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Martinis 101: A Guide to the Classic Cocktail

Updated: Sep 12


The Rockefeller Martini at Rockefeller Scottsdale
The Rockefeller Martini

Gin, vermouth, sometimes bitters, lemon twist or olive, and lots of opinions. Those are the ingredients of a martini. But the last item is the most important. It’s the one that keeps us talking about a drink that is nearly 150 years old. - Robert Simonson

The ever-changing, ever-elusive martini. A hotly contested cocktail, as well as our signature drink. It was only right we did a deep dive on it.


If you're looking for some interesting tidbits on this enduring classic to whip out at your next party, answers to all your burning martini questions courtesy of Rockefeller’s own (and Scottsdale’s best) mixologist Ella Perez, plus a final answer to the most incendiary question of all, then keep reading.


Table of contents

Martinis: The early years


The first known published martini recipe can be found in Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual from 1888 (p. 33).


The original martini was two things it wouldn’t be caught dead being now: sweet and dark.


For a long time it was often confused with another very popular drink at the time, the Manhattan.


Martinis would eventually evolve to dry vermouth and London dry gin (previously Old Tom gin), then the vermouth was taken out altogether. But both Manhattans and the original martini had sweet vermouth, which was lighter in color than it is today.


The whiskey that Manhattans also used wasn’t aged as long. Therefore, it didn’t develop as dark of a color as it has today from the wood barrels. (The concept of “white” or “red” vermouth didn’t exist yet either, only French and Italian.)


Martini Glasses at Rockefeller Scottsdale

This might be hard to believe since the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a martini is a crystal clear beverage in an unmistakable cocktail glass.


But Robert Simonson breaks down several cultural references to a darker hued martini in his book, The Martini Cocktail:

  • St. Louis Republic (1891): Surveying the current drink scene, noted “the dainty pale-gold tint” of the then-ascendant martini.

  • “The Short Cut” (1909): a bit of light verse from 1909 about three sodden poseurs named Punk, Bogg, and Slush, the poet talks of how the three “cuddled the amber martini and mixed with the friendly high-ball".

  • Dry Martini (1926): In the novel by John Thomas, the protagonist gets a martini that’s a “fragrant amber”.

  • “A Drink with Something In It” (1930’s): Poet Ogden Nash writes about a “a yellow, a mellow martini”.

European vermouth manufacturers started filtering out the color of dry vermouth. Then Americans started using less and less of it. The result is what we have today.


Where did the name martini come from?


There are a handful of stories as to where the name “martini” originates and who invented it.


Here are the five most popular theories, in order of least believable to most probable:

  1. New York (early 1900’s): Italian immigrant martini di Arma di Taggia allegedly served John D. Rockefeller one, a man who didn’t drink, after it had already been in existence for over 20 years.

  2. Martinez, CA (1849): Miner orders a drink after striking it rich. Bartender makes something special for him to celebrate, calls it the Martinez Special. Miner goes to San Francisco and tries to order it, bartenders are confused, miner teaches them how to make it, the martini is born.

  3. San Francisco, CA (no idea): 19th century mixologist Jerry Thomas satiates the thirst of a traveler with something “completely new”. Names it the Martinez because that was the traveler’s next stop. Somehow that turns into the martini? Don't shoot the messenger.

  4. New York (1880): Something about a bartender at the Hoffman House. Only believable because the date lines up with the first martini recipe publication.

  5. Martini & Rossi Italian Vermouth (1860’s): This theory is that the martini name came from the brand of vermouth that was most commonly used in them. Martini Sola & Co., what eventually became Martini & Rossi, shipped their first 100 cases of sweet rosso vermouth to the US in 1867. Even though Martini & Rossi wouldn’t ship their first dry vermouth to the States until 1915, the original martini used sweet vermouth. Which means Martini & Rossi had over thirty years to secure their place as the go-to vermouth for martinis and inspire the name "martini".

Many people dismiss the last theory claiming it’s just corporate PR. But it actually makes the most sense.


Frank P. Newman specified Martini & Rossi vermouth for martinis in his 1904 book, American-Bar (which is actually French, just a heads up).


Franz Josef Müller also made a point to shut down naysayers of this theory in his 1953 Das Mixbuch when he wrote: “In America in the last century, the vermouth of the company Martini & Rossi was the most imported one. Until valid proof to the contrary, the assumption is that the martini derives its name from the martini vermouth.”


In short, the only people who struggle with the last martini origin story are Americans. European bartenders have fully accepted this as the logical reason for the name martini.

The most common martini ingredients


While their presence and proportions may be questioned, there are three ingredients that will always come to mind when you think of a martini. Here’s a breakdown of what they are, where they come from, and what to look for when choosing one for your next cocktail.


Gin

Gin hails from the Netherlands where it’s called genievre (aka juniper). It’s distilled from grain and flavored with, you guessed it - juniper berries. It also sometimes contains coriander, anise, citrus peels, or bittering agents like orris root or angelica.


There are two kinds: Old Tom, and London Dry.


They're both descendants of genever, the Dutch grandparent of gin. Gin can be made anywhere, but genever mostly comes from Holland, Belgium, and sometimes France or Germany.


Gin can be made from anything, but genever comes from rye, malted barley, or corn. It is not used for martinis.


Old Tom gin is a mix between genever and London Dry gin in terms of sweetness. It must include juniper, like genever, but that’s about the only rule.


Then there’s London Dry gin. This is what martinis are made with and what you’ll find in most bars and liquor stores. All spirits go through one distillation, but gin goes through two. Herbs and flavorings are added in the second round.


Beyond requiring two distillations, gin is incredibly easy to manufacture. Hence why it was so popular during Prohibition. It also doesn’t require aging. Hence why it was popular during Prohibition.


Low barrier of entry means higher margin of error. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for with gin. But at the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference. Just know that gin will make or break your martini, so choose wisely.


Here are some of Ella’s favorites:

  • Nolet’s: “Not a London dry but absolutely fantastic. Super elegant. Soft floral and fruit notes.”

  • Bombay Sapphire: “Always a great one. Bombay’s botanicals are really well-balanced. Some citrus, approachable.”

  • Tanquaray: “You know you’re drinking Tanquaray when you drink it. Super heavy juniper, coriander, and licorice notes, really robust, not as approachable.”

  • Tanquaray No. 10: “Really nice. Much softer than the original Tanquaray.”


Vodka

Vodka, which translates to “little water”, is originally from Russia but is now produced worldwide. It was first distilled from potatoes but now is produced from any grain.


Like gin, it’s not aged. Unlike gin, it’s a neutral spirit. This means it’s required to be flavorless by law.


So when you say Grey Goose tastes way better than Popov’s, what you actually means is that you prefer Grey Goose’s:

  • Burn (i.e. the sensation it leaves in your mouth and throat, high quality vodka doesn’t actually burn the way cheap ones do)

  • Texture (i.e. how the liquid feels, some vodkas feel thicker or more oily)

  • Distillation notes (i.e. what container it was distilled in)

  • Filtration process (i.e. how and how many times it’s filtered, Grey Goose is filtered once, Popov's is filtered four times, each filtration round strips out “flavor”)

  • Water (i.e. what water was used to create the vodka, different regions' water and its contents can drastically vary, which impacts taste)

Now, vodka can be made with anything. So you could be tasting the potato, the wheat, the rye, etc. However, the things above impact taste just as much as what it’s made from.


Ella is from Holland, so Ketel One is a favorite here at Rockefeller. But don't worry, we’ve got all the good ones.


Vermouth

Vermouth comes from the word wermut in German, which means wormwood. Before people realized wormwood was poisonous (or maybe not), it was used to make vermouth.


Vermouth is a fortified wine that’s been flavored with herbs and spices. Fortified means a distilled spirit has been added to a wine. This is usually done to increase its alcohol contents, but it also increases its shelf life as well.


Vermouth is one of five types of fortified wines. The other four are: sherry (from Spain), port (from Portugal), madeira (from Portugal’s Madeira Islands), and marsala (from Sicily).


Why add it to a martini? For balance, depth, and complexity.


When done right and with the right proportions, everything plays harmoniously together and it’s delicious.


There’s a ton of great dry vermouths out there but we highly discourage going with a cheap one. Here at Rockefeller, we use Dolin dry.


Frequently Asked Martini Questions


The Internet asked, we answered. Here are the most common martini-related questions, our answers, plus insight and offerings from a seasoned, expert bartender, Ella Perez.


What's in a standard martini?

Google and old school bartenders will tell you that standard martinis are gin and dry vermouth. New school will say a standard martini has vodka.


Long story short, it depends who you’re asking.


That’s the thing about the martini: no other cocktail requires as many specifications.


Ella’s take:

“97% of the time, when someone orders a martini, they want vodka. They want it dirty or with a twist.


When someone orders a martini though, a good bartender will always clarify exactly what they want. It’s really important to get on the same page with your clientele. It doesn’t matter what you think.


You also never want to make your guests feel like it’s a stupid a question. I want to make it to your liking. That’s what matters. You need to love it. And if you don’t, we’ll make it to how you want.”


What makes a drink a martini?

With martinis, it’s typically just spirits and one other modifier. There’s no juice or simple syrup (i.e. it’s literally impossible to make a mocktail martini).


Ella’s take:

"A true classic martini is gin and vermouth. It’s spirit forward, unlike what I call juice box cocktails (not a dig, relax). Newer school bartenders started adding juice and sugars to make martinis more approachable.


Other spirit forward drinks are Manhattan and Old Fashioned. Those are all just booze.


If someone’s looking for a key lime pie martini, then their friends say I’ll have a Vesper, 'I’ll have what she’s having,' I will automatically stop and ask them if that’s really what they want. Do you like drinking straight alcohol? Because that’s what it is. And a good bartender will warn you of that.”


How much alcohol is in a martini?

A lot.


What started as a 2:1 gin to vermouth ratio in the late 1800’s, turned into a 3:1 ratio, turned into a 4:1 ratio. Current ratios may say 6:1.


However, you can’t legally serve someone more than 4 ounces of a spirit in one sitting at a bar.


Ella's take:

"Our Rockefeller martini is 4 ounces of vodka. When you add ice and mix it, you’re adding water. Your cocktail might look like a 6 ounce cocktail, but in reality, it’s 4. Whereas any other of our drinks are going to be 3 ounce pours."


What did James Bond drink?

Can you write a blog on martinis without mentioning James Bond?


You could. But you shouldn’t.


Vesper Cocktail at Rockefeller Scottsdale
The Vesper

So what did he drink? The real question is: what didn’t he drink?


The answer is everything.


When it came to his martinis though, they were mostly vodka. (No, he wasn’t trying to be edgy. Smirnoff had the product placement rights.)


However, his Vesper martini in Casino Royale was a 3:1 gin to vodka ratio, half a part of Lillet Blanc, and a lemon peel. Just like ours.


What is a wet martini?

A wet martini is one with more vermouth than the typical ratio. Again, this ratio is subjective. But the “wetter” the martini, means you want more vermouth than “normal”.



What is the dirty in a martini?

A dirty martini is one with olive juice or olive brine in it, or sometimes cocktail onion juice.


What is a martini without vermouth called?

A martini without vermouth is called a bone-dry martini.


Espresso martinis: a trend or here to stay?

The espresso martini has made an aggressive comeback. It had its time, kinda of fell off, now it’s back with a vengeance.


Ella’s take:

“I think they’re here to stay.”


Is a martini better shaken or stirred?

Perhaps the most debated aspect of the martini: shaken versus stirred.


The typical rule of thumb is that you stir your cocktail if it only contains alcohol. This would mean a martini should technically be stirred.


But shaking it gets it colder, and that’s the catch. Gin martini, vodka martini, vermouth, no vermouth, green olive garnish, lemon peel garnish - if there’s one thing all martini drinkers can agree on, it’s that a perfect martini is ice cold. Down to the chilled martini glass.


Here at Rockefeller, we shake ours until we think we’ve caught frostbite. Then we shake a little more.


(Some people also argue that shaking can “bruise” gin and “mask” the botanicals. We think if anyone is worried about bruising their gin, they should go outside and touch some grass.)


Ella’s take:

“Personally, I don’t think you’re bruising alcohol. The ice chips and dilution is what they’re referring to.


Shaking dilutes it more because a cocktail shaker is typically weighted. Shaking it breaks up the ice and crushes it inside the tin, which gets more water into the drink.


With a stirred martini, it’s more delicate and the ice is staying in its whole form and not getting jostled around.


A lot of people love those ice chips. A lot of people want the shaken ice from the tin. Seriously, it’s a thing.


But your more serious martini drinkers will ask for it stirred. They don’t want the ice chips. They want something more welcoming on the palate.”


Fun fact: Ella can tell who’s behind the bar from the sound of their cocktail tin shake.


One more final argument in favor of shaking: it just looks cooler.


Conclusion

The martini’s origin has been up for debate for several decades. Fortunately, its history after it came into existence is much clearer.


For a rundown on martini’s journey to securing its place as an icon - both as a cocktail and culturally - we highly recommend Robert Simonson’s book, The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World's Greatest Drink, with Recipes.


If you’re tired of reading about martinis and itching to try the best one you’ve ever had, well, you know where to find us.


Join us for Happy Hour:


Monday ALL DAY

Tuesday - Sunday: 4PM – 6PM

Late Night Friday + Saturday: 10PM – 12AM


Olives not filling enough?






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