"I’ll have a Martini” is a confusing statement. What in the world is a Martini? To some, it’s anything in a martini glass. To many, it’s a glass of chilled gin or vodka served either up or on the rocks, and may or may not include olive juice or an actual olive or five. Maybe even some bleu cheese in said olive(s). And to others, the Martini includes a very, very small amount of dry vermouth dropped into a heaping portion of vodka or gin. None of these are what Martini actually meant at its dawn.
Everyone has flavor and presentation preferences, but why in the name of Jerry Thomas does this word have no actual meaning? When new concepts and items arise, we honor them with a new name; it’s a verbal creation of our very own to denote the physical creation or existence of an object or concept. If you want a chair at a restaurant, someone will get you a chair at the appropriate height for your table. Asking for a chair will rarely get you a sandwich, because we already have a word for sandwich. Semantic distinction between concepts is a very, very big deal. It’s the entire point of language.
In the late 19th century and into the early 20th, the Martini was a combination of 1.5oz gin, 1.5oz dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, and a twist of lemon. This is now referred to as the “Fifty-Fifty” (unrelated info, but this is my preference). Just before prohibition in the United States, the Martini was generally made with a heavier preference toward gin, and the word Martini became 2oz gin and 1oz dry vermouth, alongside the traditional orange bitters and lemon twist. Sounds a lot like a Manhattan cocktail, doesn’t it? 2:1 Spirit:Vermouth with a dash of bitters and a garnish. The golden ratio. Just post prohibition, this ratio kept up for a while, but with the lack of any good bartenders left in the States once their careers had be crushed, most of the traditional methods died off and a lack of care or education swept the nation.
There were many bits of fallout from this degradation, but the treatment of vermouth seems to have been among the most paramount. To understand this, we have to understand what vermouth is. Generally speaking, it is fortified and aromatized wine. Specifically white wine. In France, they began many moons ago fortifying and aromatizing white wine, and leaving it white. This is what we now call dry vermouth. In Italy, sweet vermouth came about when white wine was fortified and aromatized and colored/sweetened. To aromatize wine is to soak in herbs and spices, and to fortify is to increase the ABV of a wine to ~16.5% using a distilled spirit. Each vermouth company has their own secret formula for this process, and each one yields a unique and usually delightful product.
As we all know, once a bottle of wine is opened, it has a very distinct shelf life. Juices from all fruit have their own acid compsotition, and the common bunch are citric, malic, and tartaric acids. Think lemon for citric acid, and lime or cranberry for malic acid. Grape juice is known for containing tartaric and malic acids as its main punch, with a smidge of citric acid on the side. Citric acid degrades into acetic acid over time, and acetic acid is responsible for making vinegar taste like vinegar. This is one of the quickest changes in wine. Yuck! Malic acid can become lactic acid, as well, which can lend either a friendly or very unwelcome “milky” or “buttery” feel to wine. This is further down the road, however, and often done intentionally.
We’re aware that old wine tastes like vinegar, and that’s no good. If vermouth is just fortified wine, the fortification process can slow the decay of citric acid into acetic acid, but it can’t stop it. You’ve got a much larger buffer zone, but inevitably, it’ll always happen. The only way to slow the process is to vacuum seal and/or refrigerate vermouth once it’s been opened. Guess who wasn’t aware of that? Damn near every bartender in the United States between prohibition and, well, now. Guess what you wouldn’t want in a Martini or Manhattan Cocktail: oxidized, old, vinegary vermouth! I’m betting the Manhattan was less affected by this lack of care because sweet vermouth generally has a higher sugar content, which makes it far more stable when opened and sitting on a room temperature shelf. This is not universally true, but we can generalize pretty well.
So, the Extra Dry Martini that has become so popular (which is essentially just a glass of gin or vodka) is wildly more tasty than any previous iteration of a Martini when made with oxidized, gross, vinegary vermouth. The less the better, I’d agree. However, when properly stored and cared for, the Martini can be itself as the good lord intended: 2oz gin, 1oz dry vermouth. If you can trust a Manhattan, you can trust this beaut, too.
It doesn’t end there, however. There are dozens of vermouth-modified cocktails out there that have scared people away for decades. They’re no longer poisonous to the palate at any bar at which care is taken of their products! Try each Martini (the 50/50, the 2:1), the Negroni (1oz gin, 1oz sweet vermouth, 1oz campari, with an orange twist), the Hanky Panky (1.5oz gin, 1.5oz sweet vermouth, a barspoon of Fernet Branca and an orange twist), or the El Presidente (1.5oz rum, 1.5oz blanc or bianco vermouth, with a barspoon of orange curacao). Take a journey! Or better yet, do a vermouth sampling at the next bar you decide you trust to properly care for their products. Or just drink one vermouth on the rocks. Find out which you enjoy and which you don’t. Learn which would go best in which cocktail and why. Learn how to make your drinks a touch less intoxicating and a lot more flavorful. After all, the point is to enjoy a well made drink—not to consume as much 80 proof spirit as you possibly can, right? You might even be sober enough to close the deal and fill up that queen-sized bed that tends to feel so empty. We’re all much more charming when we have our wits about us.
In summary: prohibition destroyed knowledge, lack of knowledge destroyed vermouth perception, vermouths’ bad rap destroyed the Martini, and now we call something else entirely a Martini. Shouldn’t we be careful with our language? It’s our only means of communication with one another in an advanced manner. If you want chilled gin served up in a martini glass, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a fine drink, it’s just not a Martini. If you prefer the tiniest splash of vermouth in your gin or vodka, it’s acceptable to ask for an Extra Dry Martini. If you want the golden 2:1 ratio beverage, you can call it a Martini! Or, if you’re super daring and you want a cocktail made with half gin and half dry vermouth, you can ask for a 50/50. For the sake of clarity, these are the definitions that I’ve found to be the most clear.
We behind the stick have absolutely no problem serving you whatever it is that your preference may be, but a glass of gin a Martini is not. You might find that opening your palate to the influence of vermouth will open your beverage choices up significantly, and hell, you might even like it.
I demand clarity, and I dare you to drink vermouth!
This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 edition of (585) Magazine, and was first published on usbg.org on December 1, 2015.