The Basics History & Trends

6 Things You Should Know About the Martini

It may be the most famous cocktail, but there are still misconceptions.

A swooping martini glass sits on a silver platter. Only the bright yellow lemon peel draped over the lip of the glass gives the otherwise crystalline and silver image any color
Tim Nusog

For a cocktail with such beautiful, aesthetic clarity, the Martini—that perfect mix of gin (well, traditionally) and vermouth—has a history that’s ironically opaque. “There’s no definite story as to the Martini’s origins. A very frustrating fact, I know, but that’s the way it is,” says drinks writer Robert Simonson, whose most recent book, “The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World’s Greatest Drink, with Recipes,” takes a deep dive into that iconic cocktail. “It’s likely the cocktail came to be in several places at once, as soon as bartenders figured out that gin and vermouth went nicely together.”

Yet, even today, one can’t take that two-ingredient recipe as a sure thing. Historically, there are myriad riffs and versions that layer multiple ingredients under that lovely singsong name. What is central to the Martini manifesto? These are six things we do know.

1. It Started Sweet, Not Dry

Dive into any old cocktail book printed in the 19th century, and you won’t find the one-two pop of gin and vermouth but sweeter-sounding ingredients instead. In the 1891 tome “Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender,” the ingredients for a Martini are listed as such: ice, 4 drops of Angostura bitters, 1/2 jigger of Old Tom gin, 1/2 jigger of Italian (sweet) vermouth; a twist of lemon, stirred and strained. While it’s fairly different from today’s Martini, it sounds a lot like the Martinez.

2. The Martinez Is a Very Close Elder Cousin

Or is it really the Manhattan’s light-haired sister? Pick your camp, but certainly the Martinez is a close relation of the Martini. Similar to the ingredients listed above, the Martinez also includes maraschino liqueur.

3. You Can Garnish to Graze or Glorify

A twist? An onion? An olive? An olive stuffed with blue cheese? While there’s an abundance of opinions on which garnish is greatest, modern Martinis are truly player’s choice.

“In those early recipes, you would find a cherry as a garnish as often as a twist or olive. The cherry faded away by about 1900 as the drink got drier,” says Simonson. “Since then, it has been a battle between the olive and lemon twist, with the olive usually winning with most folks. I think that has as much to do with the way the drink looks with an olive in it as much as anything. That Martini-with-an-olive profile is an iconic one. People like the look of it. Lemon twists, I find, are for epicures, people who really appreciate the flavors in the gin.”

4. Gin Is In

Yes, vodka remains a popular spirit—and if that’s how you like your Martini, then please drink it whichever way gives you the most pleasure. But gin is the cocktail’s ancestral spirit, and with such an abundance of high-quality, exciting, delicious gins on the market, there’s no better time than now to indulge in and investigate that botanical booze.

5. It’s Stirred, Not Shaken. Really.

As with garnish or choice of spirit, you can do whatever you like making a Martini, but shaking takes the drink’s clarity and obscures it with tiny shards of ice. The drink should be clear; it’s part of its charm. Also, the ice shards continue to water down your Martini, which, if mixed correctly, should already be at the right dilution and temperature once it’s strained from a mixing glass. When mixing yours, add ice to your mixing glass, pour in your desired proportions of gin and dry vermouth, and stir for a solid 20 to 30 seconds.

“I always suggest 30 seconds. A Martini is a strong drink. You’re going to want that dilution,” says Simonson. “And worry not, it will still pack a punch even after all that stirring.”

6. Perfect Is About Proportions

What’s the perfect Martini? Well, that’s a bit of a personal decision made between you and your bartender, but a true Perfect Martini is an official drink made of equal parts gin and vermouth, with the vermouth proportion an even split between both sweet and dry and with a dash of orange bitters for good measure.