Ever order a martini at a bar and think, “Whew, that’s definitely not my kind of drink”? It turns out that even though a martini is made with only 3 ingredients, slight variations of proportions, alcohol type and even how it’s chilled can make a big difference to the overall flavor and texture of a martini drink. Keep reading for the ins and outs of this classic cocktail, plus how to order a martini that won’t make your toes curl.
Still not into a martini? Try one of these other retro cocktails instead.
So, What’s a Martini, Anyway?
Traditionally, a martini is a chilled mixture of gin and vermouth that’s garnished with an olive or lemon twist. Though the cocktail’s origin is a bit muddled, it’s widely accepted that the drink was invented sometime in the late 1800s and featured an equal, 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of gin to vermouth. As time went on, the amount of vermouth steadily dropped to a 4:1, 6:1 or just a vermouth wash (swirling the vermouth in your glass, then dumping it before pouring in the chilled spirit), especially after Prohibition ended. While using vodka rather than gin wasn’t out-of-the-blue, the substitution didn’t become popular until the 60s, according to Atlas Obscura.
How to Build Your Perfect Martini
There are two main parts to consider when it comes to adjusting a martini to your taste: ingredients and method. Here, we’ll break down the many ways you can manipulate a martini that’s just right for you.
Choose your alcohol
Since a martini is a very spirit-forward cocktail, it’s important that you actually like the main spirit. There are two choices when it comes to a martini: gin or vodka. Or, you can mix it like Bond and get both.
- Gin is a spirit that’s used in traditional cocktails like a G&T, negroni and Tom Collins. Though every gin must be made from juniper berries, that’s where most similarities end. As one of the most varied types of spirit, gin is flavored with everything from coriander to citrus to chamomile and much more. Take a look at our round-up of popular gin brands to try, including multiple London drys, the traditional martini choice.
- Vodka is a great option if you find gin’s flavor a bit too pungent. As a neutral spirit, vodka will be cleaner on your palate without sacrificing alcohol content. Despite vodka’s lack of flavor, there are differences between brands that become especially noticeable in a spirit heavy cocktail like a martini. Here are some of our favorite brands of vodka, and when’s best to use them.
Choose your aromatized wine
When it comes to martinis, you aren’t stuck with vermouth. A martini’s other half can be any aromatized wine (also known as a dessert wine with added herbs, spices or citrus). Since this ingredient is wine-based, it’s important to use it while it’s fresh. If you’re not making martinis often, opt for a small bottle and toss at least a week after it’s been opened. Trust us, it’ll make all the difference.
- Vermouth is an aromatized fortified wine that is usually flavored with wormwood, a plant that is also used in absinthe and many bitters. While dry vermouth is the traditional way to go, it also comes in sweet, extra-dry, red, rose and amber. Popular brands of vermouth include Martini & Rossi, Dolin and Cinzano.
- Lillet is a French brand of aromatized wine from Bordeaux that was originally flavored with quinine and does not contain wormwood or additional spirits. Though the quinine-containing Kina Lillet, which was a favorite of James Bond’s, was discontinued in 1986, you can get a similar flavor from the brand’s Blanc version. Lillet also comes in rouge, rose and reserves.
Choose your garnish
Though not absolutely necessary, the addition of a garnish is a lovely way to round out your martini.
- Olives are a great choice if you love a salty, hearty martini (or just want a snack with your cocktail). Pimento-stuffed Spanish Queen olives are traditional, and most readily available at bars, but you can try bleu cheese-, jalapeno- or garlic-stuffed olives for some added flavor. Take it to the next level by ordering a dirty martini, which has a splash of olive brine or juice in the cocktail itself.
- Lemon twist involves twisting a lemon peel over the top of your martini so its oils land on the cocktail, them dropping the peel on the glass’s rim. This aromatic garnish will give you a bright, clean martini. You can try the same technique with lime, orange or grapefruit peels, too.
- Cocktail onions are a slightly sweeter alternative to olives. These pickled pearl onions are usually slightly spiced and add a good crunch to your cocktail. When served with cocktail onions, the drink is referred to as a Gibson, rather than a martini.
Choose your proportions
The ratio of hard spirit to vermouth greatly affects the flavor and overall mouthfeel of your martini. A standard martini is usually 5 parts spirit to 1 part dry vermouth.
- “Dry” means that there is more gin or vodka than vermouth or Lillet than normal. If the vermouth of a 5:1 martini is still too strong for you, bump up the spirit ratio to 6:1, 10:1, 15:1 (which was Hemingway’s go-to) or reduce it to a simple wash. For some, a martini contains no vermouth at all. As playwright Noel Coward would say, a martini should “be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy,” which is a major producer of vermouth.
- “Wet” means that there is more vermouth than the standard IBA proportions. Some common proportions for a wet martini are 3:1, 4:1 and 5:1. You can take it really old school and mix a 2:1 or 1:1 martini, which was popular back in the ’20s. Though dry martinis tend to be more popular, don’t feel like you have to order one for an authentic martini. Even FDR loved a more mellow martini by preferring a 3:1 ratio.
Choose your chill
James Bond is infamous for ordering a martini shaken rather than stirred. While getting the ingredients as cold as possible is central for a quality martini, what difference does the way you chill really make?
- Shaken means that the ingredients are added to a cocktail shaker with ice and vigorously shook until the outside of the shaker is ice cold. While this method gets your cocktail colder faster, it also tends to water your drink down more than stirring. This is because the ice has complete contact with the alcohol, making it melt more quickly. Additionally, when the cocktail is poured into a glass, it will appear cloudy and have small ice chips in it.
- Stirred involves the ingredients being poured into a glass with ice and stirring them until chilled. This technique is more gentle, meaning it will take a little longer to chill, about 40 seconds or so. The extra time pays off though, with a resulting martini that is smooth and clear.
Now that you know the basic components and methods for whipping up a martini, play around with them to find the martini that’s perfect for your tastebuds.
Common martini terms to know
- Dirty/extra dirty: a martini made with olive juice or brine and garnished with an olive.
- Bone-dry: a martini made with extremely little or no vermouth.
- Kangaroo: another name for a vodka martini.
- Vesper: James Bond’s order in Casino Royale: 3 parts gin, 1 part vodka, half a part of Lillet Blanc and a lemon peel.
- Upside Down or Reverse: a martini that is made with the opposite proportions of vermouth and spirit. For example, 5 parts vermouth to 1 part gin.
- 50/50 or Perfect: a martini made with equal parts dry and sweet vermouth.
- Shaken: a martini that is chilled in a cocktail shaker, then strained into a glass.
- Stirred: a martini that is chilled in a cocktail glass with ice, then strained into a separate glass.
- On the rocks: a martini that is served in a rocks glass with ice cubes.
- With a twist: a martini served with a twist of lemon peel.
- Gibson: a martini served with a cocktail onion.
Next, learn about the 15 vintage cocktails that definitely deserve a comeback.