It’s hardly news that we are living through a Martini renaissance. Entire menus are dedicated to its countless iterations—classic to kitsch to high-concept—fostering a new generation of avid, sometimes rabid, Martini drinkers. It is truly the Martini’s world, we’re just living in it.
And so, if ever there was a time to go in search of the best Martini, it’s now. Or so we thought. Sourcing 10 recipes from top bars across the country was an easy feat (easier than sourcing 27 back in 2017), but finding a winner among them was not.
Joined by bartenders Sarah Morrissey (of the forthcoming reopening of Le Veau d’Or), Orlando Franklin McCray (Nightmoves) and William Elliott, bar director of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere (where the tasting was held and whose King Cole Martini is among the city’s most exemplary), the judges anticipated a stiff competition. When Martini after Martini came out tasting too thin, too diluted, too boring, Elliott likened the task to the challenge of getting a good salad in the city—something that should be easy, but, regrettably, is not.
Apparently, the presence of more Martinis does not necessarily translate to more good Martinis. Or, perhaps more accurately, the influx of good Martinis is matched (or surpassed) by that of bad ones. Amid such a glut, Martinis that might once have satisfied a thirsty guest looking for a bracing pick-me-up can no longer coast on the benefit of scarcity. As Morrissey explained, these days “it’s only acceptable to have a bad Martini if it’s made by an old man at a dive bar.”
With just two ingredients at its most basic, a good Martini’s goal is not balance, per se. “The whole idea of a ‘balanced Martini’ is an idea that’s always thrown me off,” says Elliott. After all, he explains, “it takes three legs to balance, not two.” Instead, we were looking for the gin and vermouth to harmonize in service of a single point of view, in search of a quality Elliott terms “ultimate crunch”: a drink that is dry, integrated and crisp, with a bite that only a mouth-numbingly cold Martini can deliver.
Of those sampled, only one truly hit the mark. Harrison Ginsberg of New York’s Overstory builds his recipe in a drier iteration than the standard 2:1 ratio, calling on 2 1/2 ounces of Tanqueray gin and a 1/2 ounce of Noilly Prat extra-dry vermouth, plush a dash of orange bitters served with a lemon twist or an olive. Unremarkable on paper, the recipe proves the alchemy at play when a few simple ingredients come together in precisely the right proportions. It was the last one judges sampled and the only one possessing that specific Martini bite. After tasting it, Morrissey declared: “Now I’m drinking a Martini.”