San Francisco’s Keli Rivers makes hundreds of different gin cocktails per night. Still, when asked what her very favorite gin cocktail is, she replied: “I wouldn’t kick a Fifty-Fifty Martini out of bed for eating crackers.”
Though dry Martinis—often at ratios anywhere from 3-to-1 to 9-to-1—have been the standard-bearer for most of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Fifty-Fifty (equal parts gin and dry vermouth) is a light-drinking, refreshing, sessionable variant of the style.
“The trend of lower-ABV cocktails continues to gain momentum,” explains Brahm Callahan, the beverage director for Himmel Hospitality Group. “While I do love a stiff Martini, there is something appealing about having more than one of something… This has resulted in many [bartenders] shifting ratios or swapping ingredients.”
It’s hard to track when the cocktail first appeared—do equal-parts drinks ever need to be written down?—but Kara Newman, in her 2016 book Shake. Stir. Sip., notes that a 50-50 ratio was the standard pre-Prohibition, and perhaps as early as the late 1800s. Gordon’s Gin actually offered “ready-to-serve” Fifty-Fifty Martini shakers as early as 1924, according to Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace. But perhaps the earliest mention of the Fifty-Fifty Martini in print comes toward the end of Prohibition, in The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). In his “Fifty-Fifty Cocktail,” Harry Craddock calls for a miserly half-ounce of dry gin and half-ounce French vermouth, “shake(n) well.” Despite such prominent literary placement, though, dry Martinis would still dominate for most of the post-Prohibition era.
The late Sasha Petraske of the erstwhile Milk & Honey may have been the first bartender to revive the Fifty-Fifty Martini in America in the early 2000s, after having seen it served during a trip to London. Robert Simonson, in A Proper Drink, notes that to American drinkers of the time, Petraske’s “half-and-half Martini didn’t look daring. It looked insane.”
Back then, “wet” Martinis were anathema, with misunderstandings about vermouth—often ignored and left to go bad behind the bar—largely to blame. For the Fifty-Fifty Martini to fully reemerge, the world would have to view dry vermouth in a positive light once again, and treat it with respect.
Enter Audrey Saunders and her “Fitty-Fitty Martini,” which she created in 2005 for the opening of her bar in downtown New York. Essentially a Fifty-Fifty with two dashes of orange bitters (one each of Regans’ and Fee Brothers), the cocktail was an immediate hit; it remains a menu stalwart to this day.
Saunders believes the drink is a “true study in calibration”: The more assertive a gin’s botanical profile, the more potent the dry vermouth, and vice versa. Hence why Saunders likes to partner a more easygoing gin, such as Plymouth Gin, with the more delicate Dolin Dry Vermouth—a combination that has become a go-to choice across the country.
The Fifty-Fifty’s popularity has led to the surest sign of its current relevance: spin-offs and variations. LA chef and cookbook author Ariane Resnick makes her version with celery bitters, an ingredient that was popular during the original heyday of the drink, while San Francisco’s Erik Adkins likes to split his vermouth base. Manhattan’s Nicholas Bennett takes it one (or two) steps further in his Sherry Fine, splitting gin with yellow Chartreuse and vermouth with a dry fino sherry for a thoroughly modern Fifty-Fifty.
But as the drink has gained acolytes, a debate has emerged. Is a Fifty-Fifty truly a Martini? When PUNCH conducted a blind-tasting to find the “ultimate” Martini, the bartenders involved discussed whether a Fifty-Fifty should even be included. One panelist felt any cocktail that upped the vermouth quotient above two-parts gin to one-part vermouth had crossed a line into non-Martini land.
So, call the Fifty-Fifty an “introductory” Martini. Or you can view it as an aperitif Martini for the already initiated. Regardless, in our current wave of low-ABV drinking, the Fifty-Fifty might just be living up to its alias, making it the “Perfect Martini” for the era.