Kindred Spirits: The Iconic Martini
Shaken or stirred? Vodka or gin? All about the classic cocktail and where to find the best martinis in Austin
By Laurel Miller
Photographs by Jackie Klusmeyer
Few cocktails are as iconic – or misunderstood – as the martini. While the early aughts inflicted unspeakable acts upon this most classic of cocktails – from fishbowl-sized stemware and cloying, fluorescent renditions with nonsensical garnishes – we’ve returned to a minimalist movement that celebrates the martini’s spare style.
I’m not a habitual martini drinker, but it’s impossible to dismiss the role it’s played in cocktail culture. The martini is the universal symbol for a libation (you don’t see blinking neon Negroni signage) and the subject of pithy quips (Dorothy Parker never actually said, “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table. After four I’m under the host,” but who cares?).
LBJ was a martini fan and Herman Wouk likened a particularly good version to a “cold cloud.” The Reverend Horton Heat dedicated an album and title track to the cocktail (“I live my life/for a layer of ice”) and Frank Sinatra drank his very cold and very dry. James Bond aside, martinis are symbolic of American culture (and excess).
The martini’s origins are still cloudy: one theory suggests it’s the offspring of the Martinez cocktail, a late 19th century libation from San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, comprised of Old Tom Gin (a sweeter style) and sweet (Italian) vermouth. Other historians believe the modern Martini – which uses dry (French) vermouth – is an adaption of barman Harry Johnson’s Marguerite cocktail (orange bitters, anisette, French vermouth and Plymouth gin), from the 1900 edition of his Bartender’s Manual.
Early cocktails in general skewed sweet, but drier libations came into vogue around the turn of the last century, following the development of earthy, juniper-forward London Dry Gin and the first imported shipments of dry vermouth. Various turn-of-the-century recipes – called, variously, “Olivette Cocktail,” “Crisp Cocktail” and “Martini Cocktail” come closer to the modern version, but still called for the addition of orange bitters – a practice largely eliminated by mid-20th century.
Today’s classic martini proportions vary depending upon the source, but a good rule of thumb is two ounces of gin to one ounce of vermouth, garnished with a lemon twist. A vodka variation was first documented in 1905, when a New Hampshire bartender poured drinks for visiting Russians.
A quick-and-dirty martini primer
- Over the decades, there have been dozens of other variations on martinis, from the Gibson (with pickled onion) and Dirty (with olive brine, garnished with olives) to the Vesper (with Lillet).
- If you don’t want a martini made with gin, order a “vodka martini.” Bartenders will be grateful.
- A “dry” martini has less vermouth. If you order a martini “bone dry,” your bartender may just rinse the glass with vermouth before adding gin. Prefer more vermouth? Order your martini “wet.”
- There are purists who refuse to shake a martini on the grounds it over-dilutes the drink, while others prefer it for chilling a cocktail, quickly. Shaking also causes air bubbles to form, and in the case of a martini, this isn’t a desirable trait as it changes the texture. Below, find out why stirring is the preferred method, but as paying customer, you have the right to order your drink the way you want it. At home, experiment and see which technique you prefer.
If you’re a martini novice, or merely appreciate the art of expert cocktail preparation, minus any pretense, head to Jeffrey’s of Austin. The venerable Clarksville restaurant has boasted an elegant martini cart since 2013, stocked with crystal decanters, vintage stemware and a small curation of noteworthy craft spirits. According to one of the service captains who mans the cart, “It allows our guests to step outside of the comfort zone of brands they may be accustomed to ordering, while enjoying the spectacle of having their cocktails made table-side.”
I’m not a big gin consumer, and when I explained my preferences (floral or citrus-forward) to the captain, she suggested Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, an aromatic German spirit made with botanicals that include native lingonberry, elderflower and angelica. “It’s like putting your face in a bouquet of flowers,” I was told, and so it is.
At Jeffrey’s, the preference is to stir martinis. “It develops and disperses the ice chips, which makes the drink extra-cold and gives it a creamy texture,” said the captain, before she expressed a lemon peel into my drink and added the garnish. It’s the only martini I’ve ever finished, because I finally understood what a martini could – and should – be. Cold cloud, indeed.
June’s All Day, Jeffrey’s more casual sibling across town, features a wildly popular vodka martini (they also do a classic version, with Hayman’s Gin). Karlsson’s Gold Vodka – a Swedish brand distilled from heirloom new potatoes, which give the spirit an earthy quality – is washed with extra virgin Arbequina olive oil from Texas Olive Ranch in Carrizo Springs. The resulting cocktail is savory, with a buttery finish and olive garnish – just the kind of food-friendly libation to pair with brunch.
At Small Victory, a moodily lit, seductive sliver of a bar tucked away in a downtown parking garage, Martini drinkers can get their cocktails made to their exact specifications, minus the 20 questions. The menu’s martini flow chart allows you to select base spirit, brand, style, ratio of dryness and choice of garnish by simply pointing a finger. To quote the Reverend, “It’s martini time.”