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20 Oct 2017

On Cocktails: Like Your Martini With Vodka? Shaken Rather Than Stirred? Without Vermouth? If So, You're Doing It Wrong

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The Honest Martini at Mr. Lyons, stirred with gin and vermouth. The Honest Martini at Mr. Lyons, stirred with gin and vermouth. Patrick Johnson

I think the martini, sadly, has lost its way.

Sure, three or four ounces of shaken vodka will probably get you nice and drunk, but it lacks the … shall we say, elegance of the drink’s original recipe.

A purist will tell you a martini has two components—gin and dry vermouth—and it should always be stirred. This purest agrees.

Some amateur comedians ordering a martini with vodka come up with clever catch phrases like, “Shake it until your arms get tired,” or, “I want to skate on the top of it,” or, “Just wave an unopened bottle of vermouth over it.” These people, in my opinion, are missing out on what was once a beautiful, sexy, delicious cocktail. My hope is they’ll give the original a try.

For those who enjoy the history of things, the origin of the martini is muddled. No, I don’t mean muddled with cucumber or blackberries or avocado—it’s just a figure of speech. What I mean is many different stories abound about who created the first martini, why, and where it came from. Some believe the martini was named after Martini and Rossi vermouth, which was created in the mid-1800s. Another theory—my favorite—asserts the martini originated in New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912 by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, made for John D. Rockefeller.

The Knickerbocker’s “Original 1912 Martini” blends two parts gin and one part dry vermouth with orange bitters; it is then stirred and zested with a lemon peel, and garnished with an olive.

Sure, there are those who say Rockefeller didn’t drink, and that the real martini predates 1912. However, this doesn’t really matter: The Original 12 Martini is one of the best drinks I’ve ever had, and one everyone should try.

Another theory, which makes some sense, is that the martini is a derivative of the martinez—a classic gin and vermouth cocktail which was first made in the 1860s and documented in Jerry Thomas’ 1887 edition of his Bar-Tender's Guide; How to Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks. The martinez came about during a vermouth craze in the latter half of the 1800s and was likely a variation of the Manhattan: Someone, at some point, got the idea to mix gin instead whiskey with sweet vermouth, a couple of dashes of bitters, and a little maraschino liquor. Voila, you have a martinez. It’s obvious how the evolution to the first martini wouldn’t be much of a leap.

One thing is clear, however: A martini should be stirred, not shaken. Though I adore James Bond, we can blame him and author Ian Fleming for the shaken martini.

There are reasons we shake some drinks and stir others—and they’re based on science. In general, cocktails containing citrus—like margaritas, daiquiris and sours—should be shaken, while cocktails which are all spirits with no citrus—like Manhattans, negronis and martinis—should always be stirred. The reason of this is thermodynamics, but I’m not going to bore anyone by getting too far into that. Basically, the idea behind both techniques is to cool, mix and dilute the cocktail—and both do so. However, shaking dilutes the cocktail faster than stirring. Shaking also creates tiny air bubbles which brighten a citrusy drink, but ruin the silky texture of a straight spirit. So if you want a bubbly, slushy martini, go ahead, and order it shaken. It’s a free country. But it’s your loss.

Many imbibers also miss out on the beauty of a martini by forsaking gin in lieu of vodka, and/or by skipping the vermouth. The herbs and botanicals of the gin, and the lighter, floral notes of the vermouth balance each other out and create magic in a glass. Vodka, on the other hand, is pretty basic and doesn’t have much flavor or depth—especially when you don’t mix in some flavorful vermouth.

Vodka became so popular, in part, because of advertising in the Mad Men era of the “martini lunch.” A fledgling vodka company marketed its product by saying it would “leave you breathless”—meaning your boss, client or co-workers wouldn’t smell the booze on you. The campaign worked: Vodka first outsold gin in the U.S. in 1967, then whiskey in 1976. Personally, when I’m out tippling, I’m not trying to hide anything.

Speaking of going out tippling, I took a spin around the desert trying martinis. What I found was, basically, what I thought I would find. Every bar I went to had some sort of “classic martini” on the menu, and each one I tried was basically the same: shaken vodka in some sort of martini glass with an olive, or maybe an olive stuffed with blue cheese, and/or a twisted lemon peel. Now, that’s not the worst thing to drink; it’s just not what I was looking for. Like I said, I believe there’s a better way.

During a recent stop at Mr. Lyons in Palm Springs, I found the martini on the menu—“The Honest Martini”—was made with either gin or vodka and vermouth, and stirred, unless otherwise specified. I ordered mine with The Botanist gin from Scotland, and it was just what I wanted alongside my steak tartare. The bartender said the martini was the most-ordered cocktail at Mr. Lyons, and it was 50-50 between patrons who ordered vodka, and those who ordered gin.

At my bars—Workshop Kitchen + Bar, and Truss and Twine—we don’t have a standard martini on the menu, but every bartender on staff knows how to make the Original 1912 Martini. So, next time you’re in, I’ll more than happily stir one up for you.

Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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