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The Evolution of the Martini from Sweet to Dry

How the Martini evolved into the archetypal dry cocktail we know today.

Whether as an old neon sign hanging in a tavern window or the emoji on your smartphone, the conical stemmed glass with a speared olive plunged into it is recognizable to people of all ages. Even those bars that don’t serve Martinis, and even those people that don’t drink them, know the importance of the drink. The Martini is cocktails.

“It is a permanent fixture of American life, of the American imagination, of America’s image in the rest of the world,” writes Lowell Edmunds in 1981’s Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization. Or, as longtime Miami bartender John Lermayer puts it: “It screams elegance, luxury. James Bond, steakhouses… Whenever I walk into a great bar, it’s still the first thing I will order.”

But the Martini didn’t break onto the scene in its current form. In fact, it took many years to evolve into the archetypal dry cocktail we now associate with the name.

A commonly repeated belief is that the Martini was spawned from the Martinez. Whether invented in San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel (a short ride from the gold rush town of Martinez), produced impromptu at Julio’s Bar on Ferry Street in Martinez itself (and paid for with a gold nugget) or, as some believe, made at The Knickerbocker (and perhaps stirred up by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia), its first written mention occurs in O.H. Byron’s 1884 The Modern Bartenders’ Guide.

That Martinez recipe is quite sweet, essentially a gin Manhattan. Thus, despite the oh-so-close name, it’s hard to consider this drink a progenitor. Plymouth Gin Global Brand Ambassador Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge calls it a “continuation of the norm, rather than the evolution of the dry Martini.”

The drink did, however, evolve from a cocktail not unlike the Martinez in profile. The first written record of the Martini comes courtesy of barman Harry Johnson in the 1888 edition of his New and Improved Bartender’s Manual. The drink called for sweet vermouth, orange curaçao, orange bitters, gum syrup and Old Tom Gin, which itself was probably sweetened as well. Many cocktails of this era were, in fact, quite sweet, making it all the more intriguing that the world’s quintessential dry cocktail would eventually arise from the ashes of these more saccharine incarnations.

In the late 1880s, we also see the arrival of the Bijou, an almost Martini-like drink made of gin, sweet vermouth and Chartreuse, and featuring one of the first olive garnishes. By 1895, the Turf Cocktail appears in George J. Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks. It merely asked for the three ingredients: Old Tom Gin, Angostura and orange bitters. And by the 1900 edition of the New and Improved Bartender’s Manual, Johnson had swapped in Plymouth Gin and French vermouth, dropped the Angostura and added a few dashes each of maraschino and absinthe. While not quite yet the dry Martini we know today, it was on its way.

It’s clear that for the drink to evolve to a drier state, first the general world’s cocktail palate would need to make that shift to even allow for it. “The story of many of the world’s greatest cocktails comes down to the power of social change, technological development and trends,” believes Hamilton-Mudge. “The history of the Martini is no different and came about through an evolution created by the changing drinking trends during the last decades of the 1800s, not a single eureka moment.”

With the patenting of the Coffey still in 1830, a purely neutral spirit could finally be made; gin’s base was soon drier and less heavy. Likewise, the need for sweeteners in order to cover up less palatable flavors was rendered unnecessary. By the late 1800s, dry French vermouth was also on the rise. First exported to America in 1851 aboard Captain Charles Warham’s Clairborn, by the 1880s it was appearing in more and more recipes in each successive edition of Jerry Thomas’s seminal How to Mix Drinks. It would finally become commonplace when Martini & Rossi launched Extra Dry on New Year’s Day, 1900.

With the end of a heavy export taxation on gin in 1849, it, too, was finally free to spread its wings around the world, especially to America and its burgeoning cocktail scene. It would soon be the base spirit in a large proportion of recorded cocktails—including something called the “Marguerite,” also featured in the 1900 edition of Johnson’s book.

It would seem that this Marguerite is most responsible for leading the evolution toward the dry-drinking styles that would one day give us the pinnacle of them all. In Thomas Stuart’s 1904 update to his 1896 book, Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, the Marguerite appears completely lacking a sweetener as a “New and Up-to-Date” drink, alongside other dry cocktails, like the Gin Rickey and Rimson Cooler.

Stuart’s Marguerite was made with 2-to-1 Plymouth Gin to French dry vermouth and a dash of orange bitters—doubling the gin and losing the sweetening ingredients that appeared in both Johnson’s Martini recipe from 1900 and the variation presented in Tim Daly’s Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia, in 1903. It is, essentially, the Martini as we know it today—a dry, Apollonian masterpiece of a drink.

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