaks that are really easy and can change the drink entirely,” says Madrusan. “The little tweaks are sometimes the most fun; you can add some mint leaves just before you’re about to stir and it creates a completely different drink.”
Margan prefers to break down the composition of a martini into spirit, fortified wine base and modifier, leaving plenty of room for experimentation. “We change ours quite a lot; what we like to work with is ways to bring in mouthfeel and texture,” he says.
“Subbing out vermouth for sake, which is fermented with different yeast strains, has an enhanced umami character. You can increase the perceived texture of the drink by using something with umami; it’s why olive brine is used a lot.”
The bar team makes salted ferments in-house to effectively ‘season’ the drink. “It’s the incorporation of salt by way of lactic fermentation using things like tomatoes and different berries,” says Margan. “A few drops to a drink brings out certain elements of the gin and creates a generous mouthfeel.”
Garnishes are also a tool that can yield big results with minimal intervention. Madrusan lists the Gibson as not only a great example, but “the coolest martini in town”. In place of a lemon twist or an olive, a pickled onion is added. “It brings a savoury sharpness to the drink itself,” he says.
As cocktail menus continue to become more elaborate, martinis remain a staple for bartenders and customers. The drink has been around since the beginning of cocktail culture, but it’s experienced somewhat of a resurgence over the past year as customers appreciate the simple things done well.
“The martini is the classiest cocktail ever; it’s constant,” says Hudak. “It’s like a perfect pair of shoes or a tailored suit.”
The booming local gin sector has also played a role in keeping the martini front and centre. “I think the uptake of people being interested in martinis is on the back of us doing some pretty special things in the gin industry at large in Australia,” says Margan. “The ultimate way of consuming [gin] in cocktail form would have to be the martini.”
At The Everleigh, the martini is not just a part of the menu, but at the core of the business. “It’s always been a bit of a staple for us,” says Madrusan. “If we couldn’t make a martini, we wouldn’t open the doors. I actually like closing my week with a martini. I think a beautiful crisp, cold, clean drink is a great way to draw the line between working and personal life.”