Sunday, January 4, 2009

How to Make a Good Martini

I won't say I make the world's best martini, or even a superb martini, but I do make them better than most you buy at a bar. And since I don't charge $15 for mine, I'd say you're in for a treat when I hand you one, in all its cold, clear goodness.
I don't mean to disrespect real bartenders. They're under pressure to deliver drinks very quickly. I am not.

Perhaps a better title for this article is "The Tao of Martini Making"—if not better, then more descriptive. You're probably pretty sick of all this The Tao of stuff—me too. But skipping to the recipe, in hope of gaining martini enlightenment, will disappoint.

The Fundamentals

Before you can make a good martini, you must first learn how to serve a proper cocktail. You should probably read a book or two on cocktail mixing, as it's not a trivial subject. That said, here are...

The Fundamentals of Making a Proper Cocktail:

  • Presentation
  • Knowing your ingredients
  • Knowing your tools
  • Having a plan
  • Economical execution
Actually, these fundamentals will take you pretty far in any endeavor, not just mixology. Consider that a bonus, if you like. Or, consider how everything is interconnected. Tao!


The single most important step in mixing a drink is how it is presented to its consumer. To help you remember this, imagine Chris Rock repeating that line over and over as you read the rest of this.

Presentation begins when you first ask someone what he'd like to drink and ends when she takes her first sip. If you're a beginner or intermediate drink maker, mix the drink out of sight of the consumer, if at all possible. To make a drink in front of someone, you should be able to do it while appearing calm, confident, and competent. You may have to carry on a conversation while doing it. It's complicated. If that isn't you (yet!), wrangle your guests to another room while you cook up the goods. Let your significant other in on the plan so he/she can help keep the guests corralled.

If you're already badass enough to make drinks in front of people, then you can probably skip to the recipe.

Since you are either: (a) mixing the drinks out of view, or (b) a drink-making badass, I won't go into the presentational aspects of actually mixing a drink. Rather, I'll focus on proper presentation while: (a) taking the drink "order", and (b) presenting the drink to the consumer.

Taking the Drink Order

Taking the drink order is not that hard, but there is Tao to know. When offering someone a drink, you should be confident and authoritative. First, you must know what raw ingredients you have on hand and what cocktails can be made from them. You must be able to suggest from among the possibilities. Most normal people do not know much about spirits and cocktails (You can Chris Rock that line a few times too). I frequently see waiters—paid professionals—that are unable to properly suggest something to a patron unfamiliar with his options. Try to gently guide the person to a positive outcome; i.e., a drink that she will enjoy and that you can make.
What can I get you?
Would you like a mixed drink or just something on the rocks?
Do you like brown spirits or clear?
I can make you a mojito, a manhattan, martini, vodka tonic...
Have you ever tried a manhattan? They're kind of strong, a little sweet, but surprisingly smooth for the amount of whiskey they contain.
Notice how each question effectively narrows the possibilities and how the final one creates a little story to go with the drink. See? The presentation has begun. This person may forever remember (assuming you don't over serve him) that a manhattan is "kind of strong, a little sweet" and so forth. At this point, the guest is already drinking the drink, in his head. He is imagining what it will look like and how it will taste. He is discussing his drink order with other guests. He may even be salivating a little. Just don't keep him waiting.

Presenting the Drink to the Consumer

The most important step in mixing a drink is how it is presented. (Chris Rock)
The most important step of the most important step is presenting the drink to the consumer. The success of the drink depends on how it looks and how you act.
How it looks
The drink must be in an appropriate glass; i.e., a highball glass for a vodka tonic; a "rocks" glass for a scotch rocks; a stemmed cocktail glass (generally known as a "martini glass") for a martini (assuming it was ordered "up" and not "on the rocks"); etc.

The glass should be elegant, not goofy. Strive for simplicity in your glassware selection, especially if you're on a budget. Restaurant supply stores are a great place to get simple, durable, inexpensive glassware. Most of the barware that Crate and Barrel sells is silly and trendy. You can find decent stuff there, but they are always pushing some weird variant that you have to dig through. You can bet they won't be selling that line next year. So good luck replacing broken pieces. Unless you know what you're doing, keep it simple. Avoid colors, prints, weird bends, twists, engravings, and those fat embedded bubbles.

The glass should be clean. Very clean. Spotless, actually. What do real bartenders do when they're not making drinks? They clean glasses. Thoroughly. With a cloth towel. Which is itself clean.

Obviously, you're going to disturb that pristine quality eventually, when you pour in liquid and garnish it, but you are striving for something that looks perfect and enticing. It's mostly common sense (keep your mitts off the sides of the glass) but it takes some practice. Most drinks are chilled and condensation starts to form on the glass immediately after you pour it. Try not to disturb that condensation. Don't let it sit too long, or the glass will start to sweat. Any garnish should also look presentable. Lime wedges should be fresh and sharply cut. You won't need them in your martini, but if you're interested, there are particular ways to cut them, which you can look up. Olives should have no blemishes. You can snack on the ones that do. Just don't put them in someone's drink.
How you act
Finally, when you hand the drink to your guest, you can "merchandise" it a bit by giving him or her a napkin first, just like in a restaurant. Look him/her in the eye and say something nice, "Here's your drink, sir. Cheers." Don't make a big deal over how much work it took, or fish for compliments. But don't be a trog, either. Be graceful.

Knowing Your Ingredients

Let's start to focus in on things that are germane to making a martini. We'll be looking at the classic (gin!) martini and maybe its aberrant offshoot, the vodka martini.
The basic ingredients of a basic martini are:
  • gin (or vodka)
  • dry vermouth
  • frozen water (ice)
  • olives or a twist of lemon as garnish
  • optionally, brine (liquid from the olive jar) if you like a "dirty" martini
To know your ingredients, you must taste them individually.


Gin is a clear spirit with a fairly high alcohol content (generally around 40–45%). It is distinguished by botanicals that are added to give it flavor and aroma. The botanicals always include juniper berry and often include such items as coriander, lemon peel, and pepper. Gins vary greatly in the level and character of their flavor and aroma. You may find one gin too bland, another intolerably brash, and another just right. You just have to try them.

Personally, I prefer a gin that has a bit of flavor and old-school juniper "gin-ness" to it. Although sometimes I'll go for something fancier, more complex. I haven't tried that many, but here are my completely subjective thoughts on a few popular brands. These are all good gins.

Some Popular Gins
BoodlesThis is my favorite gin. It is flavorful and has that old-school "gin-ness" to it.
HendricksThis gin is extremely flavorful and aromatic, complex. Its makers claim that it is the favored gin of 1 in 1000 gin drinkers. I think that's hype, but it may not be liked by all.
TanquerayA very good, classic gin. Maybe a little less flavorful that Boodles.
Tanqueray TenA little smoother that the basic Tanquery. Higher alcohol content too.
Bombay SapphireSmooth, strong alcohol taste. Subtle, clean aromatics. Elegant bottle, with a lot of marketing support and a high brand status—read: no one will think you scrimped.

Who I'd Serve Them To
Tanquerayguests at a party
Tanqueray Tenmyself or a friend
Bombay Sapphiresomeone I was trying to impress
Hendricksmy boss


A martini is made with gin, but some people, especially women, prefer vodka martinis. By definition, vodka is a clear, odorless, tasteless, distilled spirit with a high alcohol content (generally 40–50%). So much of the claims of one brand's superiority over the next are partially hype. My palate isn't sensitive enough to detect major differences between brands of relatively equal price. With gin, you may clearly like one and dislike another. With vodka, that's not the case. It won't kill you to substitute.

For your guests, pick the most prestigious brand you can comfortably afford. Keep an inexpensive vodka, such as Smirnoff, in the cupboard for yourself and the missus.


Vermouth is a fortified wine popular in Italy as an aperitif (or is it a digestifs?). It comes in two varieties, red (or sweet) and white (or dry). Buy the smallest bottle you can find. Popular brands are Cinzano and Martini and Rossi. I buy Martini and Rossi, mostly out of habit.

The next time you buy a bottle, taste it. If it is unpalatable to you, try another brand. Straight vermouth is not to everyone's taste, but it should be tolerable. Also, when you open that bottle, write the date on it. Vermouth doesn't keep indefinitely and you should refrigerate it after opening. Consider tossing it if it is more than a few months old, but only if you have a new bottle in hand. If I show up at your place, old vermouth is better than none at all!

Some people substitute Lillet blanc for vermouth. This works too. I believe this practice was popularized by the James Bond book, "Casino Royale," in which James orders a drink with "three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet."


Should be clean and not stinky. Fresh out of the ice box, not sweaty.


I read somewhere that martini purists prefer a lemon twist over Olives as a garnish. Each imparts a distinct flavor and smell. A martini with a twist is a bit more bracing, with a flavor that shoots up your nose. A martini with an olive or two is more "in your mouth," kind of oily, heavier.

Once or twice, I have ordered a drink with a twist and had an inexperienced server squeeze a lemon wedge into the drink. To clear up any confusion: a twist is a strip of lemon peel twisted over a drink (which releases a fine spray of intensely aromatic oil) and plopped in. It's hard to get a twist to look really good. I recommend sticking with the tried and true olive as a garnish.

Finding a good source of cocktail olives is important and, unfortunately, not always easy. You want a pitted, unstuffed olive. Most olives, however, are sold with things stuffed into them: pimento pepper, garlic, almond, jalapeƱo, you name it. If you do have a choice among brands of pitted, unstuffed olives, choose the one with larger, healthier (unblemished) looking olives. Shop around. In a pinch, I've used pimento stuffed olives and removed the stuffing with a toothpick. I've also used pitted olives from the deli counter.

Knowing Your Tools

  • Stainless steel cocktail shaker
  • Cocktail spoon
  • Cocktail strainer
  • Tall stemmed cocktail glass
  • Toothpicks or cocktail picks
The best cocktail shaker is the simple stainless steel model, like you get at a restaurant supply. It looks like a polished steel vessel and holds about 18 ounces of liquid. It doesn't have a built-in lid, strainer, recipe selector, or anything! Learning how to shake a cocktail without making a mess takes a little practice, but since you will be stirring your martinis instead of shaking them, you don't have to worry about that.

A cocktail spoon is a teaspoon with a long, slender, twisted handle. It is ideal for reaching deep into a cocktail shaker. The slender handle doesn't create as much of a whirlpool effect as a normal spoon. The twists in the handle can be used to make pretty lemon twists (by wrapping the lemon strip around the handle).

I covered the importance of quality glassware in the section on presentation. As mentioned earlier, an "up" cocktail is served in a stemmed glass. A drink "on the rocks" is served in a short, unstemmed glass.

Having a Plan

If "having a plan" is defined as, "knowing a set of steps involved in achieving a result," then isn't it circular reasoning to say that one of the fundamental aspects of making a cocktail is knowing all the steps? Yes. However, I mean something a little different by "having a plan."

What it the concept behind the drink you're making? What emotion should it evoke? How will it interact with the senses?

More specifically, what it its dominant theme or flavor? And what are the sub-dominant, or supporting flavors (or other sensations).

As an example, consider a flaming shooter style drink, with two or three layers of distinctly colored liquors or liqueurs. What is its dominant theme? It's a fricken drink that's on fire! Fire/heat/passion. That's the dominant theme. What is the supporting theme? Multi-colored layers of liquid. Magic!

Keeping the dominant and sub-dominant themes in mind helps you make choices. If the you're making a margarita (a drink made mainly of lime juice, tequila, sugar, and ice) and your dominant theme is fresh lime taste, then the muscles in your hand will know that it's better to squeeze in a little too much juice than too little. If your dominant theme is "tequila!" your hand will likewise take appropriate action.

Keep it simple. Alton Brown says a cocktail should have a dominant flavor, like the melody in a piece of music, and one or two supporting flavors, like the chorus and counter melody, and NO MORE.

Economical Execution

This is sort of intertwined with presentation. It basically means that to be good at making drinks, you have to do it efficiently, cleanly, and quickly. This takes practice.

The reasons for aspiring to this level are twofold: (1) it helps your presentation if you are economical with your movements, (2) you sometimes have to make many drinks in little time.

The average bartender is capable of extraordinary feats of mental and physical dexterity and coordination under stressful conditions. Spend a few minutes watching a bartender in a crunch. You will be amazed.

Finally, the Martini

If you've read this far, you now know that there is no single way to make a cocktail. Each one is an expression of its maker's creativity and personality. Even if you follow these fundamentals to the letter, you'll see that there are myriad ways to craft a drink that's all your own. Probably no other drink embodies this art-over-science quality, this magic, than the martini. So here's this artist's dry martini, straight up, with olives.


  • gin
  • dry vermouth
  • ice
  • pitted, unstuffed olives


  1. Gather glassware, shaker, strainer, spoon, and a bottle of gin. Though I prefer NOT to refrigerate the gin, it should be kept in the proverbial cool, dry place.
  2. Put a classic martini glass in the freezer. At the same time, take the ice cube tray out.
  3. Take olives and vermouth out of the fridge.
  4. Put 5 large ice cubes into cocktail shaker (6, if you plan to make a haymaker).
  5. Unscrew the cap off the vermouth and hold it over the shaker, pour a heaping capful of vermouth into the shaker.
  6. Free pour about 4–5 ounces of gin into the shaker. That should well cover the ice cubes, make them start to jiggle a bit, but not slosh.
  7. Use a cocktail spoon to stir for about 24 seconds—not too vigorous. Try not to create bubbles or a prolonged whirlpool. Break it up a bit. You're trying to expose every molecule of the liquid to the ice.
  8. Set the shaker aside. Start counting seconds in your head.
  9. Open the olive jar and set the lid down such that the outer part is face down.
  10. Use the spoon and or a cocktail skewer to fish 1 or 2 olives out of the olive jar. The first couple of olives on top of a new jar always look a little sad. Skip those.
  11. Skewer the olives and lay them on the olive jar lid. Skewer them such that they are mostly on the bottom end of the skewer. This will make them more stable in the glass, like a Weeble.
  12. Once the shaker has rested for 25–30 seconds, pull the cocktail glass out of the freezer and set it down. Try not to touch the sides of the glass or mess up the condensation.
  13. Place the olive skewer into the glass.
  14. Cover the shaker with the strainer and gently strain the liquid into the middle of the glass. Strive for a smooth, clear consistency free of bubbles. That's my dominant theme, by the way: clear as glass.
  15. Present the drink
  16. Clean up your mise in preparation for the next drink

What Now?

I think I owe you a follow up article, since I haven't covered the following:
  • martini vocabulary
  • how to make a martini shaken, not stirred
  • why you might want to make one that way
  • martini on the rocks
  • martini with a twist
  • the dirty martini
  • the traditional (non-dry) martini
See you then. Salud.

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