In his book The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, Bernard DeVoto praises a deftly executed dry gin Martini as a muse that promises no less than “art’s sunburst of imagined delights becoming real” (which is significant, since he trashes most other mixed drinks, even a barroom darling of such stature as the Manhattan).
Of course, achieving these results doesn’t come easy. DeVoto insists his revered cocktail must be spec’ed to an exacting 3.7-to-one, gin-to-vermouth ratio; it should be crowned with oil expressed from a lemon peel (which does not go in the glass afterward); and never should more than one serving be made at a time.
Such is just one example of the peerless thicket of arcana that clings to the Martini. Can you think of another cocktail so widely embraced, yet so subjected to personal whim?
“It’s one of the few drinks out there that no one will ever agree on,” says Alex Day of Proprietors LLC. “Everyone has their version of it, and it seems to be a deeply personal thing for people.”
Consider the (misunderstood) story of Winston Churchill’s vermouth-less Martini, or of James Bond’s famous preference for vodka over gin. Ratios, garnishes, glassware, rocks or not, the ways we’ve found to bend a Martini to our will are as innumerable as our taste buds.
Even DeVoto, a stickler to be sure, makes a perhaps unintended nod to the malleability of the Martini through an uncharacteristic equivocation: He says a Martini can be either shaken or stirred. That part apparently doesn’t matter.
Or does it? Cocktail science has advanced a long way since the day of The Hour, which first appeared in 1948. We now know each technique for mixing a Martini possesses its own unique qualities, and can deliver tangible variations on the final product, while keeping all else equal. Below, a look at each preparation in detail, starting from a commonly accepted build: two parts to one, London dry gin to dry vermouth. According to Day, “That core assemblage is the essence of what a Martini is.”
Though it’s fallen out of favor these days, shaking does excel at delivering a cold Martini, fast. “You chill something much more quickly if you shake it,” says Kevin Liu, bar owner and author of Craft Cocktails at Home, which deals a lot with the science of drinks. Shaking is also very good at diluting a Martini, namely because, as Liu explains, “you cannot having chilling of a liquid without dilution.”
Bartender and cocktail writer Dave Arnold has dug deeper into these principles, both via his book, Liquid Intelligence, and in an earlier series of experiments chronicled for the International Culinary Center. “Shaking is so violent that it accomplishes everything it needs to in about 15 seconds,” writes Arnold. “After 15 seconds, the drink won’t chill much more, and the drink won’t dilute much more.”
Whether this point of equilibrium coincides with the arrival at optimal taste is a matter of personal preference. Over-chilling, most would agree, isn’t so much of a danger. (According to bartender Toby Cecchini, “The one thing you want out of a Martini is that it’s arctic… like falling into a swimming pool on a hot day.”) But over-dilution, which results in a watery Martini, is a risk.
The agitation that comes with shaking not only aerates the drink, it also causes ice cubes to chip. And unless they’re double-strained out, those tiny crystals will affect the drink’s mouthfeel. As for the impact of the tiny air bubbles in a Martini, “it’s not going to taste bubbly, like Champagne, if you will,” says Liu. “It’s more likely that [the drinker will perceive] some very, very slight creaminess.”
For many bartenders, what’s “off” about a shaken Martini is perceptible, yet hard to articulate. “There seems to be something a bit disjointed about the shaken Martini,” says Alex Day. “I’m not going to use the word ‘bruised’ or anything like that, but there seems to be a great cohesion when the Martini is stirred as opposed to when it is shaken. And maybe that is [due to] placebo, or some sort of ritual, but that has been my anecdotal observation.”
“Stirring is much more mellow than shaking,” Arnold writes. “To stir a drink to the same temperature plateau that a shaken drink reaches in 15 seconds, you might need to stir 1 to 2 minutes.”
Most bartenders prefer their Martinis stirred. “By stirring, you’re slowly introducing chill and dilution in a very controlled way,” says Jim Kearns of New York’s Slowly Shirley and The Happiest Hour, “so that when you reach the peak amount of chill and dilution—ideally at the same time by using the largest ice you possibly can—you get a really well-made Martini.” What’s more, stirring eliminates air bubbles from the equation. With this technique, says Day, “the entire point of it is to chill and dilute without intentionally adding texture to the cocktail.”
On a molecular level, stirring may also serve to both accentuate and retain some of the more evanescent flavors and aromas found in gin. “In the odor headspace of gin, there are what look like about a couple hundred compounds,” says MIT research scientist Shannon Stewart, noting that adding water to gin “can favor the release of certain molecules.” Typically, this isn’t a result of chemical change, explains Stewart. Rather, “[stirring] changes the delicate balance between water-based compounds, alcohol-based compounds and oil-based compounds, and it can make them more accessible to your odor-receptor neurons or your taste-receptor neurons.”
In other words, that hit of water allows gin’s more hidden botanicals to reveal themselves. But it’s a tricky dance. “What happens with these small organics… [is that] they’re really sensitive to heat [and to] agitation,” says Stewart. “They evaporate easily.”
Stewart notes, too, that shaking can essentially agitate these flavors right out of the drink, whereas stirring tends to bring them forward, but keep them present in the liquid. Why do fewer odors escape from a Martini while it’s stirred? “The surface area of a stirred drink is much lower than its volume,” Stewart says. The exit just isn’t that big, relatively speaking.
Throwing (aka Pulling or Rolling)
The age-old technique of throwing a cocktail—think of Jerry Thomas juggling the flaming contents of a Blue Blazer overhead—for a long time had lost its footing in America. But, as bartender Naren Young points out, custodians of the craft shuttled the throw from Spain to America to Cuba and back to Spain over the years. And now, a few bartenders in the U.S.—including Young, bartender and Managing Partner at New York’s Dante, and Keli Rivers of the San Francisco gin bar, Whitechapel—are revisiting the technique by way of the Martini.
Besides bringing what Young calls “a bit of theatre to the guest experience,” one of the main effects of throwing—whereby the liquid mixture is poured in long streams back and forth between two shaker tins, one of which contains ice kept in place by the bartender’s strainer—is a lot of aeration. Rivers opts to throw a Martini when employing a Navy-strength gin; the technique allows her to temper the amount of dilution while aerating the drink at the same time, in essence borrowing traits of both shaking and stirring. She can literally observe, with each lengthening stream, the minute increases in volume the drink takes on after contact with melting ice. “It’ll start to get a thicker ribbon of spirit going down,” Rivers says. Texturally, she likens the effect of throwing to whipping egg whites: “You’re giving it fluff.… It rounds your tongue, it gives it depth.”
For what it’s worth, with the aeration that comes with throwing, you’re also increasing the surface area available to your liquid ingredients dramatically, says Stewart, and therefore, you may sacrifice some of those more volatile odors to the air.
But all the science in the world can’t dispel, or explain for that matter, the effects that ritual can have on our perceptions of an experience, even when that experience is a drink—and especially when that drink is a Martini. “You get people engaged and involved,” Rivers says of her guests at Whitechapel. “It’s kind of a dance.”