Thomas Waugh, a veteran cocktail bartender who has set up programs at The Grill, ZZ’s Clam Bar, is not a fan of the 50/50, the fashionably wet iteration of the Martini that calls for equal parts gin and dry vermouth.
“I always feel like that in-between land of mixing gin and vermouth half and half kind of fucks them both,” says Waugh, who prefers a ratio that leans more toward five parts gin to one part vermouth. “When you say, ‘Let’s go get a Martini,’ I’m not talking about going and drinking vermouth, man. A Martini means business.”
He knows, however, that in 2019 he is increasingly in the minority. “My friends have them that way and you’re not going to stir the pot,” he says. “You just order a round.”
The Martini has never not been a source of dispute—its iconic status fueled by an unending series of debates on how the drink should be properly made: shaken vs. stirred, olive vs. twist, gin vs. vodka, and so on (and on). But perhaps the most enduring argument centers on how much vermouth should be used. And, for much of the 20th century—from the repeal of Prohibition till the dawn of the current millennium—the prevailing answer to that question was: less. Martinis were dry, or very dry, or absolutely arid. They were four parts gin to one part vermouth, 5 to 1, 10 to 1, 16 to 1. Self-appointed Martini experts would say you only needed a barspoon of vermouth, a drop, a misting—or none at all! The latter, basically a cold glass of gin, improbably remains the preferred rendition of many self-respecting bars, restaurants and drinkers.
Today, however, the Martini’s world has been turned upside-down. Cocktail connoisseurs and discriminating bartenders want the drink wet, and they declare their sophistication by ordering it in gin-to-vermouth ratios of 3 to 1, 2 to 1. But the ultimate epicurean salvo is the 50/50, a drink both retro and iconoclastic. “It’s a flavorful, elegant quaff that embodies the notion of culinary balance and not that of alcoholic largesse,” declares Audrey Saunders. “It reflects equal attention to both flavor and detail.”
Saunders may be the biggest 50/50 advocate in the world. After all, it was through her iconic Fitty-Fitty cocktail, which debuted on the opening menu of New York’s Pegu Club in 2005, that most bartenders and cocktail drinkers first encountered the idea of an equal-parts Martini. It’s been a staple ever since.
To Saunders, the 50/50 is not an aberration, but the ur-Martini. “Of course I thought of it as a Martini,” she said. “Because of my studies, I knew it was what a Martini would have originally been like.”
This is partly true. The Martini did begin life as an equal-parts drink. But those parts, in the late 19th century, were Old Tom Gin, a sweeter form of the spirit, and sweet vermouth. It wouldn’t be until after 1900 that a 50/50 Martini with dry gin and dry vermouth would appear. Nonetheless, for history-conscious young bartenders who were bent on returning every classic cocktail to its former glory, the 50/50 was a revelation. They preached its virtues far and wide: More flavorful! Lower ABV! Respects the vermouth! By 2010, if you were a member of the cocktail community and didn’t prefer the 50/50 over the midcentury Sahara-dry Martini, you were seen as outside the zeitgeist.
And yet, some of the industry’s luminaries weren’t convinced—and still aren’t. “The 50/50 is as much a Martini as Miller Lite is a pilsner,” says Bobby Heugel, owner of several bars in Houston. “If a guest wants a lower-proof Martini, I’m happy to stir a 50/50 up for you, but if you ask me for a pilsner, I’m not grabbing you a Miller Lite.”
To him, the ultimate test of the core identity of any cocktail comes from the customer, and the average drinker is not going to expect a 50/50 when ordering a Martini. “If I ask a bartender for a Martini, and they serve me a 50/50 without stating so,” he says, “then I begin to wonder if I’m being slowly cut off.”
To a 50/50 crowd, however, such words are sacrilege. They regard it as the one true Martini or, as cocktail historian David Wondrich puts it, “the father of the ancient Gods,” from which all other Martinis have sprung. Saunders goes further, suggesting that the real question is not necessarily whether or not the 50/50 is an actual Martini, “but whether or not the more modern reiterations are actual Martinis.”
One thing that seems inarguable is that the 50/50 is an insider’s Martini. The drink is primarily ordered by members of the cocktail enclave or those who have had extended exposure to it, including media. Heugel says he rarely meets guests outside of the bar industry who ask for it. He even goes one step further in his theory, crediting the cocktail’s ascent over the past 15 years to liquor brand ambassadors who hawk booze and education from bar to bar, throwing impromptu parties along the way.
“The rise of the 50/50 is fairly easy to attribute to brand ambassadors who popularized the cocktail in attempt to cut back on their alcohol consumption,” says Heugel. Simon Ford, who began his career as a brand ambassador for Plymouth Gin and later founded Fords Gin, admits there’s some truth to the thesis. “I do find that if I am consuming 50/50s, I can stretch myself one Martini further,” he says.
Perhaps the key to the 50/50’s status within the Martini universe lies in its very name. It is always ordered as a 50/50, or as a 50/50 Martini, never as simply a Martini. One must specify. It is a Martini, but is not A Martini, as the drink is most commonly understood.
The best way to understand the 50/50 is as an expression of a cocktail that has never been one thing for very long. The concept of the Martini is fairly strong, but the recipe is ever in flux. It began as a sweet drink, spent a good long spell as a dry one, and is presently sitting somewhere in the middle. There’s no telling what new iteration of the Martini lies just around the bend, but if history is any indication, the one thing it definitely won’t inspire is a consensus.