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A Brief History of the Martini — A Cocktail That’s Stood the Test of Time

An ice cold martini

What do you know about the Martini? Sure, it’s a classic cocktail that can be made with gin or vodka; served up or on the rocks; bone-dry or wet; briny or dirty as a swamp. But where did it come from and why does it seem to be more popular than ever? For a cocktail that’s served for well over a century, it deserves appreciation for its influence on cocktail culture around the world. Let’s look back at the history of the Martini and examine its enduring popularity today. 

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The Origins of the Martini, Sort Of…

Most cocktails today can be traced back to their roots, accrediting a specific bartender or establishment for its creation. However, it’s less cut and dry with the Martini. Although some make the assertion that the Martini was born at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel, the cocktail is believed to derive from the Martinez, a concoction of old tom gin (or Dutch genever), sweet vermouth, curaçao and orange bitters. The story goes that the Martinez was invented in San Francisco, after a miner requested a pick-me-up in the city on his way to the town of Martinez, California. 

The first written appearance of it was in O.H. Byron’s "1884 The Modern Bartender," as a variation on the Manhattan. It wasn’t until Harry Johnson’s second edition of "Bartender Manual (1888)" that the recipe for the Martini was included, listing the ingredients old tom gin, sweet vermouth, orange curaçao, gum, Boker’s bitters and a lemon twist. 

Some will credit the name Martini from a rebranded version of the Marguerite after the brand of vermouth used to make it. The Marguerite made its first written appearance in Harry Johnson’s 1900 Bartender’s Manual. A later version shows up without the anisette and continues to evolve as seen in 1904 "Stuart’s Fancy Drinks" where it’s listed as containing ⅔ Plymouth gin to ⅓ French vermouth. 

The “Dry Martini” most likely arrived with the emergence of the London Dry style of gin in the late 19th century. The vermouth brand, Martini & Rossi aided its arrival with ads, promoting their new Dry Martini vermouth with a clever tagline: “It’s not a Martini unless you use Martini.”

Over the following decades, the cocktail would appear in various volumes, progressively becoming drier using dry vermouth over its predecessor, sweet vermouth. The addition of curaçao would recede as well until the cocktail as we know it today began to emerge around the mid-20th century. 

How Do You Like It? The Classic Martini Recipe

In its simplest form, the Martini is a heavy pour of gin and dry vermouth with a dash or two of orange bitters, mixed, and served up with a lemon twist or olive garnish. Over time, the use of gin fell to the growing popularity of vodka in the 70s, 80s and 90s. 

Whether you make it with gin or vodka, the core recipe only slightly changes on preference. The following Martini variations cover classic and modern-classic recipes spanning from dry to vermouth-heavy or even slightly sweet. 

  • Dry Martini: London dry gin and dry vermouth in a 5:1 ratio (or 2:1), orange bitters and a lemon twist.
  • Bone-Dry Martini: Dry vermouth is rinsed in the glass before shaking gin or vodka and straining into the glass. Bone-dry is one step before eliminating vermouth altogether! 
  • 50/50 Martini: Equal parts gin and dry vermouth. This is a great version for moderation or in the morning… 
  • Wet Martini: This version calls for extra vermouth to create a “wet” version of a Martini, diluting the stark punch of gin. 
  • Reverse (or inverted) Martini: This calls for flipping the classic recipe on its head, making for a vermouth-heavy cocktail with a tinge of gin. 
  • Dirty Martini: Same as the Dry Martini sans orange bitters with a splash of olive brine for a slight saline punch. 
  • Vodka Martini: Sub gin for vodka. 
  • Vesper: Invented by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, the cocktail was featured in Casino Royale where it was heavily popularized. Bond cites the creation as “three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.” Kina Lillet is no longer produced but can be substituted for Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano. Oh, and stirred, not shaken. I know, against Bond’s rules. 
  • Perfect Martini: A curious mix of gin and a combination of dry and sweet vermouth.
  • Gibson: A classic Dry Martini recipe with the addition of a pickled onion as the garnish. This can be made dirty by adding a splash of the pickle brine. Just keep in mind the company you’re surrounded by and if they mind a little tinge of onion breath.

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What Even Is It? The Martini's Modern Day Revival

Demand for the Martini only grew through the mid-20th century. It was a staple in cosmopolitan lunch rooms, aiding advertising executives through the Mad Men era. The “three martini lunch” was the norm in the 50s and 60s, and although workplace culture has changed drastically today, the Martini is still enjoyed just as much as it was then. 

However, the 80s and 90s saw the Martini take a hard turn. During these years, the “tini” was prescribed to everything from the Appletini to the Lycheetini. This era in cocktail culture gave rise to sweet and fruity cocktails using artificially flavored liqueurs and cordials. The classic recipe — while still a staple —became more of a niche order. However, the rise of the craft cocktail renaissance in the 2000s revitalized the cocktail back to its true form. A newfound love for the cocktail has since blossomed. Barrooms worldwide feature a house version of the drink. Best Martinis lists exist for whatever major metro you find yourself in. 

It’s safe to say the Martini is more popular than ever, especially in a post-pandemic world, where people want a stiff, elegant cocktail to enjoy. And with cocktail culture at an all-time high, the Martini has apparently “lost its mind” according to a recent New York Times article.  

 

Take Jazzton Rodriguez’s take on a Dirty Martini. His Chicken Soup Martini swaps dry gin for one washed with mirepoix. He then replaces vermouth with Manzanilla sherry and a combination of chicken bouillon and MSG in place of olive brine. It’s garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and leaves curious imbibers scratching their heads, asking the question, “Is this still a Martini?”

The Debate Over Martini Etiquette — a Played Out Saga

The debate over what is and what isn’t a Martini is best left to the bartenders who create them and the guests who order them. In today’s culinary world, where traditional recipes are stretched to their limit, the Martini can be whatever we want it to be. So long as we know where it came from and how it got to this point. 

But the debate most often occurring is whether the cocktail is shaken or stirred. Really, it’s up to you. As a former career bartender, I would argue that a Dirty Martini gets shaken because of the introduction of olive brine. A classic version always gets stirred. However, I’ve fallen in love with a classic Martini in a midtown restaurant that’s shaken so long it’s like arctic water with tiny “icebergs” floating on the surface. James Bond may have caused the riff between shaken vs. stirred debaters but at the end of the day, it’s less about the technique and more about how it’s enjoyed — whether that’s up or on the rocks; with a twist or an olive (or both!); bone-dry or as salty as the sea. 

Three Martini Recipes We’re Mixing Up

Classic Martini 

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1 oz dry vermouth (preferably Dolin)
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • Garnish: lemon peel

DIRECTIONS

  • Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
  • Add ice and stir until chilled.
  • Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with a lemon peel.

Obituary

Created by William Elliott | Maison Premiere,  Brooklyn NY

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 3/4 oz gin, preferably Hayman’s London dry or Thomas Dakin Red Cole
  • 1/2 oz dry vermouth, preferably Bordiga Extra Dry
  • 6 dashes absinthe, preferably La Muse Verte
  • Garnish: lemon twist, discarded

DIRECTIONS

  • Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass.
  • Add ice and stir to chill.
  • Strain into a chilled Martini glass.
  • Express and discard the lemon twist.

Beefsteak Martini

Created by Phil Ward | New York | Recipe as appears in PUNCH

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 oz gin, preferably Plymouth
  • 1 oz bianco vermouth, preferably Carpano
  • 1 oz dry vermouth, preferably Dolin
  • 2 shiso leaves

DIRECTIONS

  • Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass without ice for about a minute.
  • Add ice and stir until chilled.
  • Rub the rim of a coupe or cocktail glass with a shiso leaf and discard.
  • Strain into the coupe or cocktail glass.

 

Corey Hines

Career bartender turned Content Marketing Manager at Provi, covering all things beer, wine and spirits.

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