Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Perfect Martinis

The modern cocktail cognoscenti can be a lovably cantankerous bunch. Approach an online beverage board with news of obscure amari or a lesser known application of fernet branca and the members will embrace you with open arms; ask them about vodka cocktails or how to use up your amaretto and even the most polite respondents will struggle to omit a dash of condescension from their reply. Perhaps the most noticeable symptom of this elitism (which, by the way, I find in no way improper) is the treatment of the Martini.
In the words of HL Mencken,  "the only American invention as the perfect as the sonnet", the Martini is fittingly approached by cocktail purists with the reverence usually reserved for national poets. Their list of foibles extends from the bastardisation of its title to every drink under the sun (strawberry martini, espresso martini etc.) to the improper preparation of the original (shaken, a molecule of vermouth, drowned in olive brine). Mention the phrases, "dirty", "extra dry", or, worst of all, "chocolate" and, in certain circles, you'll get unbelievably short shrift.
Ironically, however, this barrage of disdain that inevitably appears in a discussion can sometimes cloud the appreciation of the drink itself. The focus on 'how not to do it' tends to draw attention from the issue of 'how to do it best'. In an attempt to redress the balance, let's take a look at a few variations on the Martini. Just gin, just vermouth, stirred with ice and elegantly garnished. This leaves more wiggle room than one would think.

First off, my favourite Martini

2 and 1/2 shots plymouth gin
1 shot lillet blanc
2 dash orange bitters
Lemon twist

Unfortunately, I find myself bending the rules on the first example - lillet ain't really vermouth, it's aperitif wine. Only the most bitter pedant would begrudge classing this as a martini though, because its properties, the interaction of the flavours, its style are entirely in keeping with the martini ideal. Plymouth gin is a wonderful product - abounding with juniper character, smooth with a citrus undertone. The orange notes in the lillet play beautifully with the gin. This martini is not particularly dry in either sense - the slightly sweeter Plymouth gin and the large measure of lillet conspire to keep the flavours a little softer - but the use of orange bitters provides just enough edge to pucker the mouth and leave you wanting more. The lemon twist brightens and sharpens the orange. Everything works well and there's a bit more going on than in the traditional martini.

A very traditional Dry Martini

2 and 1/2 shots London dry gin (Tanqueray export is perhaps the all time classic, but sipsmith, a gin deeply informed by traditional distilling techniques, is an excellent choice)
3/4 shot Noilly Prat
1 dash orange bitters
Olive garnish

Ask for a good Martini recipe from a good bartender and 9 times out of 10, you'll get something like this. Good gin, a decent glug of Noilly Prat (no fucking "whisper of vermouth here"), this was the staple of the three-martini lunch. The dry gin combines excellently with vermouth. Noilly prat, full of herbal flavour and fruitful bitterness, may be a standard choice, but there's a good reason: it does the job better than almost any other. The orange bitters make a cameo, lending a hint of delicate spice. My personal preference is for a twist, but tradition and elegance demand an olive. One, mind. It's a cocktail, not a buffet.

The Fiddy Fiddy Martini (Pegu Club)

1 and 1/2 shots London Dry gin (Tanqueray again)
1 and 1/2 shots dry vermouth (Noilly Prat or Dolin Dry)
2 dash orange bitters
Lemon twist

The Fiddy Fiddy, straight from Pegu Club's hall of fame, is a sterling riposte to the oversized basins of frozen gin that characterise the bungler's approach to a Martini. Equal gin and vermouth, this Martini is the perfect illustration of the wondrous properties of vermouth. Stale, cheap vermouth has no place to hide here, but a good fresh. Regarding vermouth, Noilly prat works well, but the subtleties of the lighter Dolin come through extremely well in this ratio.

Extra Dry Martini

Beefeater Gin
Martini Extra Dry Vermouth
Dry Essence

"Extra Dry" - sacrilege! Luckily, the moniker for 69 Colebrooke Row's signature Martini here refers to the use of a few drops of potent mouth-drying agent to encourage salivation and consequently taste sensitivity. No measures for this one, unfortunately, though given the likelihood of many people actually producing the dry essence for themselves, this is probably a non-issue.

The 'ever so slightly stretching the criteria' Martini

2 and a 1/2 shots Beefeater 24
1 shot Earl Grey infused vermouth (Noilly Prat infused over an hour with tea)
2 dash grapefruit bitters
Grapefruit twist

A highly tweaked Martini making best use of Beefeater 24's unique portfolio of flavours. Richly endowed with bittersweet citrus notes and with the herbal backbone of the vermouth accentuated by the tea infusion, this Martini certainly justifies the innovation.

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