Modern martinis are mostly gin, except, of course, for a vodka martini, so it is very important to choose a good quality gin to start with. The type used in a martini is usually referred to as a London Dry Style, as opposed to Dutch or Genever Gin. Even among these, there are two very different styles or expressions. At one end of the spectrum is Martin Miller’s Gin, a good example of a thick, junipery gin and at the other end is Van Gogh Gin, with a wonderful citrusy flavor. There is also Magellan Gin, distilled with iris root that gives it a lovely sapphire blue color.
A critical ingredient in a martini is the vermouth. Many people do not realize that vermouth is a fortified wine that is flavored with herbs and as such, it can (and will) go bad over time and can ruin a martini. To avoid this there are a few simple rules.
1. Always buy a small (375 ml) bottle.
2. Keep it capped and refrigerated after opening.
3. Try to use the rest within one to two months. It can also be used for cooking in recipes that call for white wine.
Personally, I much prefer the French vermouths especially Noilly Prat vermouth (both the white and red varieties) over Italian vermouths such as Martini & Rossi or Stock. The blending of the French vermouth is a bit more subtle and complementary. American wineries, such as Vya and Duckhorn, are starting to produce some interesting vermouths that I recommend as well.
Bitters are another much overlooked (or entirely forgotten) ingredient to a good martini. Bitters were traditionally an integral part of many cocktails, as they greatly assist in the blending of flavors from the different components of a drink. Unfortunately, they have fallen by the wayside in many cocktail recipe books and many bars no longer use or even stock them. There was, at one point, a large number of different companies and types/flavors of bitters available. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Only four types of bitters remain in commercial production today. Angostura Brand Bitters from the West Indies are the best known and widely available, however they no longer contain Angostura Bark – a key ingredient to their original taste. Rochester, however, is fortunate that we have Fee Brothers at 453 Portland Ave. In business since 1863, they are one of the few producers of bar bitters in the world. They produce an Angostura, ( with the real bark), West Indian Orange Bitters, and two virtually extinct bitters, Mint and Peach. A 4 oz bottle cost less than $3 (about half the price of Angostura) and can be bought at their store and museum on Portland Ave.
Ice and the resulting water is another ingredient to be careful about. The best ice is fresh to avoid food odors, using filtered, read non chlorinated, water. You can, of course, buy a bag of Happy Ice at your local store to save time and trouble. If you are truly fanatical, you can get block ice and use an icepick to get the freshest non frosted ice. See Sharon Stone in the movie “Basic Instinct” for technique.
The final finishing component is the garnish. The most common two are an olive(s) or lemon zest (Outer skin of a lemon without the white rind). The main point is to complement the gin you are using. The choice comes down to personal taste/preference that comes with experience and experimentation.
Classic Martini Recipe
4 oz gin
1 oz dry (white) vermouth
1-2 dashes Fee’s Angostura or Orange Bitters to taste
Pour the Gin and Vermouth into a shaker half full of ice, add the bitters.
Shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds to mix and chill (will also yield 25% dilution with water)
Strain into chilled martini glass
Add garnish (in the case of lemon zest you may want to twist then rub it around the glass first)
Stirred martinis — produce a more glasslike appearance, stronger proof, with heavier body. This actually the traditional mixing method but a little too strong for some.
1930s style–Use half and half white and red vermouth (1/2 oz each)
Gibson – same recipe but with a cocktail onion for garnish.
Manhattan – use bourbon instead of gin, with a cherry garnish. But that is a whole other story.