The Fifteenth Number Ten Symposium TalkTails: The Martini—Forward into the Past

The Fifteenth Number Ten Symposium TalkTails: The Martini—Forward into the Past took place on Monday, February 17, 2020, at Number Ten, 10 Castle Street, Great Barrington, as one of a series of cocktail talks/tastings. This was fun for me, as the group of participants was especially great.  Most of the participants had some experience—not surprisingly—with the Martini, but the sampling structure proved informative as well as enjoyable.

In putting together the handout for this TalkTails, I illustrated a bit of enthusiasm, as shown by the 10 pages of material each participant received. One reason for the extra length handout was the very many quotes about the Martini that I’d included.  This post is a minor re-working of the handout material, so, well, prepare yourself for a long post.

Here’s the quote with which I started things off, mainly because it is wonderfully confusing:

Bright was the light of my last Martini on my moral horizon. 

—Norman Mailer

The Martini is an archetypal cocktail, and classic. And confusing. Vermouth? How much? Gin or Vodka? Shaken or stirred? Up or on the rocks, twist or olives or onions or cucumbers or…?  And then there are those drinks called Martini, such as Appletini, or Espresso Martini or Chocolate Martini.  About these there is less confusion: No, not Martini!

Martini may well be the best-known cocktail—after all, that iconic stemmed upwardly slope-sided cocktail glass as often goes by “Martini Glass,” which is why such obviously non-Martini cocktails get the Martini name appendage.

This tasting looked at two of the main ingredients of the Martini: Gin and vermouth.  We sampled Martinis using three different classes of Gin (London Dry, Plymouth, and Old Tom), which gavew me the chance to pontificate about the the history of Gin. Two other tastings presented Martinis using dry vermouths not widely used (Carpano Blanco and Carpano Dry), and these choices were mainly taken to provide me entry into the subject of vermouth, toward my life-goal of the epitaph “David Vermouth-seed” (such is ambition).

Martini IS Culture!

The Two- (or Three-!) Martini Lunch. Ad men and secret agents. Nick and Nora, nightclubs, movie stars, presidents and prime ministers. There is something evocative about the Martini, even while the evocations are hard to describe.

There’s a distinct aesthetic experience with a Martini that stands alone among cocktails, offering elegance and transport:

I am prepared to believe that a dry Martini slightly impairs the palate, but think what it does for the soul.

—Alec Waugh

The Martini: the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet. 

—H. L. Mencken

When I have one Martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second, I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no holding me. 

—William Faulkner

A well-made Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature. 

—M. F. K. Fisher

You can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there. The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth and one of the shortest-lived.

—Bernard DeVoto

I’m not talking a cup of cheap gin splashed over an ice cube. I’m talking satin, fire and ice; Fred Astaire in a glass; surgical cleanliness, insight, comfort; redemption and absolution. I’m talking Martini. 

—Anonymous

A Martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.

—Somerset Maugham

There is, of course, also the well-known sense of surrender to pleasure and liberation that Martinis provide in abundance:

I should like to elbow aside the established pieties and raise my Martini glass in salute to the mortal arts of pleasure. 

—Bob Shacochis

One Martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.

—James Thurber

One Martini is just right. Two Martinis are too many. Three Martinis are never enough. 

—M. F. K. Fisher

Happiness is a dry Martini and a good woman … or a bad woman.

—George Burns

I like to have a Martini/Two at the very most/After three I’m under the table/After four I’m under my host. 

—Dorothy Parker

Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini. 

—Mae West

Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry Martini?

—Robert Benchley

Upon the first sip of one’s first Martini, one will say “I like Martinis.” Upon the last sip of one’s second Martini, the comment is “I loooove Martinis!”

           —David Guenette

The Martini’s place in American culture is deep, meaningful, and entertaining, as the following quotes show:

The three-Martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time? 

—Gerald R. Ford

A man must defend his home, his wife, his children, and his Martini. 

—Jackie Gleason

A raise is like a Martini: it elevates the spirit, but only temporarily. 

—Daniel Seligman

There is something about a Martini,/Ere the dining and dancing begin,/And to tell you the truth,/

It is not the vermouth—/I think that perhaps it’s the gin.

—Ogden Nash

I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry Martini.

—Paul Desmond

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”

—Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms.

The Martini, the elixir of quietude.

           —E. B. White

The History of the Martini

According to Wikipedia, and as good a description as any, “The Martini is a cocktail made with gin and vermouth and garnished with an olive or a lemon twist. Over the years, the Martini has become one of the best-known mixed alcoholic beverages.”

Wikipedia continues:

By 1922 the Martini reached its most recognizable form in which London dry gin and dry vermouth are combined at a ratio of 2:1, stirred in a mixing glass with ice cubes, with the optional addition of orange or aromatic bitters, then strained into a chilled cocktail glass. Over time the generally expected garnish became the drinker’s choice of a green olive or a twist of lemon peel.

A dry Martini is made with dry [or] white vermouth. By the Roaring Twenties, it became a common drink order. Over the course of the 20th century, the amount of vermouth steadily dropped. During the 1930s the ratio was 3:1 (gin to vermouth), and during the 1940s the ratio was 4:1. During the latter part of the 20th century, 6:1, 8:1, 12:1, 15:1 (the “Montgomery”, after British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s supposed penchant for attacking only when in possession of great numerical superiority), or even 50:1 or 100:1 Martinis became considered the norm.

A Dirty Martini contains a splash of olive brine or olive juice and is typically garnished with an olive.

A Perfect Martini uses equal amounts of sweet and dry vermouth.

Some Martinis were prepared by filling a cocktail glass with gin, then rubbing a finger of vermouth along the rim. There are those who advocated the elimination of vermouth altogether. According to Noël Coward, “A perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy,” [Italy being a major producer of vermouth; Winston Churchill, a Martini lover, asked that the vermouth addition be in the form of a nod toward to Continent.]

[…]

The traditional Martini comes in a number of variations. The fictional spy James Bond sometimes asked for his vodka Martinis to be “shaken, not stirred”, following Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), which prescribes shaking for all its Martini recipes [Craddock is a patron saint of the Cocktail Revival, but even saints can sin sometimes]. The proper name for a shaken Martini is a Bradford…

[…]

The exact origin of the Martini is unclear. A popular theory suggests it evolved from a cocktail called the Martinez served sometime in the early 1860s at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, which people frequented before taking an evening ferry to the nearby town of Martinez, California. Alternatively, the people of Martinez say a bartender in their town created the drink, or maybe the drink was named after the town. Indeed, a “Martinez Cocktail” was first described in Jerry Thomas’ 1887 edition of his Bartender’s Guide, How to Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks:

    • Take 1 dash of Boker’s bitters
    • 2 dashes of Maraschino
    • 1 pony [1 oz.] of Old Tom gin
    • 1 wine-glass [2 oz.] of [sweet/Italian] vermouth
    • 2 small lumps of ice

Shake up thoroughly, and strain into a large cocktail glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If the guest prefers it very sweet, add two dashes of gum syrup.

The Number Ten Bar Book contains a recipe for Martinez, but this recipe is more to contemporary tastes, with the quality liquor put forward, and overall drier, as follows:

Martinez

    • 2 oz. Old Tom Gin
    • ¾ oz. sweet vermouth
    • 2 dashes Maraschino liqueur
    • 1 dash Angostura Bitters

Mix ingredients in shaker, add ice, stir, and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish: lemon twist. Note: Substitute Ruby or LBV Port for the sweet vermouth, serve on the rocks, to make a Ruby Martinez.

A photograph of Martinez cocktail, from Liquor.com, a recipe thought of as an early Martini or close forerunner: Gin (often Old Tom), sweet vermouth, and orange bitters.

What is usually misunderstood about the origin of the Dry Martini is that ordering such originally meant the drinker was asking that the bartender substitute dry vermouth for the sweet vermouth; only much later did Dry Martini come to mean the use of only a modest amount of dry vermouth, or in the case of some drinkers’ preferences, the Extra Dry Martini, by which is meant a whisper only or none whatsoever of dry vermouth.

Wikipedia, again:

The first dry Martini is sometimes linked to the name of a bartender who concocted the drink at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City in 1911 or 1912. The “Marguerite Cocktail,” first described in 1904, could be considered an early form of the dry Martini, because it was a 2:1 mix of Plymouth Gin and dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters.

The Number Ten Martini is close to the above-cited Marguerite Cocktail, but uses a 3-to-1 Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin/ Quady Vya Extra-dry Vermouth ratio, orange bitters, and a lemon twist.

One theory about the rise of the Martini was that during Prohibition in the United States, the relative ease of illegal gin manufacture led to the Martini’s rise as the locally predominant cocktail, and vermouth or other ingredient helped gentle the often-poor quality of the Gin, and often the additional ingredients were sweet. With the repeal of Prohibition, and the ready availability of quality Gin, the drink became progressively drier.

Which Gin is In?

When it comes to a Martini, the choice of Gin is crucial, and we sampled three types of Gin in recipes that otherwise are identical.  Quality, of course, is a prerequisite, as there’s little to recommend a Martini made with lousy Gin, and fortunately, there are very many good and great Gins long available.  But Gins come in types, too, including London Dry, Plymouth, and Old Tom, Genever, and American or New Wave Gin.

London Dry Gin

Examples of London Dry Gin include such well-known products as Beefeater, Tanquery, and Bombay, but is also most any Gin you’ll find in bars and on the shelves of your local liquor store.  Either compounded or distilled gin can be labelled as Dry Gin or London Dry Gin, and as the name suggests, this Gin is dry in flavor profile and does not contain any sweetening agents. London Dry Gin is characterized by its juniper flavor/nose, although many other vegetal material (botanicals) can be used, including, besides the required juniper, citrus elements such as lemon and bitter orange peel, as well as a combination of other spices such as anise, angelica root and seed, orris root, licorice root, cinnamon, almond, cubeb, savory, lime peel, grapefruit peel, dragon eye (longan fruit, a relative of lychee), saffron, baobab, frankincense, coriander, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cassia bark or others. The different combinations and concentrations of these botanicals in the distillation process cause the variations in taste among gin products. London Dry Gin proof is usually in the mid-80s to mid-90s range.

Hayman’s Old Tom, Plymouth Gin, and London Dry (e.g., Beefeater) were tasted in otherwise identical Martinis.

Plymouth Gin

The Plymouth Original Strength brand of Gin is 41.2% ABV (83 proof). It is different and slightly less dry than the much more common London Dry Gin, due to a higher proportion of root ingredients, which bring a more “earthy” feel to the Gin as well as a softened juniper flavor.

Plymouth Gin used to be Protected Geographical Indication that pertained to any gin distilled in Plymouth, England, but this stopped being true in February 2015. Today, there is only one brand, Plymouth, which is produced by the Black Friars Distillery. The Black Friars Distillery is the only remaining gin distillery in Plymouth, in operation since 1793, when the distilling business of Fox & Williamson began the distilling of the Plymouth brand; the business became Coates & Co., which it remained until March 2004, although in 1996, the brand was sold by Allied-Lyons to a management group headed by Charles Rolls who reinvigorated the brand, and after turning the company around, the Swedish company V&S Group, who also makes Absolut Vodka bought the company, and the brand is now owned and distributed by the French company Pernod Ricard as a result of its purchase of V&S in 2008.

Essential knowledge, no doubt.  And, oh yes, there is a Navy Strength version of Plymouth Gin, at 114 proof.

Old Tom, or Tom Gin

Old Tom Gin (or Tom Gin) is a Gin recipe popular in 18th-century England. In modern times, it became rare but has experienced a resurgence in the “Craft Cocktail” movement. It is slightly sweeter than London Dry, but slightly drier than the Dutch Genever, and is sometimes called “the missing link”: not as malty and vegetative as Genever and not as spicy and arid as London Dry. Old Tom Gin is a sweeter, less-botanical version of most Gins found on the market today. Some distilleries age Old Tom Gins in barrels. Proof is typically in the low 80s, like many London Dry Gins.

The name Old Tom Gin purportedly came from wooden plaques shaped like a black cat (an “Old Tom”) mounted on the outside wall of some pubs above a public walkway in 18th-century England. Owing to the Gin Craze, the British government tried to stem the flow of Gin with prohibitive taxes and licensing, which drove the scene underground. Under the cat’s paw sign was a slot to put money in. There was also a tube, from which would come a shot of Gin, poured by the bartender inside the (barricaded) pub.

Genever

Genever is the original Gin in England after the introduction of the jenever, a Dutch and Belgian liquor which originally had been a medicine. Although this development had been taking place since early 17th century, Gin became widespread after the William of Orange-led 1688 Glorious Revolution and subsequent import restrictions on French brandy.

The flavor characteristics of Genever are informed by juniper, but nearly all Genever combines neutral grain spirit and “malt wine,” which  makes for a heavier flavoring spirit that may be distilled from a mash of malted barley and any other grains, although corn, wheat, and rye are also common. The taste is more complex and vegetative, but varies from lighter to heavier, depending on the other botanicals and whether or not the Genever is aged in barrels.

American Gin

American Gin, also called New Wave Gin, puts less emphasis on juniper and more emphasis on other aromatics like floral botanicals, citrus, or, as is the case with Hendrick’s, cucumber. There are no legal classifications for the crop of modern craft Gin distillers, but the stylistic similarities are enough to group them together. There are more and more large-scale producers of this style, such as New Amsterdam, a mid-priced Gin; the difference between modestly priced American Gins and better craft Gins tend to be that of artificial flavors versus natural ingredients. Aviation Gin is a current darling of this class of Gin.

Flavored Gin

Another non-defined Gin category, and something of a catch-all, Flovored Gin has a taste that reflects non-botanical flavor sources, such as fruit. One of the most common examples is Sloe Gin (made from sloe berries, also known as blackthorn berries), which tastes like a juniper-laced berry liqueur and is typically made at lower proof.

Other Gin Categories

There is always room for complicating a subject, and Gin Types is as good as any category for argument. I’ll mention Navy Proof or Navy Strength, which is a high alcohol Gin, either London Dry or Plymouth, and at least 57% ABV (114 proof). And then there are Gins made from a base mash of grapes (and typically from France), which are London Dry style, but with more present flower flavor notes. And there are barrel-aged Gins, although I’m happy to keep these within appropriate categories, and mostly barrel aging has been applied to Old Tom style Gins, but with micro-distilleries increasingly looking at Gin, I’d bet that more styles of Gin will see barrel aging.

The Tasting

For the tasting, we looked at the flavor differences in Martini based on two main factors:

  1. the style of Gin used
  2. The vermouth used

We sampled three Martinis that use the same ratio of Gin-to-Quady Vya Extra dry vermouth, along with orange bitters and a lemon twist, which is the ratio/bitters/garnish set for the Number Ten House Martini (which uses Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin); the difference was only the type of Gin used. After these, there were two samples that used Beefeater London Dry and the same ratio of dry vermouth, but with two different dry vermouths.

Number Ten Martini, Bombay Sapphire

Bombay Sapphire is a London Dry Gin that uses a large set of botanicals and in heavier ways than many other London Dry Gins, and this give Bombay Sapphire more “perfume”  (Going any heavier on the botanicals is, for me, too much, and I get confused about whether I should drink the stuff or dab some behind my ears.)

We tried this and we liked this.  A good thing, too, since this first sample is, in effect, our house Martini. Phew.

Number Ten Martini, Plymouth Gin

I love Plymouth Gin, and I was sure that this Gin would perform well in a Martini, but the flavor difference with London Dry Gin would be noticeable.  (I use Plymouth Gin is the Number Ten Negroni, where its reduced juniper offers less competition for the bitter and sweet of the Campari and Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth.)

Well, I was wrong, since most every participant felt that the Plymouth Gin-based Martini was, well, boring and some participants reported a bit of roughness compared to the Bombay Sapphire version tasted first.

Even I wasn’t so fond of the Plymouth Gin in a Martini.

Number Ten Martini, Hayman’s Old Tom Gin

Hayman’s makes a great Old Tom Gin and an excellent Sloe Gin, and this Old Tom makes a terrific Ramos Gin Fizz, but we were there to see how Old Tom works in a Martini, since Old Tom was the Gin of choice for the Martinez.

Surprise! The Old Tom Gin Martini was the big hit of the evening, with participants noting the bit of sweetness, but loving the flavor and the ease and gentleness of the Gin.  While some preferred the London Dry version, the enthusiasm for Old Tom was very clear.

Vermouth: How Important?

As far as I’m concerned, Quady Vya Extra Dry is the best dry vermouth, but then there are dry and white vermouths that I haven’t yet tried enough, including some of the dry or white vermouths from the producer of my favorite sweet vermouth, Carpano (Antica is one of their sweet vermouths).

We built identical Martinis using Beefeater Gin, with the single difference being the selection of vermouth, and with a 2-1 ratio, with no bitters, so that we could focus on the vermouths.  Each of the two vermouths are produced by Carpano: Carpano Dry and Carpano Blanco Vermouth.

Vermouth, What is It?

Although the origin of this name is not certain, it probably derives from “Wermuth” the German word for “absinthe” (Arthemisia absinthium), and, yes, wormwood is a main ingredient of the liqueur Absinthe. The old spellings of the name were Wermouth or Wermuth, and the style has its roots (groan) in Roman times.  The first Italian writer to mention this modern version was C. Villifranchi in his Tuscan Oenology (1773), but the popularity of sweet vermouth is due to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who is still credited—perhaps somewhat fabulously—as being the first person to replicate the ancient Roman recipe.

According to Vermouth regulation, it is an aromatized wine, or wine-based aperitif, defined as a drink obtained from one or more wines with the addition of alcohol (the fortification), aromatized using natural substances and/or preparations with the addition of aromatic herbs and/or spices and/or flavoring foodstuffs. The regulation also provides a definition as an “aromatized wine which has been prepared from wine (white wine in all cases), the characteristic taste of which is obtained by the use of appropriate derived substances, in particular of the Artemisia species, which must always be used; this drink may be sweetened only by means of caramelized sugar, sucrose, grape must, rectified concentrated grape must and concentrated grape must”. In order to be classed as a vermouth, it must be composed of at least 75% of wine, have a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 14.5% or more and a maximum alcoholic strength by volume of less than 22% and must contain Artemisias, which are its characterizing elements.

Carpano

In Turin in 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, following a period in which he studied to be a herbalist, came up with the formula which gave rise to the category of Vermouth, first as a combination of herbs and spices with muscatel mixed and macerated in Carpano’s wine shop. It happened that King Vittorio Amedeo III took an immediate liking to the drink.  By 1820, Carpano established a factory to produce the stuff.

While the vermouth Carpano is now best known for is Carpano Antica (the so-called original recipe), Carpano also makes other vermouths, including Punt e Mes (a bitter-heavy sweet vermouth) and Carpano Classico, their basic sweet vermouth. We explored Carpano’sdDry vermouths:

Carpano Dry

Carpano Dry has its origins in a traditional recipe enriched with the experience of Distillerie Branca through their choice and use of raw materials, their respect and regard for tradition through innovation and with the contribution of Luca Gardini, many times World Sommelier champion.

Carpano Blanco Vermouth

Carpano Bianco has a light yellow colour, a fresh and complex aroma and an easily identifiable winey note, in addition to citrussy and exotic fruit flavours. Fresh cocoa beans and almonds complete the bouquet of this delicious vermouth. An initially smooth and velvety palate is rounded off by a complex winey note with mineral tones. Persistent and delightful, this vermouth is perfect for any occasion.

You may know Carpano Antica, the sweet vermouth of cocktail hipsters, but the company makes other vermouths, include two we tried: Carpano Dry and Carpano Blanco. The company also produces Put e Mes, another great cocktail ingredient.

What we found was that Carpano’s regular dry vermouth was okay, but not anything special. The finding was different with Carpano Blanco Vermouth, which carried additional softness and less dry balance that was considered to be quite tasty by most participants, including me.

You don’t find Carpano Blanco in many bars, which is too bad.  But then, Americans seem rather stubbornly uninterested in vermouth, both as aperitif and cocktail ingredient, and I hope to develop enough interest in vermouth at Number Ten to allow me to carry and keep other choices.  Carpano Blanco would likely be my first new addition.

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