The Martini is a chameleon-like cocktail. Since its invention in the late 1800s, bartenders have served it up and on the rocks, in V-shaped glasses and coupes and slender Nick & Noras, garnished with an aromatic lemon twist, a plump olive, or, in more singular instances, a pickled onion or sakura blossom. Today’s Martini zeitgeist, however, centers on the savagely cold “freezer Martini”—that is, a Martini pre-mixed to optimal dilution, then bottled and plunged into subzero temps for a lush, velvety texture.
The approach has been slowly gathering traction in cocktail circles since at least the early 2000s, but it’s only in the past few years that the practice has hit its peak, popping up on countless new bar menus everywhere from New York City’s Le Rock, which boasts three variations on the freezer Martini, to The Butterscotch Den in Sacramento, California, where you can supplement your order with a $3 caviar bump.
Despite the fervor with which it’s been adopted by top-tier bars across the country, the freezer Martini is not, in fact, a contemporary invention. Its roots trace back to a painfully obvious place: the invention of electric refrigeration.
Though the refrigerator came first, in the 1930s, freezers were introduced about a decade later as an improvement to the icebox (insulated wooden cabinets lined with tin, zinc, iron or enamel, designed to keep ice and food cold). By the postwar years, this novel “deep freeze” device went into mass production, a moment that aligned with a rising national thirst for ultradry Martinis. “The freezer Martini was a pretty common perversion in the ’50s and ’60s,” says cocktail historian and author David Wondrich. “Americans were very engineering-conscious, and at the time they were also smart enough to realize that vermouth is only one of the things watering down your Martini—there’s also dilution, so what are you going to do about that? The solution is, of course, keeping the undiluted Martini in the freezer, instead of stirring with ice.”
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This early, dry take on the freezer Martini had its fair share of fans, including writer and film director Garson Kanin, according to Wondrich, as well as detractors, like essayist Bernard DeVoto, who quipped in The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, “You can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.” Regardless, the cocktail’s notoriety grew to the point where mentions of freezer Martinis could be found in magazines including Cosmopolitan and books like Charles H. Baker’s The South American Gentleman’s Companion, in which Baker cites a dry Martini recipe that is “pre-mixed, stirred with ice for just under 1 minute flat; then strained into glass jars with tops and kept really cold in refrigerator or deep freeze—the latter is best.”
The freezer Martini’s initial heyday was relatively short-lived in the United States. By the late 1960s, the Martini fell out of fashion altogether, and it wasn’t until the cocktail renaissance of the early aughts that the stately mixed-to-order version came back into prominence, with its frozen counterpart following suit. In Europe, however, extra-cold, pre-batched Martinis seemingly never went out of style, a fact that plays a key role in the phenomenon’s recent revival at American bars.
Cocktail historians and bartenders alike tend to agree on two pivotal, enduring examples of the freezer Martini that likely spurred its stateside return: the 1930s-era Martini at Harry’s Bar in Venice, and Salvatore Calabrese’s “direct” Martini, which he developed at the Dukes Hotel in London in 1985. At the former, the 10:1 Montgomery Martini is prepared with chilled gin and very little vermouth, stirred with ice, then funneled into diminutive glasses and subsequently stored in the freezer before service. For the Dukes iteration, Calabrese pours ice-cold gin directly into a chilled glass followed by a few dancing dashes of vermouth over the top. “Originally, those seemed to be the two ways of doing it,” Wondrich says. “The Dukes style without dilution, and Harry’s version with dilution—though Harry’s bar today does it without dilution, too.”
American bartender Thomas Waugh first encountered the Dukes Martini in 2004 while on a trip “muling some tequila to London” with contemporaries Julio Bermejo, Marco Dionysos and Jacques Bezuidenhout. At the time, Waugh had only recently been promoted from barback to bartender at Enrico’s Sidewalk Café in San Francisco. “To be honest, I thought [the Dukes Martini] was way too strong, but it was eye-opening for me. I had two of them and walked out sloshed,” he recalls. “I loved the idea, but I wanted water and vermouth in it as well, so I started messing around with that at home.”
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Waugh wasn’t the only one captivated by the promise of a numbingly cold Martini that could be pulled from the depths of the freezer on a whim. On the opposite coast, Dave Arnold, then working at the French Culinary Institute in New York, began experimenting with pre-diluted cocktails somewhere between 2005 and 2010, he says. “In the early 2000s there were a lot of arguments that you were doing this mystical thing of adding texture when stirring a drink, but I ran tests and realized that, no, stirring was only chilling and dilution.” This realization led him to bottle and chill Martinis for events, a technique he refined over time and eventually carried through to the opening of his groundbreaking bar Booker and Dax in 2012.
“We were strictly trying to mimic what you’d get with the best person stirring on the best day in an absolutely consistent fashion, and giving it to you 2 to 4 degrees colder than you’d be able to get through stirring,” he says. “At the time it was novel, and blindingly fast.” In 2014, Arnold printed his method in Liquid Intelligence, which has influenced countless bartenders to follow.
Though the freezer Martini remained a popular topic of discussion in certain cocktail circles, it wasn’t until 2017 that it began to seep into the public consciousness, thanks in part to a New York Times review by Robert Simonson of the then-new bar in the former Four Seasons space. “Getting a drink fast and cold will not be a problem,” wrote Simonson, because none other than Waugh himself was serving Martini variations “premixed and kept in one of four freezers behind the bar.”
Considered linearly, there’s an argument to be made that Waugh, or perhaps Arnold, is to thank for the freezer Martini’s modern rise to ubiquity. But just as the Martini claims more than a dozen conflicting origin stories, it’s difficult to pin the freezer Martini revival on a single individual. “A lot of people who were doing interesting things back then weren’t getting press for it,” notes Arnold. “So many times, this person was doing a cool thing because they learned it from that person, and that stuff doesn’t get written down.”