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Meet the New Martini

Subtle upgrades are making the world’s most nuanced drink worth seeking out all over again. Kara Newman unravels the postmodern Martini.

“If a restaurant can only make one good cocktail, it should be a Martini,” says Will Elliott, bar director for Sauvage, a newly opened restaurant in Brooklyn from the Maison Premiere team.

Indeed, every bar (and restaurant) offers a Martini. But lately, the classic cocktail seems to have taken a sharp left turn.

Consider Sauvage’s house Martini: made with Mahon Xoriguer, a soft, pine-y gin from Menorca in Spain, and a generous pour of quinine-infused Luli Moscato Chinato (think a far more concentrated, aromatic and bitter version of bianco vermouth). It’s pre-batched, bottled and stashed in the freezer, where it develops a viscous texture. When ordered, there’s no stirring or shaking—it’s simply poured into the glass. Garnish is DIY: An ice-filled sidecar offers a lemon twist, sprigs of juniper with berries attached, a peppery-sweet nasturtium blossom and a fat caperberry.

Elliott isn’t the only one taking aim at the moving target that is the Martini. Lately, it’s become something of a sport to redefine the drink, pushing as far as possible without quite destroying the DNA of the original.

But first, what exactly is the original? Gin and vermouth, sure, but beyond that there’s no real consensus among experts as to the first Martini; some say it evolved from the sweeter Martinez, but there’s no firm agreement on that either. In the new cocktail guide, Drink Like A Man, cocktail historian Dave Wondrich posits that the 1800s-era Martini was relatively wet: Two parts (or even one part) gin to one part sweet vermouth with an extra dash of simple syrup and a hit of bitters, garnished with a lemon peel.

“The dry martini—dry vermouth, dash of orange bitters, and no syrup—was a critter of the Gilded Age, coming in around 1895,” writes Wondrich. Even so, “proportions were still seldom more aggressive than two-to-one.” Post-Prohibition, it was common to see five parts gin to one part vermouth. By the 1950s and early ‘60s, the Martini had become as dry as could be: “The ‘see-through’ went something like eight parts gin to no parts vermouth, with an olive.” (Wondrich sagely adds that the “see-through” is merely iced gin, “which is how, if that’s what you want, you should have the courage to order it.” Amen to that, brother.)

Beyond tinkering with presentation and gin-to-vermouth ratios and selections, bartenders are adding small amounts of ingredients outside the traditional Martini canon. Those infinitesimal additions can add up to big variations in flavor.

For example, at London’s White Lyan, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s Bone Dry Martini is made with extract from organic roasted chicken bones to add minerality and texture to the vodka-based cocktail. Meanwhile at Bar Goto on New York’s Lower East Side, Kenta Goto has created the delicate sake-and-gin-based Sakura Martini, garnished with a salted cherry blossom. And at Dallas-based Midnight Rambler, Chad Solomon adds high-alkaline mineral water and a drop of saline tincture for a weighty, pleasingly viscous Martini.

“So many classic variations are more delicious than the classics, because they are more complex,” Elliott says.

He’s had some practice with Martini variations—he’s also behind the Old King Cole Martini at Maison Premiere (where he is bar director, too), a mix of spicy, saffron-infused Old Raj gin, Dolin dry vermouth and orange bitters, presented via silver platter in an elaborate tableside service. There, the sidecar of garnishes includes buttery Castelvetrano olives and a “manicured” lemon peel cut into an elongated rhomboid shape for guests to customize their drink.

Some bars have even gone so far as to devote entire sections of drink menus to the Martini—almost to the point of evoking those infamous “Martini menus” of the 1990s (Appletini, anyone?). At Slowly Shirley, the Deco-style speakeasy located below NYC’s The Happiest Hour, the list of Martinis includes ten drinks ranging from the classic (the Martinez; the Yellow Chartreuse-tinged Alaska) to the contemporary (the Sentimental Journey, with chardonnay and cinnamon; the Julia Childs, with fino sherry and celery bitters) to the outrageous (the F.A.F.—“Fancy As Fuck” Martini, which showcases a premium, barrel-aged gin).

“I think the simplicity of the cocktail makes it an easy jumping-off point to come up with other variations fairly easily,” surmises Jim Kearns, partner and head bartender at The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley. “If you add to it or change it even slightly, you’ve pretty much created a new drink.”

Sometimes, those new drinks seem to willfully paint outside the Martini’s once clearly-defined lines. For example, at Tales of the Cocktail last month, a “Gulf Coast Martini” served at a Martini-and-oyster pairing event at Seaworthy mingled Guinness stout reduction with Cocchi Americano and Ford’s gin, garnished with a crisp round of radish for a robust, bittersweet drink that seemed to edge into Martinez territory, but still felt like a Martini.

Which brings us back to that pre-batched, straw-hued Martini at Sauvage. “If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Martini drinker, it might not be for you,” Elliott acknowledges. “The drink in the glass is my palate.” He’s quick to add that every palate is deserving of a similarly customized Martini, but you have to be able to talk about what you want. “An inherent conversation has to happen when you approach a Martini,” Elliott insists. “’How would you like it?’ Just as you would ask regarding a beautiful cut of beef.”

What to make of a drink that, in Kearns’s words, “seems to offer a template for nearly infinite variations” thanks to its sheer simplicity? Oddly, the world’s most simple drink has historically been the world’s most overwrought. And while it may sound like heresy, the last time we saw so many Martini variations was the ’90s. But this time around, it’s Pineau des Charentes, and not Pucker, that threatens to make its way into your Martini.

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