I remember well my first martini. It was my 21st birthday and despite wanting to get back to some, well, any college party, my parents were eager to celebrate with me and encouraged me to order my “first” drink. My cocktail experience then was limited to a one drink menu of Hangover Express (Everclear with Kool Aid) and bottles of college budget spirits with questionable colors and labels. So, I ordered a martini because it was the only cocktail I vaguely knew by name. I avoided admitting this to Mom and Dad, but my first sip made me wonder why anyone would order this drink. Alcohol forward, zero vermouth, and only moderately cold, the briny olives were the only pleasant taste to tame the burning assault on my throat. This cocktail made me grateful for the flavors of powdered punch mix.
I have come to learn, unfortunately, that for many people, their first experience was not unlike my own. Thankfully, as a corollary, they are also pleasantly surprised when they have one properly prepared with respect to the balance of ingredients: something usually close to the original recipe. Many people, I’ve come to learn, do not realize there is a standard recipe for this cocktail, and thus expect a martini to only be a cold spirit with perhaps an olive.
While the “Tourniquet” is a more advanced recipe, it is not impossible to make at home,
and the “Laura Palmer” is as easily accessible to make as it is to enjoy.
- 2oz. Beefeater 24
- 1oz. Dolin Blanc
- .125 Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
- .125 Cinnamon Syrup
Method: Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Add one spray of non-peated Islay Scotch on the drink. Drop a cherry into the drink and serve.
- 1 3/4 oz. St. George Terroir gin
- 1 oz. Lillet
- 1/4 oz. Benedictine
Method: Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe. Drop one cherry into a glass and serve.
There are, however, many reasons this drink can evoke such extreme reactions in the same person. For one, the drink is a masterpiece. Requiring a delicate balance of four ingredients: gin (vodka if you must), vermouth, garnish, and water (in the form of ice melted into the drink when stirred), the drink is complex, smooth, potent, and palate cleansing. Getting that balance correct, though, can change depending on each specific ingredient. Some gins need more vermouth, some less, some of these spirits blend better with an olive and some a lemon twist or orange bitters. Like other classic cocktails (the sidecar, daiquiri), a true measure of a bartender’s skill can be shown in how well they can make a martini.
Operating Partner of Blackbird Bar in San Francisco Matt Grippo understands this all too well. Along with his talented team of mixologists, Grippo celebrated Blackbird’s 10th anniversary in September, a true accomplishment considering the frequent shuffle of trendy cocktail havens that open, and frequently close, year after year. The bar maintains the difficult balance of being stylish and drink experimental, yet welcoming and friendly. Grippo describes Blackbird as a place where “someone can come in and order a PBR along with a high-end whisky and sit next to someone sampling one of our seasonal cocktails.” He continues, “Martini orders are—hands down—the one drink where you have to understand their (the patron’s) recipe.’” The common perception is that the drink is so difficult to prepare and part of that comes from which recipe is preferred.
The interest in the martini spans generations and is a cocktail order any bartender will understand. These facts give Grippo hope for the future. He notes, “It makes me believe that cocktail culture has not ‘jumped the shark’ and that the true pleasure of a bar is still there.” Despite the attention of “foodie culture” embracing cocktails, trending ingredients (aquafaba one year, and sous vide infusions the next), and even the assault on the martini in the ’90s (over-sugared drinks resembling the cocktail only by the glass in which they were served), this classic cocktail transcends and survives changes and fads over decades and still pleases. As Robert Simonson describes in The Martini Cocktail, “though enjoyed by millions, it retains a reputation as an elite cocktail.” A little luxury accessible to all.
Find Your Martini
Alter any ingredients in the “martini template” however slightly, and you have a different tasting drink, leading often to a new cocktail name. Most commonly this is a 2:1 ratio of gin to dry vermouth (2oz to 1oz, although Blackbird prefers 2oz to 3/4oz), stirred with ice, and a garnish of a lemon twist or orange bitters. Playing with these ingredients will help you find your preferences.
As Grippo also points out, this creates an opportunity for mixologists to create new cocktails from that classic template because the martini recipe can be so varied. For example, early Blackbird mixologists Brent Butler and his wife Gina Charlie, looking for a gin variation on the martini, created the “Tourniquet”—a complex cocktail with Beefeater 24 gin, Dolin Blanc, and Luxardo Maraschino, with a final addition of a cherry garnish and a spray of non-peated Islay Scotch. This drink was popular at the bar and Charlie decided to riff off of this cocktail to make a delicious and complex version that he dubbed a “Laura Palmer” (based on the character in the TV series Twin Peaks). This combination of St. George Terroir gin, Lillet, and Benedictine, also with a cherry, became one of the most requested drinks at Blackbird and still is 10 years later. It also started some of their themed menus long before other bars started to copy this idea.