Dry martini symbolism: Why the most classic of the classic cocktails is the least representative. – Slate Magazine

What Aristotle said of Greek tragedy in the Poetics is also true of the Martini. “Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form; and there it stopped.” …. I am not arguing that there is a natural recipe for the Martini, a natural proportion of gin to vermouth. I am arguing that there is a natural form, which comprises the essential qualities of the Martini… Its pleasure, which is not voluptuous but astringent, can only be expressed by oxymoron: sensuous coldness, opulent dryness, mysterious clarity, alluring purity.

The dry martini is a cold compound of gin and dry vermouth accented with lemon oil (ideally) and orange bitters (traditionally) and an amazing complex of ideas about tradition (always and for ever). According to the conventions of martini-ography, I am obliged to begin these brief remarks on its character by quoting, with the humble formality of a layman reciting the liturgy, certain psalms of praise. Custom demands a citation of H. L. Mencken, a nod to E.B. White, and a solemn extract from the Gospel of Bernard Augustine DeVoto, who regarded the dry martini as “the supreme American gift to the world.”

DeVoto’s remark seems a bit much, yes—but muchness is inherent to the discussion. When it comes to the martini, even light drinking has a subtext of heavy thinking. Whether the drink is actually very good is, at this point in history, quite beside the point. There is no use in denying the martini’s symbolic power.

Beyond the oxymorons described above by Lowell Edmunds and analyzed throughout his cultural-studies masterpiece (first published, in 1981, as The Silver Bullet)—and beyond the irony of low-class gin emerging as the basis of the definitive establishment quaff—there is a paradox at play in its iconic status: The most classic of the classic cocktails is the least representative. The old-fashioned would not be itself without a dollop of sugar, and the Manhattan, which is the martini’s closest soulmate, likewise requires a hint of sweetness. The daiquiri, the margarita, the sidecar—these and others rely on fruit juice. But the only famous cocktail that is a dry cocktail is the most famous cocktail. The martini stands alone and apart, clear and placidly severe. Among institutional American beverages, its only equal is its exact opposite: Coca-Cola.

A dry martini is an acquired taste, and more than a few acquisitors are inspired by an eagerness to collect a larger cultural inheritance. The drink’s mystique is self-perpetuating; its promises of sophistication resemble self-fulfilling prophecies; its desirability is intensely mass-mediated. There are contemporary martini drinkers whose romance of the drink began as kids watching Hawkeye savor it on syndicated reruns of M*A*S*H. They pledged then that the martini would be their drink and, year later, hazed themselves into the brotherhood.

Within the fraternity, we discover battling factions. A faculty-party scene in Randall Jarrell’s excellent Pictures From an Institution tells us something about the days when martini mixing was a national sport: “We were given drinks, and drank them, and talked while we drank them. But talked, here, is a euphemism: we had that conversation about how you make a Martini. The people in Hell, Dr. Rosenbaum had told me once, say nothing but What? Americans in Hell tell each other how to make Martinis.” Here we have a further defining irony: The drink’s midcentury popularity, which was partly a function of its simplicity, has inspired peerlessly complicated debates. This is classic narcissism-of-small-differences territory, and Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology carries an important word of caution for the professional bartender: “Always remember that the Martini is a purely American drink, and therefore people should be able to exercise freedom of speech when requesting one.” Never more so is the customer always right. What is more, the customer who does not insist on his rightness risks seeming wrong-headed. “I think it’s weird when someone comes in and orders a martini without specifying how they want it,” a bartender told me. “That means you’re not a real martini drinker.”

The 15 recipes here represent the holy texts of a variety of martini denominations. Please note that the relative stiffness of these drinks is the least meaningful difference among them. It has been six decades since David Embury crunched numbers to demonstrate that a martini made with 7 parts gin and 1 part vermouth contains only 3 percent more alcohol than a 3:1. But the balance matters in culinary terms—and the niceties of procedure have theological implications.

What do you believe? We encourage you to praise saints and denounce heretics by upvoting and downvoting the recipes below; the most popular will enter into Slate’s Martini Madness Tournament. (Voting ends Sunday, March 17 at 6 p.m. EDT; tipoff is Tuesday, March 19.)

The Martini de Luxe

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35
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Ratio 7:1

Ingredients

31/2 ounces “highest quality” English gin

1/2 ounce Noilly Prat vermouth or 3/4 ounce amontillado sherry (if using lower-quality gin)

lemon peel for oil

1-3 dashes orange bitters or lemon bitters (optional)

Garnish

nut-stuffed green olives

David Embury, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948)

Directions

Stir well with large cubes of ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist lemon peel over the top. “If you are in a hurry or if you do not have lemon peel available, a few dashes of orange or lemon bitters … make a reasonably satisfactory substitute. Also, some people like both the bitters and the twist of lemon.” Garnish with olives. (“If you can get olives stuffed with any kind of nuts, they make the perfect accompaniment to a Martini.”)

“Please note that this cocktail absolutely requires a gin of the highest quality. With ordinary run-of-the-mill (or should I say run-of-the-still?) gin you will simply have to use a higher proportion of vermouth to overcome the harsh, raw-alcohol taste of the gin. That is the real reason for the common 2-to-1 formula. With a larger proportion of vermouth (even the best vermouth), however, and with an inferior gin, regardless of proportions, you will have a decidedly inferior cocktail.

“Unless you have a good French vermouth …, I suggest that you use a good dry sherry, preferably an imported amontillado. Martinis made with dry sherry are excellent. Many people prefer them to those made with vermouth. I have also found that sherry conceals the harsh, tinny taste of an inferior gin much better than vermouth. Here is an excellent variation of the Martini, using sherry in place of vermouth:

GORDON

1 part Duff Gordon Amontillado Sherry

5 parts imported Gordon’s Gin

Prepare and serve like the Martini de Luxe.”

The Astoria Cocktail

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-164
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Ratio 1:2

Ingredients

2 ounces dry vermouth

1 ounce Old Tom gin

2 dashes orange bitters

Garnish

lemon twist

Albert Stevens Crockett, The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book

Directions

Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish and serve.

The Creative Commons

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63
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Ratio 6:1

Ingredients

3 ounces Beefeater gin

1/2 ounce Stock dry vermouth

Garnish

lemon twist

Brad Gadberry of The Martini FAQ (2011)

Directions

1. Immediately before mixing, carefully cut a slice from the peel of the lemon. The resulting strip should be 11/2 -21/2 inches long and 1/43/4 inches wide. Cut just deeply enough to include a bit of white pith to give the twist some stiffness; avoid cutting into the yellow pulp of the fruit. Trimming the edges of the twist to give it a tidy rectangle shape is very easy and quick, results in minimal wastage, and makes a surprising difference to the drink’s presentation. Set the twist aside.

2. Fill your shaker half full of ice. Pour vermouth into the shaker, coating the ice. Pour gin into the shaker. Stir counter-clockwise while mentally humming the first movement of “The Blackhawk Waltz” (works out to about 22 seconds). Remove the glass from the freezer, holding it in a clean bar towel to avoid spoiling the frost. Set it down and carefully strain the mixed Martini from the shaker into the glass.

3. Hold the strip of lemon peel horizontally about 1 inch above the surface of the Martini, yellow side facing downward. Gently but firmly squeeze along its length, expressing the volatile citric oils onto to surface of the drink. Then, holding the strip by its ends, twist it into a spring or corkscrew shape. Still holding it just over the drink, briefly tug on the ends, and then squeeze it back into a compressed spring shape. Gently drop the twist into the Martini. Serve immediately on a napkin or coaster.

4. The Martini you have just mixed is a fine specimen, but it may not turn out to be your personal favorite. Most Martini drinkers enjoy experimentation and exploration almost as much as they enjoy the cocktail itself. This process can begin immediately.

The Bernard DeVoto

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128
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Ratio 3.7:1

Ingredients

gin (probably Bellringer)

dry vermouth

lemon peel for oil (optional)

Garnish

lemon twist (optional)

The Hour (1948)

Directions

“Sound practice begins with ice. There must be a lot of it, much more than the catechumen dreams, so much so that the gin smokes when you pour it in. A friend of mine has said it for all time; his formula ends ‘and five hundred pounds of ice.’ Fill the pitcher with ice, whirl it till dew forms on the glass, pour out the melt, put in another handful of ice. Then as swiftly as possible pour in the gin and vermouth, at once bring the mixture as close to the freezing point of alcohol as can be reached outside the laboratory, and pour out the martinis. You must be unhurried but you must work fast, for a diluted martini would be a contradiction in terms, a violation of nature’s order. That is why the art requires so much ice and why the artists will never mix more than a single round at a time, counting noses.…

“There is a point at which the marriage of gin and vermouth is consummated. It varies a little with the constituents, but for gin of 94.4 proof and a harmonious vermouth it may be generalized at about 3.7 to one. And that is not only the proper proportion but the critical one; if you use less gin it is a marriage in name only and the name is not martini. You get a drinkable and even pleasurable result, but not art’s sunburst of imagined delight becoming real. Happily, the upper limit is not so fixed; you may make it four to one or a little more than that, which is a comfort if you cannot do fractions in your head and an assurance when you must use an unfamiliar gin. But not much more. This is the violet hour, the hour of flush and wonder, when affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see a unicorn. But it would not be a martini if we should see him.

“So made, the martini is only one brush stroke short of the perfect thing, and I will rebuke no one who likes to leave it there. But the final brush stroke is a few drops of oil squeezed from lemon rind on the surface of each cocktail. Some drop the squeezed bit into the glass; I do not favor the practice and caution you to make it the rind, not peel, if you do. And, of course, you will use cocktail glasses, not cups of silver or any other metal, and they will have stems so that heat will not pass from your hand to the martini. Purists chill them before the first round. If any of that round (or any other) is left in the pitcher, throw it away.

“The goal is purification and that will begin after the first round has been poured, so I see no need for preliminary spiritual exercises. But it is best approached with a tranquil mind, lest the necessary speed become haste. Tranquillity ought normally to come with sight of familiar bottles. If it doesn’t, feel free to hum some simple tune as you go about your preparations; it should be nostalgic but not sentimental, neither barbershop nor jazz, between the choir and the glee club. Do not whistle, for your companions are sinking into the quiet of expectation. And you need not sing, for presently there will be singing in your heart.”

The Nick & Nora

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162
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Ratio 3:1

Ingredients

3 ounces Beefeater gin

1 ounce Dolin dry vermouth

1 dash orange bitters (recommended: Bitter Truth)

Garnish

lemon twist

Daniel Boulud in Elle Decor

Directions

“Just as I do when I’m cooking, I start with a classic recipe and then add to it to create a whole new flavor and experience. The goal is to have the right balance of tart, sweet, and strong. Take the Martini. Our interpretation includes vermouth, of course; we like to use a dry French vermouth such as Dolin and a London-style gin such as Beefeater. We love bitters too—it’s the salt and pepper behind a drink. We season the Martini with a dash of orange bitters to heighten the citrus qualities of the gin and integrate the flavors.”

Stir well with “eight ice cubes.” Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish and serve.

The Contemporary Standard

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126
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Ratio 5:1

Ingredients

21/2 ounces gin

1/2 ounce dry vermouth

1-2 dashes citrus-y bitters (optional)

lemon peel for oil (optional)

Garnish

1 or 3 green olives or a lemon twist

Directions

Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish and serve.

The Hoffman House

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9
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Ratio 2:1

Ingredients

11/2 ounces Plymouth gin

3/4 ounce Noilly Prat dry vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

Garnish

orange twist

via David Wondrich’s Killer Cocktails

Directions

Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish and serve.

The Grey Lady

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145
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Ratio 4:1

Ingredients

4 parts Beefeater gin

1 part Noilly Prat dry vermouth

lemon peel for oil

Garnish

1 sage leaf

Rosie Schaap, the New York Times (2011)

Directions

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Pour in the gin and vermouth. Stir for 30 seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe. Twist a small strip of lemon peel over the drink. “The mildly adventurous can garnish with a fresh sage leaf.” Serve.

The IBA Official Recipe

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140
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Ratio 6:1

Ingredients

6 centiliters gin

1 centiliter dry vermouth

Garnish

lemon twist or 1 green olive

The International Bartenders’ Association

Directions

“Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into chilled martini glass. Squeeze oil from lemon peel onto the drink, or garnish with green olive and serve.”

The Critic’s Choice

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11
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Ratio 2:1

Ingredients

2 parts Milshire dry gin

1 part dry vermouth

Garnish

lemon twist or 1 green olive

Gilbert Seldes, print ad for Milshire dry gin (1934)

Directions

“Shake with large pieces of ice—never shaved or cracked ice—and mix only enough for one round at a time. Never serve a dividend from the bottom of a shaker—it is no longer a cocktail; mix a fresh one.”

The Mild-Mannered M.F.K. Fisher

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-51
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Ratio 2:1

Ingredients

1 ounce gin

1/2 ounce dry vermouth

lemon peel for oil

Garnish

1 onion-stuffed green olive

The Atlantic, January 1949

Directions

“My own rules for Martinis fall into three somewhat loose groups: the safe, the perfect, and the intimate (and therefore pluperfect). The first is the mild kind I give to people I don’t know well, which means, bluntly, that they are not close enought to me to betray how many or what kind of drinks they have had before they knock on my door, and that I want to serve wine with the dinner I have carefully prepared for them and do not care to have them turn mussy and maudlin and monotonous. It is made of two parts gin to one of dry vermouth, and is stirred with ice, poured into chilled stemmed glasses holding not more than two ounces, and served with a green olive stuffed preperably with a pearl onion but passably with a bit of pimiento or almond meat, and the oil from a twisted lemon peel on top.” —from “To the Gibson and Beyond”

The Instant Martini

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Delicious!
-184
Unclean!

Ratio 6:1

Ingredients

18 ounces gin

3 ounces dry vermouth

5 ounces water

Garnish

green olives

The Houston Junior League Cookbook (1967)

Directions

Combine all ingredients and store in freezer. Serve without ice. Mrs. Frank McGurl (Mary Martin) attests that this yields 8 to 10 servings—and also that the potion “is a very dangerous thing to have on hand.”

The Dutch Martini

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Delicious!
45
Unclean!

Ratio 4:1

Ingredients

2 ounces Dutch gin

1/2 ounce dry vermouth

Garnish

lemon twist

Suzi Parker, 1000 Best Bartender Recipes

Directions

Stir well with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish and serve.

The Fitty-Fitty

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-121
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Ratio 1:1

Ingredients

1 ounce Tanqueray gin

1 ounce Noilly Prat dry vermouth

few dashes orange bitters

Garnish

lemon twist

Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club, New York

Directions

“Put gin, vermouth, orange bitters, and cracked ice into a large glass and stir for 30 seconds. Strain the drink into the classiest glass you can find.” Garnish and serve.

It’s the Vermouth, Stupid

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Delicious!
205
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Ratio 4:1

Ingredients

Bombay Sapphire gin

dry vermouth

Garnish

green olives or lemon twist

James Carville

Directions

Barnaby Conrad III published his illustrated history of the martini in 1995, and his chapter on the drink’s relationship with Washington politics presents a sobering vision: “Martinis are not popular at the Clinton White House.” The lone exception was Carville, who told the author how he likes them at the Palm Restaurant, a favorite spot for both power and liquid lunches. “Bombay Sapphire gin, about four parts to one part vermouth,” Carville said. “I’d say the only problem is they make ’em too big. Sometimes I worry about olives raising the temperature of the gin. And I like to taste the vermouth. None of this ten-to-one dry routine. To me the ultimate feeling in the world is to be about two-thirds of the way through my second Martini with people I like. Anything seems possible.”

Dry martini symbolism: Why the most classic of the classic cocktails is the least representative. – Slate Magazine.

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