Now and then, I revise a classic scene from the Bond movie “Goldfinger,” when the villain has strapped the rakish British spy down and is about to dismember him with an enormous laser. • “Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks, eyeing the laser’s progress toward him. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” Goldfinger says. • In my version, Goldfinger turns back and hisses, “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to apologize for the damage you have done to the martini.”
Having daydreamed of this for years, I laughed aloud when I arrived at the James Bond-related part of drinks writer Robert Simonson’s terrific new book, “The Martini Cocktail.”
“This chapter will be short, because I find its subject such an irritant,” Simonson writes. “Since at least the 1970s, no journalist has gotten away with writing about the Martini without addressing James Bond. Often they begin their story with Bond. Because Bond, more than sixty-five years after writer Ian Fleming dreamed up the suave British superspy, is still the first thing many people think of in connection to the Martini.”
I guess it’s too late to rethink my lead?
Simonson goes on to explain our shared pique: Bond’s famous “shaken, not stirred” order is infamous in the cocktail world (martinis, most agree, should not be shaken), as is the fact that Bond usually orders the drink with vodka, a spirit with much less complexity than gin.
Simonson and I made no such gaffes when we sat down recently for martinis at Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. The restaurant’s Old King Cole martini (one of dozens in Simonson’s book) combines Old Raj gin, Mancino secco vermouth and Angostura orange bitters. Presenting it is a two-person job: One server holds the tray of ingredients; another assembles, stirs and pours the drink tableside, served with a choice of garnishes — olives, lemon peel, seaweed — and a tiny spoon of caviar, if you like. We liked.
Our drinks came with a story, the server explaining that the Old King Cole name is based on the tale that the martini originated at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, whose bar had a Maxfield Parrish mural of Old King Cole.
“The story is nonsense,” Simonson noted, but the resulting martini is all it should be.
Simonson, brave fellow, drank hundreds of martinis researching his book, which delves into the drink’s fascinating history and faux histories, its spinoffs, the evolution of preferences around gin versus vodka. And, of course, it touches on the vermouth-to-spirit ratio, long one of the greatest points of debate about the drink.
His desire to write the book, in fact, was inspired by a martini recipe competition he wrote about. He was one of several judges on the panel, which tasted 27 variations and chose a winner far lower in vermouth — much closer to the older style — than the 1-to-1 ratio lately heralded in the cocktail world.
His article reporting the results came out, “and people flipped! They were so mad that a 50:50 did not win,” Simonson says. “I was just kind of amazed by the response. And it occurred to me: People are still getting upset about martinis! After 135 years, they’re still angry about this drink, and they’re still arguing about it.”
“Why?” I asked him, somewhat facetiously. After all, I like arguing about martinis myself. But so much analysis and wit has been expended on the drink that sometimes it seems even to evoke its name is to add another layer to a heavily gilded lily.
“It certainly helped that writers and artists took up the cause and decided it was worth arguing about,” Simonson says. “It is a very singular cocktail. People think martinis are simple. It’s gin and vermouth, leaving aside the vodka question for the moment. But gin has all these things in it, and vermouth has all these things in it, and if you throw in the orange bitters, you’re dealing with even more. The balance of all those botanicals is kind of bewitching.”
Lots of people have a preference about their martinis, and if you’re hosting, it’s smart to find out what it is. Here is how to approach the variables while understanding the rules:
- Choose your base. Gin is the classic choice, and many will argue, a better one than vodka. But gin-haters do exist, so you’ll need to check. You might try the adventurous ones on a Vesper, a martini variation that combines gin and vodka (and was created by Bond in one of Fleming’s novels — arguably the spy’s one good contribution to cocktails).
- Decide your spirit-to-vermouth ratio. Many people have come to understand that good vermouth is a thing of beauty. But those raised on ultradry martinis may not have come around yet. Ratios range from the contemporary 50:50 to a scant whisper of vermouth. A 5-to-1 or 4-to-1 gin-to-vermouth split is a good starting point.
- Nail the garnish game. The choice of an olive or a swath of expressed lemon peel changes the whole drink. Add a cocktail onion, you’ve got a variation known as a Gibson. Add olive juice for a dirty martini, or an olive stuffed with blue cheese for a murky nightmare — I’m sorry, for a drink many people love. Different bitters can also bring out new flavors.
- Serve it very cold and properly diluted. A hefty pour of spirit and vermouth, the martini needs the dilution it gets when stirred with ice. Treat the process patiently, and remember to chill your glassware. With all the arguments about martinis, it’s hard — but not impossible — to find someone arguing it doesn’t need to be cold.
- Remember, ingredients vary. If you delve more deeply into martinis, tasting for nuances of flavor, you’ll start to understand why people still argue about them. One gin is not the same as the next. Ditto the vermouth, ditto the bitters, and each combines with the other ingredients a little bit differently. You can use the same classic spec and still end up with different drinks.
- Be a little scared of it. This is not some sessionable little spritzer. Aside from the dilution from the ice, this baby is a solid wave of booze coming at you. Treat it accordingly.
6 servings; makes 24 ounces
Scant 2 cups dry gin
Scant 2/3 cup dry vermouth
Scant 2/3 cup cold water
Assorted orange bitters, olives and olive brine, lemon twists and/or cocktail onions, for serving
Set up an empty 750-milliliter bottle with a funnel on top. Pour the gin, vermouth and water into the bottle, then seal and shake to combine. Store the bottle in the freezer for at least 90 minutes and up to 6 months.
Before service, chill glasses for 5 to 10 minutes. When ready to serve, customize the drinks based on individual preferences: Add a dash or two of orange bitters, or a splash of olive juice if they like a “dirty” martini. Garnish with a lemon twist, an olive or a cocktail onion (a variation known as a Gibson) — or some combination of these.
There’s some debate in the bar world about pre-batched martinis, where you prep the drink in advance and then hold them in the freezer. Proponents argue that it allows the flavors of the drink to combine. Critics say “Nope,” noting that guests served a pre-bottled concoction of someone else’s gin-to-vermouth ratio won’t get the value they do watching their favorite version prepared before their eyes. For the home host, though, batched martinis can be a thing of beauty: You can keep a bottle in the freezer, have drinks ready for anyone who might drop by and modify them on the spot with guests’ preferred garnishes and enhancements. And the drink gets so cold in the freezer, it pours almost like cream — a thick, arctic sip of boozy goodness.
Make ahead: The batched cocktail needs to be mixed at least 1½ hours ahead of time.
Storage notes: The cocktail can be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months.
2 ounces dry gin
1 ounce dry sherry
1 dash orange bitters
Orange twist, for garnish (optional)
Chill a cocktail glass. Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the gin, sherry and bitters. Stir to chill, 20 to 30 seconds, then strain the drink into the chilled glass. Express the twist of the orange peel over the surface of the drink, if using, then drop it in.
Supposedly drawing its name from the location that spawned the suit (Tuxedo Park, New York), this 19th-century martini variation has its own variations roaming about; the Tuxedo No. 2 includes vermouth, absinthe and maraschino and is, obviously, a very different beast. This version is an easy, dry and delicious cocktail that echoes the classic martini but subs dry sherry — such as fino or manzanilla — for the vermouth, which adds a faintly nutty flavor. While no garnish is specified in most recipes, an orange twist is a nice addition here.
2 ounces gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
2 teaspoons yellow Chartreuse
1 dash orange bitters
Lemon twist, for garnish
Chill a cocktail glass. Fill a mixing glass with ice, and add the gin, vermouth, Chartreuse and bitters. Stir to chill, 30 seconds. Strain into the chilled glass, then express the twist of lemon over the surface of the drink and drop it into the glass.
A terrific martini variation gussied up with a little touch of herbal yellow Chartreuse. The Brooklyn bar Tooker Alley, which provided the specs here, uses Plymouth for the gin and Dolin for the vermouth.
Batched Martinis and Tuxedo recipes from M. Carrie Allan. Puritan Cocktail adapted from “The Martini Cocktail” by Robert Simonson (Ten Speed Press, 2019).