Martinis. A Primer and Some Key Bars Around the World
"Bond insisted on ordering "Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig "on the rocks" and then he looked carefully at the barman.
A dry martini" he said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."
"Oui monsieur"."(Casino Royale, Ian Fleming).
Martinis - the quintessential cocktail. Whether it was James Bond or the notoriety of the drink itself, the desire to sip the most perfect blend has continued to beguile and fascinate. Today, Richard Duckworth considers the making, suggested variants, and some key bars around the world for every martini connoisseur to know.
By Richard Duckworth
One interest that has remained relatively consistent over the years has been the quest for a perfect martini. I started my investigations when I moved to New York City. I remember ordering them on my first date with my wife, and I continue to return to the drink on a semi-weekly basis. I would like to pretend I’m an early adopter, but I’m not. People have been knocking back these whistle wetters for over 100 years. My first source of information – maybe still the best – is my father’s Esquire Handbook for Hosts from 1948. Over the years I’ve applied rigor and zeal to the making of martinis and the identification of civilized locations in which to consume them.
Let us start with a guiding principle. Kingsley Amis, a renowned toper, considered the relative merits of a strong cocktail and a cold cocktail with the attendant risks of dilution. Amis would prioritise the coldness of the drink and I would agree. Better for the martini to be very cold and somewhat diluted. Without this, a requisite characteristic of the martini is lost. Keeping this in mind, it is important to use the best equipment available. The components are quite simple. A Boston shaker – being 2 tumblers in glass and steel that fit one into another – a measuring cup, a stirrer and a strainer. I use one made by Alessi. It has worked well for me over the past 20 odd years, though the glass tumbler has been broken and replaced at least 3 times. Finally, the glassware. The glassware has a tremendous impact on the experience of the drink and I would use crystal wherever possible. I use Riedel. The glass is elegant, well weighted and appropriately sized. A large martini glass is to be avoided. It is vulgar and can allow a drink to lose its requisite coldness. If I had the means and the inclination, I would consider more delicate coupes in Bohemian crystal, referencing cocktails from the 1920s (London, Paris etc).
With the equipment to hand, some additional pointers merit consideration. I’ve already addressed coldness, which then brings the stirring vs. shaking debate. Stirring is preferred. Apparently, shaking a martini is considered incorrect as it causes excessive dilution and ‘bruises’ the gin. I used to follow this stricture religiously however, shaking can help get a drink cold quickly. Next, ensure that the Boston shaker is chilled, the ice drained for any water before adding the ingredients. Third, vermouth first and gin second. There are exceptions to this (Dukes applies its vermouth via an atomiser, Harry’s Bar keeps its hooch pre-mixed in a freezer), but the conventional approach allows the vermouth to coat the ice before the addition of gin. Fourth and finally, consider lemon oil (rendered from the skin of a ripe lemon) as a critical ingredient. I consider coldness and the application of this lemon oil to be the most important criteria in a correctly prepared martini.
Dukes Bar manager Alessandro Palazzi making a Gibson Martini
Now with these principles in mind, I would suggest 3 variants which illustrate how simple changes can significantly alter a drink.
The Gibson. My preferred ‘go to’ martini is a Gibson. The elements in a Gibson include a clean tasting London gin (e.g. Plymouth), a dry vermouth (e.g. Noilly Prat), lemon oil and a small cocktail onion. To make, add 1 part vermouth to a Boston shaker filled with cracked ice, 7 parts gin. Stir with restraint until the shaker frosts. Strain the liquid into a cocktail glass, twist lemon peel to render oil on the top of the drink then discard, carefully add cocktail onion. When done correctly, this is a supremely elegant and attractive cocktail. The onion contributes a silvery translucence to the appearance and a faint astringency to the taste.
The Hoffman House. This variant was invented in New York in the early 1900s at a bar bearing this name. It’s a sweeter and more approachable martini than the Gibson. Elements are very similar to a Gibson. Plymouth gin. A more aromatic vermouth (e.g. Lillet), orange bitters and lemon oil. To make, add 1 part vermouth, 5 parts gin and 2-3 dashes of bitters to the Boston shaker filled with ice. Stir with vigour as the bitters are forgiving. Strain into a glass, twist lemon peel to render the oil, then drop into glass.
The Third Degree. If you like a strong drink, then this is one to consider. Making is as for a Gibson, though you can experiment with increasing levels of strength; say 8 parts gin to 1 part vermouth up to 10 to 1. Just after the application of lemon oil, float a teaspoon of absinthe on the martini, add the cocktail onion and serve. This is a grown-up cocktail. Be warned.
With these 3 variants in mind, I would now suggest a few locations where the martini can be ordered with a high level of confidence. There are many places one might consider, but for now let’s look at London, New Orleans and Tokyo.
Renowned for its famous martinis, the Dukes Bar is where you go for an unforgettable drinking experience. Drinks can be enjoyed in the drawing room or the Cognac & Cigar Garden. +44 (0)207 491 4840, Photo credit: Dukes Bar
London. Dukes Bar off St James’ St recalls a halcyon time early in my career when I was living in London on expenses. We rented a flat on St James’s St above Berry Brothers. Off one of the side streets sat Dukes Hotel. We would often repair to the hotel bar for pre-dinner cocktails. The barman, immaculately dressed, would bring the ingredients over on a trolley and prepare them ‘seat side’. I recall that on the cart stood chilled cocktail glasses, a basket of luscious lemons from Amalfi, a bottle of Plymouth gin encased in ice, and a small atomiser of vermouth (Noilly I would assume). Making the drink was simple. Spritz vermouth onto the interior of the glass, fill with freezing, viscous gin, twist generous slice of lemon and drop in. Maybe the ceremony of the preparation is beguiling, but I’ve never had a bad drink at Dukes. The place is an open secret these days and probably overcooks the Bond connection, but it recalls a happy time for me.
Called 'one of the top five bars in the country' by Esquire Magazine, the French 75 Bar at Arnaud's restaurant, features a charming decor with a custom-built bar from the 1800's, and emphasises 'premium spirits, classic cocktails and fine cigars'. Photo credit: French 75 Bar - Arnaud's restaurant
New Orleans. For the purist, Arnaud’s French 75 bar stands supreme. Arnaud’s is one of New Orleans’ ‘grande dames’, the ancient family-run establishments dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, which serve heart-breaking French food in the grand tradition. The bar itself sits on a street in the French Quarter adjacent to the proverbial drain which is Bourbon St. The bar is an oasis, it’s old and very beautiful with carved statues on the bar and chic sofas here and there. It is presided over by Chris Hannah, a legend among cocktail aficionados. Always dressed in an immaculate white barman’s jacket, he would go preparing cocktails of the highest quality with precise, effortless elegance. He runs his bar seriously and unpretentiously and is the barman who has impressed me the most over the years. French 75 was always on the New Orleans rotation.
Imperial Hotel Tokyo is considered Japan's most famous luxury hotel and features a selection of bars and lounges for guests and visitors to relax in. +81-3-3504-1111. Photo credit: Imperial Hotel
Toyko. The most famous ‘classic’ hotel is the Imperial. The place is enormous, filling an entire block in the expensive Ginza district, just opposite the Imperial palace compound. I understand that Frank Lloyd Wright played an important role in its design and construction however most of the hotel was flattened during the bombing raids and fires which ravaged the city during WW2. The bar does retain some of Lloyd Wright’s design flourishes that have survived here and there. The bar is long and surrounded by a footwell against which stools are set. Once settled, it feels like you are ‘involved’ in the bar. I recall this is where my wife and I started the last night of our honeymoon in Tokyo. The drinks were teeth-stingingly cold and eyebrow-lifting strong, produced by harried-looking career barmen with minimal flair and ceremony. We were surrounded by middle-aged salary-men, chain smoking infernally smelling cigarettes (Mild Sevens or worse), knocking back Japanese scotch highballs. Limited chit-chat. Just smoking and drinking. The bar would have had elements of a men’s working club but for the fact that the wives – in traditional Japanese kimonos - would be huddled around drinking tea some way from the bar.
Different experience. Places, styles and moments in time. But all superlative in their own way.