Liquor 101: What’s the Ideal Dry Martini?
In Philip Greene’s fun and engaging To Have and Have Another, we read that Hemingway preferred his martinis at a 15 parts gin: 1 part vermouth. We have to admit that it made us curious how a 15:1 martini tasted. It also got us pondering the history of the dry martini in general.
As we mentioned in our ‘How to Start Experimenting‘ post, we mentioned that the martini eventually settled into a 4:1 formula (2 oz gin: 1/2 oz vermouth) as a standard. What we didn’t mention is that it took a wild ride getting there. As is the case with most classic cocktails, there was a great deal of experimentation and variation in the martini’s early years at the beginning of the 20th century. Right up through when the Savoy Cocktail Book was written during Prohibition, it hadn’t yet been decided whether a martini should be made with sweet or dry vermouth, and proportions varied from 1:1 to 8:1. While the existence of the extra dry 8:1 was allowed for, it seems that the general preference hovered in what we would call the sweet direction (though they would just call it less dry, sweet indicating type of vermouth rather than amount), around 2:1.
Things took a radical turn right around the end of Prohibition. Dry vermouth was firmly chosen as the proper style for a martini, and then less and less of it was used. We once heard a W.C. Fields quip along the lines of, ‘Never let a child mix your martini. It’s unseemly, and they always use too much vermouth.’ Winston Churchill used to say that, in lieu of vermouth, he simply bowed in the direction of France. And then there’s the old chestnut about just waving a bottle of vermouth over the mixing glass. All of this escalation of dryness makes Hemingway’s 15:1 preference sound almost soft.
It’s worth mentioning that for all of the machismo posturing a drier martini doesn’t necessarily mean more alcohol. In fact, it could very well mean less. If you assume a standard pour of gin goes into whatever martini you order, one with more vermouth actually ends up with more overall alcohol. The choice of proportion is not a matter of total alcohol consumed, but of concentration, both of alcohol and of gin flavor–which, depending on your choice of gin, probably boils down to the prominence of juniper flavor.
Of course, none of this actually answers the question what proportions we should use when we sidle up to our bar to mix a martini this evening. With so many drinkers and bartenders we respect holding so many vastly different opinion, there seemed only one thing to do; try a few:
- The Hemingway: 15:1
- The Modern Standard: 4:1
- The Classic Standard: 2:1
For all of them, we used Dolin dry vermouth and Bombay Sapphire gin. It’s sort of a Bombay Sapphire week for us, after all, and while we often use a local craft gin in our martinis, Bombay provides a nice martini baseline.
The Hemingway gave us such a wallop of juniper flavor that we decided we decided we need to try some straight gin stirred with ice too, just to see if we were discerning the vermouth at all–I guess you could say that we added a Churchill into the mix. Interestingly, the small amount of vermouth in the Hemingway actually sharpens the focus of the juniper; straight gin watered down by ice had a slightly softer edge. The Hemingway seemed unnecessarily intense with Bombay Sapphire, though we did feel like it could be a pretty good way to heighten the distinctive flavor of the craft gins we often employ in martinis.
Though we knew objectively that what we were drinking was still a rather dry drink, the Classic Standard tasted warm and hospitable in comparison to the Hemingway. It had a nice rounded flavor, and it tasted sweet without being in the least bit cloying. It was still discernibly a dry martini, but nice and easy. We could see why the ancients started here.
Still, modern creatures that we are, we found ourselves gravitating toward the Modern Standard. It might simply be familiarity, but we felt like the balance of gin to vermouth is what we were looking for: vermouth softness and juniper bite equally discernible.
While we might find ourselves lingering around the Modern Standard, it was freeing to realize that we could range, depending on our mood and our choice of gin and vermouth. Anywhere in what we’d call the Savoy range of 1:1 to 8:1 (yep, we tried that one too. We’re not the kind to leave a job 80% done) seemed like something we would certainly welcome and might very well choose depending upon the circumstances. On the 1:1 end of things, we’d probably go for a bianco instead of a dry vermouth, fully embracing the warm sweetness.
For garnish, though we know it’s out of vogue we still have a soft spot for an olive, or maybe just a few drops of olive oil and a few specks of salt instead. A lemon twist, the more fashionable choice, always works as well; in fact we have to admit that on the extremes of the Savoy range it does work better than an olive. For a 50/50 martini with a blanco vermouth, an orange twist works even better.
That’s what we’ll be doing with our martinis. But maybe you think we got off track as a society when we chose dry vermouth over sweet. If that’s what you feel, we have to respect it.