Martinis! (Updated)

A discussion at one of the blogs I follow wound up in discussions of martinis, so I thought I’d do a post on them, as a sorbet to cleanse the palate after all the theologizing!

Ideally, I go for the original James Bond martini, called the Vesper, as described in the Bond novel Casino Royale:

“Bond insisted on ordering Leither’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.’

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, 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?’

‘Certainly, monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleasant with the idea.

‘Gosh that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.

Bond laughed. ‘When I’m … er … concentrating.’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.’

He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.

‘Excellent,’ he said to the barman, ‘but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.’

That’s the ideal, but easier said than made.  One cannot reproduce the drink exactly as specified, since Gordon’s gin has been reformulated at a lower proof than was typical then, and Kina Lillet (so-called because it used to contain quinine) has been reformulated as being much less bitter.  Some commentary on the details from here:

Since both Kina Lillet and Gordon’s have been reformulated since 1953, substitutes can be made that attempt to recapture the original flavour of the drink:

  • Lillet Blanc is the closest possible choice for Kina Lillet– the “Kina” was dropped due to market relevance, as European tastes have run more to sweeter drinks than digestifs.
  • Cocchi Americano is considered an acceptable substitute.
  • For a more traditional flavour, use 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka to bring the alcohol content of the vodka back to 1953 levels. To reproduce the desirable “grain vodka” flavor mentioned by Bond in the book, 100-proof Smirnoff, a grain-based vodka, may be used.
  • Tanqueray gin provides the traditional flavour of 94-proof gin; whereas Gordon’s Gin has been reformulated to less than 80-proof.
  • A modern cocktail glass, which is larger today than was common in 1953, is often substituted for the deep Champagne goblet (see Champagne stemware for the original look of the drink)


  • Some prefer to substitute Boodles British Gin, as it is named for Boodle’s gentlemen’s club, of which Ian Fleming was a member.
  • A “Green Vesper” substitutes absinthe for the Kina Lillet. Lime peel may be substituted for lemon.
  • A “Matin” substitutes the Italian aperitif Campari for the Kina Lillet, and reverses the proportions of gin and vodka.

Esquire printed the following update of the recipe in 2006:

“Shake (if you must) with plenty of cracked ice. 3 oz Tanqueray gin, 1 oz 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka, 1/2 oz Lillet Blanc, 1/8 teaspoon (or less) quinine powder or, in desperation, 2 dashes of bitters. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist a large swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.”

As can be seen, some modern formulations use quinine powder (available from health food stores) or bitters to help recreate the original Lillet.  I intend to get some quinine, eventually–meanwhile, it’s easier for me to use Angostura Bitters.

Of course, any good quality, brand name gin, especially the higher proofs, is not cheap.  Lillet runs over $30 a bottle, and that’s two or three years ago when I last bought it.  Brand name vodkas are exorbitant, too.  Finally, it’s hard to justify the money to buy vodka along with the gin when it makes a small contribution to the whole.  Thus, I tend to go with fairly conventional gin martinis made with locally produced (or “off brand”, if you want to be snobby) gin, except for special occasions.

I use about eight parts of gin to one to one and a half parts of vermouth (or, to put it another way, four parts gin to one half to three fourths part vermouth).  This is much “wetter” than current trend.  My sister, for example, pours a little vermouth over the ice, pours it back out, and then puts in the gin.  Some people use an atomizer to spray a puff of vermouth over the ice.  I’m a traditionalist on this–if there isn’t enough vermouth to do any more than give a faint scent or to actually affect the taste, it’s not a martini–just iced gin.   Which is fine if that’s your thing–just don’t call it a martini!

Sometimes I’ll add two or three dashes of Angostura Bitters and two or three dashes of lemon juice.  This brings the drink a little closer to a Bond martini–Lillet has a subtle, slightly fruity, citrusy backtaste, and the bitters emulate the quinine.  No one would confuse a regular gin martini with the added lemon juice and bitters for a Vesper (the name Bond gave to his martini, after his current girlfriend), but it does make it a little more interesting and complex.

Dirty martinis are popular these days, but I shun them like the plague.  I sometimes put olives in my martinis, and sometimes don’t (it’s too much bother for me to do the lemon twist garnish that Bond used).  I also love olives–green, black, whatever–as food.  I could eat a whole jar, left to my own devices.  I will never, however, pollute my martinis with olive brine!  Yuck!

Finally, the shaking process aerates the drink and melts a little more of the ice, making the martini distinctively different from one with the exact same ingredients that is stirred.  Sometimes when my shaker is dirty and I don’t have time (or inclination) to clean it, I do stir my martinis.  If you do it vigorously enough, it’s not bad; but I still much prefer shaken.

Hope this has been an entertaining digression, and if anyone tries any of these recipes, let me know how it went!

ADDENDUM:  It occurs to me that I neglected to discuss the issue of temperature.  Traditionally, white liquors–vodka and gin especially, and often tequila and occasionally rum–are stored in freezers so that they are literally ice cold.  Everyone agrees that a martini must be as cold as possible.  While I don’t want to encourage people to drink their liquor too fast, I can say that drinking a martini too slowly is a bad idea, too.  There is nothing more barbarous and horrible tasting than a martini that has been allowed to grow warm or even cool (as opposed to ice cold).  Trust me on this!

However, I depart from martini orthodoxy in the technique for achieving this.  Many aficionados keep all the liquid ingredients–gin, vodka (in the versions that require it), and vermouth in the freezer, ice cold.  Since the alcohol lowers the freezing point of the liquid, there is no danger of freezing and bursting bottles.  The problem is, that if the liquids are already at or below 32° F (or 0° C for us scientific types), depending on how cold your freezer is set, they are at the same temperature as the ice, and shaking (or stirring) them with ice won’t affect their temperature.

This is actually a problem.  Most people don’t understand how ice cools a beverage.  It doesn’t just cool the beverage (or soak up its heat, which is thermodynamically more accurate).  If that were true, one could manufacture metal or other solid cubes, cool them, and drop them into drinks, and have the bonus of being able to re-use them.  Actually, the main way in which ice performs its function is by melting.  The same tendency that waters our drinks down if it goes on too long is the very thing that cools them.  The ice melts as it absorbs heat from the drink and becomes water at just above the freezing point. This water mixes with the drink, diluting it and dropping its temperature.  Too much such melting and the drink is watered down; not enough, and it’s not pleasantly cold.

The point is that if the liquor and the ice of a martini are already at the same temperature, there will be no net heat flow between them.  There will be some heat introduced from the kinetic energy of shaking (or stirring), so there will be some melting; but it will be minimal.  This affects the flavor.  After all, if ice were  used primarily to cool cocktails, it would be easier and less wasteful of water just to chill all the ingredients and mix them without ice at all.  The water into which the ice melts is actually part of the recipe for most cocktails.  The water not only cools the drink but dilutes it.  Thus, the alcohol content is cut, making the drinks slightly less potent, and taking the edge off the alcohol burn. In short, the dilution makes the potion more drinkable.

I have made martinis with all ingredients ice cold, and there is a marked difference in taste.  Such martinis are harsher and stronger.  In my mind, one has to pay a price in taste for getting everything cold.

Therefore, I make a point not to have everything ice cold.  If you use enough ice to fill the shaker (or pitcher) completely, leaving just enough room for the liquid, and if you shake (or stir) vigorously enough, you’ll get the martini plenty cold enough while also getting enough dilution to make the taste smooth and the potency just short of skull-hammering.

Generally, this is my procedure:  I keep the vermouth in the refrigerator, so it’s cold but not ice cold.  I keep the gin at room temperature.  When I do stock vodka, I keep it in the freezer.  In Bond or quasi-Bond martinis, the vodka is only about a third of the liquid, so this reduces the temperature without interfering unduly with the dilution by the water into which the ice melts.  I keep lemon juice in the refrigerator (though I often don’t use it, and then only in tiny amounts) and bitters at room temperature.  I find that doing it this way strikes the best balance between coldness of the drink and proper dilution.

For Manhattans, it’s not really much of an issue.  Brown liquor is rarely stored at anything below room temperature, and extreme coldness of the drink is less important to the taste than in the case of a martini.  A warm Manhattan would be a bit cloying, but not awful, as would a warm martini.

OK, I think that really is all, this time!

Posted on 02/08/2012, in cocktails, food and drink and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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