If ever there was a cocktail that might provoke a brawl, it’s the Martini.
Ever since there have been people who think of themselves as Martini drinkers—a species that popped up following Prohibition, when the drink became Sahara-dry and the personal property of alpha males—there have been those who think theirs is the only proper Martini. Beefeater or Tanqueray or Plymouth, etc.; wet or dry or very dry, depending on the amount of vermouth; olive or twist; shaken or stirred; cold or colder or sub-zero. If you didn’t have a stated opinion on each, you were not considered a serious Martini drinker.
The Top Three
Given the level of contention surrounding the cocktail, is it even conceivable that there is a “best” version of the drink?
We decided it was worth a try, which is why, on a recent Monday afternoon, we blind-tasted 27 Martinis, solicited from noted bartenders across the United States and as far away as Australia. On hand to help render verdicts were bartenders Will Elliott (Maison Premiere, Sauvage), Katie Stipe (recently of Grand Army) and Thomas Waugh (The Landmark), each of whom submitted their own version of the iconic drink.
For a cocktail with such a rock-solid reputation, the Martini endured a bumpy ride in its early years. “Who invented the Martini?” asked an assisting bartender at the tasting. The immediate (and correct) answer: “Nobody knows.”
There are many origin stories, but none you can’t poke a hole in. The drink began appearing in cocktail books in the 1880s as one of the first great modern cocktails to use vermouth, but it took a while for it to find itself. Early gin to vermouth ratios were often one-to-one; and the gin in question was the sweeter Old Tom, not London dry. The vermouth, meanwhile, was sweet as often as it was dry. (A possible ancestor of the Martini, the Martinez, also called for Old Tom and sweet vermouth.) It wasn’t until the early 1900s that recipes that began to resemble the archetypal dry Martini arrived on the scene.
While the dry Martini reigned for much of the 20th century, modern bartenders have seen to it that the old 50/50 version become voguish in recent years. Indeed, a number of the entries in the tasting were of the half-and-half sort. That version of the cocktail, however, was not what the tasting panel was after.
All three bartenders agreed the 50/50 Martini, while a good thing, was a different drink altogether. In fact, Stipe suggested that any drink that went weaker than two parts gin to one part vermouth had crossed a line into non-Martini land. (When I suggested the 50/50 Martini debate was not unlike the endless dialogue surrounding whether the hot dog was a sandwich or not, PUNCH editor in chief Talia Baiocchi quickly shot back, “Of course the hot dog is not a sandwich.”)
Preferences at the table skewed decidedly classic—that is to say, classic as prescribed by post-Prohibition norms. “I’m old-school,” said Waugh. “I like a stronger Martini. I like it drier.” By the end of the tasting, Elliott agreed, observing that that panel was looking for “more noticeable gins and more gin,” in their ideal Martini. Asked to name their go-to Martini gins, the group called out classic names, like Tanqueray, Beefeater, Boodles and Plymouth; and modern gins, like Fords, Junipero and Perry’s Tot.
More than half of the entries were dispatched fairly quickly. Some were thought too watery and weak; others had obvious notes of outlier ingredients—crème de peche, Lillet Blanc, sherry, absinthe—that did not say “Martini” to the judges. (Stipe’s Martini was the one that contained sherry. While it was among some in the group’s favorites, it read more like a Bamboo cocktail than a Martini.) Cocktails that didn’t make a strong first impression rarely made the cut. It became clear that the panel preferred Martinis that spoke boldly—and had serious spine.
In the end, the most classic recipe of all won out—and the one authored by the most classic of bartenders. Dale DeGroff’s simple and strong concoction of Beefeater gin (3 1/2 ounces) and Martini Reserva Speciale Ambrato vermouth (1/2 ounce) was the victor, impressing with its straightforward, purist style.
“It’s all about gin choice,” observed Waugh about DeGroff’s cocktail, with Elliot adding, “The gin and vermouth are working with each other here, not battling each other.”
Coming in second was another veteran barman. Eben Freeman’s Martini called for Old Raj gin (2 ounces), Noilly Prat dry vermouth (3/4 ounce) and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (1/2 ounce). The drink was full and round and elegant, with a sweetness brought out by the Cocchi that trailed off to a bitter finish.
The third favorite came from James Bolt of The Gin Joint in Charleston. He split his gin base between California’s Junípero (1 1/2 ounces) and Seattle’s Big Gin (3/4 ounce), while using Dolin dry, a favorite of many of the competing bartenders, as the vermouth (1/2 ounce). The drink’s curve-ball accent, however, was four dashes of saline tincture, which gave the cocktail a briny edge that turned up the volume on the other flavors.
Other Martinis that fared well in the polling included those by Waugh and Elliott themselves—both of them pre-bottled and frozen. Waugh split the gin between Tanqueray and Plymouth (1 1/4 ounces each) and the vermouth between Dolin Blanc and Noilly Prat Extra Dry (1/4 ounce each) and opted for three drops of Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6. Elliott’s Martini, which is served at Sauvage, called for Mahon Xoriguer gin (2 3/4 ounces), a Spanish gin with a heavy juniper note, and Mauro Vergano’s Luli (1/2 ounce), a Moscato-based Chinato from Italy, as well as three dashes of Angostura Orange Bitters. It was too delicious to ignore.
But was it a Martini? It was the question that hovered over all of the drinks tried during the tasting—a question that had to be satisfied before matters of flavor and construction could be taken up. Elliott’s drink was a rare case where taste trumped tradition; in most cases, tradition trumps taste. The sweet spot is where those two things overlap, an area about the size of the center circle on a dart board.