Martinis better than Bond's

Find the formula that's right for you

After a long day fighting spies in the service of Her Majesty's Secret Service, there is apparently nothing more relaxing than ordering a vodka martini dry, shaken not stirred. James Bond's iconic cocktail recipe has become so ubiquitous that it's become the standard formula served at most bars and restaurants. Generally it is made with as little vermouth as possible, to the point that many bartenders will pour a small amount of vermouth on ice, shake it, then pour out the vermouth so there is just a light coating of vermouth on the ice. Consequently, most martinis are little more than chilled gin. This style of dry martini with the tiniest hint of vermouth can likely be traced to a quote from English playwright Noel Coward who said, "A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy." And while Noel can order his martini any way he likes, there's more to this drink than simply shaken vodka with a couple of olives in a poorly designed glass that spills too easily and does a poor job of keeping the drink cold.

The basic components of a martini are gin or vodka, dry vermouth and a garnish. It's possible that the reason most folks want only a miniscule amount of vermouth in their martini is because the vermouth that is most commonly used is not very good and has likely been unrefrigerated and oxidized. Vermouth, unlike spirits like gin and bourbon, does not keep indefinitely once opened. Once a bottle of vermouth is opened it should be stored in the fridge and used within three to four months. A fortified wine that has been aromatized is wine that has been steeped in botanicals; vermouth was initially used for medicinal purposes. Today it is an essential ingredient in a range of classic cocktails in addition to martinis, such as negronis, Manhattans and Gibsons. Vermouth can also be drunk on its own over ice as an aperitif and no two brands are the same. Each has its own proprietary blend of different botanicals and therefore a different flavor profile.

The next component to consider is the spirit. Like vermouth, gin is aromatized with botanicals and each different brand of gin is a different blend of different botanicals giving different flavors to the gin. Juniper is one of the primary aromas in gin, however there is a huge range of flavor profiles to consider. Some gins are very juniper-forward, in others it plays more of a supporting role. This is especially important when mixing a martini because the flavors in the gin should pair well with the flavors in your chosen vermouth. Forthave Blue Gin is distilled in Brooklyn, New York, with classic botanicals like juniper, mint and angelica. An unfiltered gin, Forthave Blue Gin will display a pearlescent sheen when poured over ice. Vodka is also a popular choice of spirit (it was Bond's go-to after all). Because vodka is a neutral spirit without the botanical aroma of gin, vodka is a good choice if you're looking to highlight the flavors in the vermouth.

Choice of garnish is another important consideration. Pimento-stuffed olives are classic, though today olive options abound, stuffed with a range of ingredients from almonds to garlic to blue cheese to anchovies. Pour a little bit of the olive brine in the cocktail and it becomes a dirty martini (a little bit of brine goes a long way so use a light hand). Olives are certainly not the only garnish options available. An orange or lemon twist pairs well with gins that have citrusy botanicals. Many martini variations have a dash or two of orange bitters added as well. My favorite martini formulation is technically a Gibson – a martini with a pickled cocktail onion as a garnish. 

The final consideration is proportions of gin and vermouth and the technique used to blend them. A well-matched pairing of vermouth and gin such as Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth and Plymouth Gin is delicious made with equal parts of each. For a particularly interesting or high- end gin a two-to-one gin to vermouth ratio may be more appropriate. As noted above, a vodka martini will highlight the vermouth, so equal proportions of vodka and vermouth strikes a good balance. These ratios are just a starting point and adjustments can be made based on your personal palate.

To stir or not to stir is a controversial question. Some may criticize Bond for his request that his drink be shaken, not stirred, as it ends up diluting the drink. This is partially true, however when a drink is shaken as opposed to stirred it aerates the drink, infusing tiny bubbles into it, which allows the aromatic to shine through. Stirring keeps the botanicals in the drink. Both methods dilute the cocktail – the goal is not to keep the cocktail as strong as possible but rather dilute it the right amount, which is based on your personal preference. A third option often used in specialty craft cocktail bars is a "thrown" cocktail. The cocktail is poured between two vessels, one containing ice, so that the content free-falls as far as possible in the air in order to aerate it. It takes some time and experimentation to find the cocktail formula that's right for you, but if you're enjoying your drink, you made it right.

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother’s culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and recently achieved the...

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