Eventually you come back to the martini. And like the martini itself, the return arrives with a shimmer of clarity.
Let’s say you’ve settled into your seat at a restaurant one evening and you’re scanning a cocktail list that comes across like a chemistry-class periodic table. It’s as though your palate can anticipate what a sorry mess these drinks are going to be.
Dear God, look at this one—somehow it’s got Cynar and Chartreuse and Bruichladdich and Becherovka, along with grapefruit juice and almond milk and rhubarb bitters and a strip of smoked pork loin. How’s that going to work?
Well, it’s not. It’s a catastrophe in a coupe glass. You can sense it already, just from reading the description: half of these sippers are going to taste like Robitussin on the rocks, and the other half will be sweeter than the syrup you drain from a can of peaches.
No, and no again. And to borrow from Wallace Stevens, after the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes your pleasure depends.
“You know what?” you say to the server and order a martini—with gin if you’re a traditionalist, with vodka if you’re a different kind of purist: you don’t want 27 flavours competing for dominance in a borderline-potable version of Capture the Flag. You want a singularity of flavour.
Hell, you’ve had a rough day, so maybe you’ve got your mind set on the antithesis of flavour—what you want is a sensation. You want the primary flavour to be cold. You want it to be cold when you bring it to your lips, and you want it to stay cold when you conquer the last drop.
“You need to be able to skate across the top of it,” says chef Geoffrey Zakarian, a martini connoisseur. “That’s how cold it has to be.”
These days, you might be tempted to say, “The martini is having a moment”— especially at spots like Georgie, Zakarian’s new Beverly Hills restaurant, where a Londonesque cart equipped with frozen bottles and Nick & Nora glasses rolls up to the side of your table—but the martini has always owned the moment. The martini is about the moment—the moment of contact, of chilling-your-brain-stem insight.
You can observe martinis being made with great care and ceremony at destinations both new and old: Bemelmans and Slowly Shirley in Manhattan, Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, Marcel’s in Washington, DC.
And if you’ll let me contradict myself, there are excellent ones around now that are simultaneously classic and the opposite of austere, like the Vesper (in which Lillet Blanc climbs long-leggedly into the glass with gin and vodka) at New York’s Polo Bar and, farther downtown at Nix, a martini-kisses-a-Bloody-Mary morning mash-up involving clarified tomato water.
My favourite martini in America can be found at the Progress, in San Francisco, with a serpentine squiggle of rosemary oil on top. I’m also in love with the Edda at Aska, in Brooklyn, even though she breaks all the party rules by inviting along Baltic amber oil, which is a liquefied manifestation of the stuff prehistoric bugs got trapped in.
Aska bartender Selma Slabiak explains it to me this way: “Our guests will actually consume something that’s millions and millions of years old.”
Allow none of that to intimidate you. You can experience the pleasantly skull-melting shakedown of a martini at home, swiftly, without the ancient amber.
The classic recipe is appended below, but here’s how I make mine: in the morning, place two glasses in the freezer along with a bottle of good vodka. When you return home that night, swish some dry vermouth in the frozen glasses. Pour in some vodka.
If you think it’s odd not to dilute your spirit with ice, console yourself with the fact that this is how they do it at Dukes, in London, which is to the martini what Muhammad Ali was to boxing.
That’s it. You’re done. Which is to say you’re just getting started.
How to make a classic martini
- 3oz gin or vodka
- ¼oz dry vermouth
- 2 dashes orange bitters (optional)
Stir over ice; strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and/or olives.
It’s castelvetrano olives or nothing
These Sicilian gems have a texture that’s sturdy enough to hold their own while submerged—and a taste that’s subtle enough to remain unobtrusive. They play nice with good liquor.
The gin and vodka cheat sheet
- The classic
Beefeater gin: The essential London Dry. Stoli Elit: Luxuriously clean and crisp.
- The modern
Four Pillars gin: A citrus-forward beauty. Absolut Elyx: There is such a thing as vodka with a sense of terroir.
- The adventurous
St. George Terroir gin: Like a pine forest at dawn. Grey Goose VX: Vodka + a touch of cognac= pure decadence.