My interest in making a good martini was sparked in what may be the most unlikely of places. It was not in some swanky cocktail bar in Melbourne or London. It was in the tropical heat of far north Queensland, Australia.
I was at the Nautilus bar in Port Douglas on a scorching December evening. The menu listed a selection of cocktails and martinis. A martini made with The Botanist gin caught my interest, primarily because this gin is made by the Scottish single malt producer Bruichladdich on the isle of Islay (with a still nicknamed “ugly Betty”, so I’m told). As soon as that expertly made icy cold martini hit my lips, I forgot about the tropical heat as my attention turned to the fascinating world of the martini.
The martini tends to have a base of either gin or vodka (usually two shots, or 60ml). The gin or vodka is then mixed with dry vermouth (usually one shot, or 30ml). The less vermouth which you add, the drier the martini. If you prefer a sweet martini, use sweet vermouth.
The mixture of gin (or vodka) and vermouth can be added to a container with ice, shaken or stirred, then strained into a martini glass. Once in that glass, the mixture is usually garnished with either an olive or lemon twist. Some people add a dash of bitters. That is a martini. Sounds simple, right?
Right! The martini is a really simple cocktail.
But, making a tasty martini isn’t just about mixing up a concoction of gin (or vodka) and vermouth and then throwing a toothpick skewered olive or lemon twist into the mix.
Gin versus vodka
Okay, so what is the difference between vodka and gin?
Let me briefly cover the main difference.
Vodka tends to be distilled at high proof and it may also be filtered through charcoal (and in some cases other materials) to strip it of aromas and flavours. The result of this process is that vodka tends to be a “neutral” spirit that is rich in ethanol. Some vodkas are very pure while others retain some flavour from the products which they are made from.
Gin is a spirit (usually neutral) which is flavoured with botanicals (berries, herbs, seeds, flowers, etc) – a simple way to look at gin is that it is basically botanical flavoured vodka. Gin distilleries can use many hundreds of botanicals to flavour spirit, but some of the more common are juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica, orange peel and lemon peel.
With that main difference between gin and vodka in mind, let’s refocus on making martinis.
Keep it simple
Raechel-Skye Wearne (Nautilus Port Douglas’ resident martini maker) explains that a ‘martini is a pretty basic cocktail’ with ‘3 to 4 ingredients, yet so many get it wrong by trying to do more’.
So, as most cooks will tell you, just follow the darn recipe!
Trust your nose and taste buds
When picking a gin or vodka for a martini, go for brands that you find pleasant to taste and smell. No brainer, right?
When asked why Nautilus chose to include The Botanist gin on its martini list, Raechel-Skye said ‘I chose The Botanist for our list mostly based on the smell’. ‘[S]ight, smell and taste [are] important for drinks just like food’, she adds.
That smell, on my nosing of The Botanist neat, is floral and zesty with citrus, minty toothpaste and anise seed. There is an array of vegetal aromas interwoven with familiar juniper. On the palate The Botanist is sweet and quite herbal, with plenty of mint and citrus peel (especially lemon and lime). The citrus becomes increasingly noticeable on the finish. Make no mistake, this is seriously complex gin – it is made using nine classic gin botanicals and 22 herbs and flowers from the Isle of Islay in Scotland.
Shaken … or stirred?
Once you decide whether you want a gin or vodka martini, and you add your choice of vermouth to that gin or vodka, you have a few more options.
First, you can have your martini shaken. To do this, add the gin (or vodka) and vermouth to a shaker half full of ice. Shake the hell out of that shaker for 10-15 seconds.
Second, you can have your martini stirred. To do this, stir the mixture of gin (or vodka) and vermouth around as it sits in ice. Again, as in shaking, take your sweet time stirring – about 20-25 seconds.
Then, pour the liquid into a martini glass.
Shaking or stirring your martini makes the martini super cold and it dilutes the alcohol, which makes it a little easier to chug down if you’re not accustomed to drinking spirits.
If you want your gin (or vodka) undiluted but your martini cold, you can try keeping your martini making booze in the freezer.
Olives or lemon?
Okay, so your frosty martini glass is full of a freezing cold mixture of lovely booze. Your masterpiece is not, however, quite complete. You need to garnish it.
Should you opt for an olive or a lemon twist? Of course, choosing an olive or lemon twist for your martini comes down to personal preference and taste. But, next time you reach for a vodka or a gin to make martinis, you may like to consider a couple of things.
If you are making a gin based martini, consider whether an olive or lemon twist complements the gin which you choose.
In Raechel-Skye’s opinion ‘a dry martini with just a hint of lemon is the best for the Botanist’. ‘With 22 botanicals all working together simple is best’, she adds.
My nose and taste buds get wave after wave of citrus from The Botanist gin, so a lemon or lime twist seems to me like the natural garnish for a martini made with this gin.
If you are making a vodka based martini, consider whether the vodka which you choose can hold its own in the martini and not vanish to the taste of the garnish, especially olive.
Raechel-Skye says that vodka that is ‘very “clean” in flavour … could be lost with olives, but that could be what someone is after’.
One vodka that retains some lovely cereal flavours, and which isn’t mostly just ethanol and water, is the outstanding Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka from Sweden. Spirit of Hven use certified organic cereals to make this vodka, which the distillery says spends time in oak before its final distillation in a pot still. It seems that this vodka is designed to have flavour from both the mash and oak. That flavour is subtle, but it still has enough character to stand up in a cocktail. On tasting this vodka neat, it struck me as oily and buttery, with soft grain-led character (rolled oats, wheat), licorice and warming spices.
Try it dirty
If you can’t get enough olives in your martini, you may want to try your martini “dirty”. To do this, just add some olive brine to the gin or vodka martini, garnish it with an olive, and enjoy.
Feeling a bit classy (or can’t decide between gin and vodka)? – try the Vesper Martini
In Casino Royale, James Bond orders a Vesper Martini:
“Three measures of Gordons, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
If you can’t quite choose between vodka and gin, or you just feel a little debonair, the Vesper Martini is probably your answer.
The modern Vesper Martini is a mix of gin, vodka and Lillet blanc (Kina Lillet is no longer available). Prepare your Vesper Martini according to Mr Bond’s instructions, making sure it’s shaken not stirred, and you’re good to go.
Lillet blanc is an aperitif from the village of Podensac south of Bordeaux, France. It is a blend of 85% wine (mostly made from the sémillon grape) and 15% fruit liqueurs. To me, Lillet blanc tastes like a complex mix of sweet deliciousness – find dried figs, candied orange peel, sultana, golden caramel, ripe apricot and hints of vanilla.
That is sure to add a dash of sophistication to any cocktail.
Now, go forth and drink stylishly.