Wine Talk: Shaken, not stirred

The most famous of all cocktails, the martini is the drink Americans love most.

cocktail 311 (photo credit: MCT)
cocktail 311
(photo credit: MCT)
The martini is the most famous cocktail of all. It is made with either gin or vodka with vermouth. American food writer M.K.K. Fisher said, “The martini to America is what vodka is to Russia.”
Its name originates, not from the vermouth of that name, but from the name of the bartender who first mixed the drink at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City in 1912. He supposedly made the drink for John D. Rockefeller. Others say it originates from the name of a Californian town called Martinez near San Francisco or from a cocktail served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the 1860s. So there is no lack of legend surrounding this particular drink.
The martini became the prominent cocktail in the US during the Prohibition period.
In those days, gin was the spirit of choice, and the vermouth used was probably sweet. It went out of fashion as barmen became more adventurous with other cocktails. Recently, with the return of the cocktail and a burst of nostalgia, the martini has returned.
This is a cocktail important enough to have its own glass. The martini glass is a V shape, with a thin stem. It may be used for a variety of cocktails but is primarily associated with the martini. The glass should be chilled, by placing it in the freezer hours before use. Alternatively, it can be submerged in ice-filled water, being sure to shake the glass dry afterwards.
The traditional ingredient of a martini is gin, which originated in Holland and came to be more associated with England. The basic makeup of gin is a neutral spirit flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals.
This became established during Prohibition in the US because gin was easier to produce illicitly and was more readily available than whiskey.
Vodka began to be used as an ingredient as the popularity of vodka grew. The purity of vodka and the lack of any distinctive odor or flavor were attractive to those partaking of the “three-martini lunch” before returning to work. This was the term used for the long, late business lunch, usually on an expense account. Today the vodka martini outsells the gin version.
Vermouth is a fortified wine with added herbs and spices. It is the third-oldest drink after water and wine and is similar to wines drunk in biblical times. In those days, herbs and spices were added as a preservative and to improve the taste. The home of vermouth is in Italy, where the giant Martini & Rossi was founded. Cinzano is an even older company, dating back to the 18th century.
It was Joseph Noilly, from France, who came up with the first dry vermouth to compete with the Italian sweet versions.
His creation Noilly Prat is more original and slightly more wine-like than the others.
Until today, people think of dry vermouth as French and sweet vermouth as Italian.
Noel Coward suggested that a Martini should be made by “filling the glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy,” meaning the less vermouth the better. Indeed, some will merely rinse out the glass with vermouth and then pour it away before adding the spirit. Others will follow this principle: A gin martini is 8 parts gin to 1 part vermouth, while vodka martini would use 6 parts vodka to 1 part vermouth. A “dry” martini cocktail is one with less vermouth. (Not to be confused with Extra Dry Martini, the brand of vermouth!) The thorny question is whether the cocktail should be shaken or stirred. Purists would stir it so as not to dilute the ingredients.
However, the fashion is to use a shaker, two-thirds filled with ice cubes. This creates more theater for the bartender. James Bond asked for his vodka martini to be “shaken, not stirred.”
The garnish or decoration is usually an olive, but not any olive. It should be green and pitted. Some like to soak the olive in vermouth. A black olive is not acceptable.
The alternative is a twist of lemon. This is prepared using a sharp paring knife to cut a length of lemon peel between the pith and the skin. By twisting this over the drink, it also releases the refreshing lemon zest oils. Then placed inside the glass, it provides an attractive decoration. Some will add a dash of orange bitters, but the purist will be happy with just an olive.
The strength of the martini brand is so strong that many bars will list a group of similar cocktails under the heading “Martini.” One of the ingredients will likely be replaced by something else to allow the bartender to show his creativity and individuality. Usually it will be named XXX Martini, with the prefix being the name of the barman, place or the alternative ingredient.
However, some things never change.
Order a dry martini anywhere in the world, and you will receive a cocktail made from gin and vermouth, while a vodka martini will be made from vodka and vermouth. It remains the king of all cocktails.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.
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