Let’s get this out of the way: No matter how you order your Martini, you may get a strikingly different cocktail at two different bars. The drink is heavily based on personal preference, technique, and the skill of the person making it—that’s going to be the case whether you ask for it “bone-dry” or “filthy.”
“The best part of Martinis is how customizable they are,” says Samantha Casuga, head bartender at Temple Bar in New York City.
To understand what makes the combination of spirit and dry vermouth so versatile, it’s helpful to think about the Martini’s history. Although its exact origins are murky, the traditionally gin-based cocktail originated as a much sweeter drink in the late 1800s, when sweet Italian vermouth was used. By the turn of the century, dry vermouth had replaced sweet, and by 1905, a “Dry Martini” may have included equal parts gin and dry vermouth.
Over the years, the Martini called for less and less vermouth. As cocktail historian David Wondrich writes in The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, Martini aficionados could expect a ratio of at least 5:1 gin-to-vermouth by 1954. Fast-forward to the ’60s, and vodka’s rise in popularity made it the preferred spirit for the cocktail. Then there are the fruity and espresso-laden ’Tinis of the ’90s that aren’t really Martinis but served to muddle the terminology even further.
The craft cocktail revival of the early 2000s saw many bartenders returning the Martini to more traditional ratios like 2:1 spirit-to-vermouth, and adding a dash or two of orange bitters, as would have been done in the early 20th century. However, ask modern bartenders how much of each ingredient should go into the mixing glass, and you’re still likely to receive wildly different answers. And that’s before you even get into the questions of gin or vodka, olive or twist, and so on.
In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all Martini, which is why the drink’s dedicated fans have developed highly specific orders tailored to individual preferences. Here are common questions that arise, and tips to help you find your perfect Martini.
How to Pick Gin or Vodka for a Martini
“Gin or vodka?” may be the most common Martini question. To be clear, there’s no wrong answer. Gin makes the most classic version of a Martini, but your choice ultimately comes down to personal preference. A Gin Martini will feature more prominent botanical notes, while you may find that a Vodka Martini has a cleaner, more neutral profile.
When ordering a Gin Martini, Jessi Pollak, the bar manager at Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis, recommends a London Dry (popular examples include Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay Sapphire), which offers more classical gin juniper notes.
“New American gins can be delicious, but they often have bold botanical components like lavender or rose petal that can throw off the balance of a classic Martini,” says Pollak. Her favorite choices for Gin Martinis include Tanqueray London Dry, Ford’s Gin, and Hayman’s London Dry.
Adam Pomajzl, the head bartender at Swift & Sons Steakhouse in Chicago, also prefers a London Dry for a classic Martini. He points to Sipsmith as a great option that pairs well with the cocktail’s dry vermouth. “They’re kind of like Lego pieces, they fit really nicely together,” says Pomajzl.
However, he notes that New American gins such as Colorado’s Woody Creek may be more approachable for newcomers. “[They’re] much more floral and not as sharp,” says Pomajzl. He also likes Roku Japanese Gin for its “wonderfully clean” profile and softness. “It’s not gin in capital letters,” he adds.
Picking a vodka is “a little trickier,” acknowledges Pollak. “I like Ketel One and Absolut for Martinis and other cocktails where you want something crisp, neutral, and high-quality,” she says. “It’s also fun to try something made locally. Ask your bartender if they have anything local.”
Casuga asserts that it all comes down to quality. “Both of these spirits, to me, should drink ‘clean,’ especially vodka, and what I mean by that is [it has] a smooth finish that doesn’t taste like rubbing alcohol,” she says. “I prefer the more neutral styles of vodka, and a classic London Dry-style gin.”
How to Pick The Right Amount of Vermouth in a Martini
Dry vermouth is a fortified wine that adds gentle aromatics to a Martini. “It’s a very subtle thing but it goes a long way,” says Pomajzl.
The amount of vermouth used can vary widely. When ordering a Gin Martini, you can typically expect a spirit-to-vermouth ratio that ranges anywhere from a classic 2:1 (as at Spoon & Stable, Swift & Sons, and Temple Bar) to 5:1 (as it’s made at Bernie’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York). However, the house recipe at some establishments, particularly older bars or steakhouses, may lean even drier.
At Bemelmans Bar in New York City, which makes more than 1,000 Martinis a night, the ratio is 7:1, according to bar manager Dimitrios Michalopoulos. The legendary Musso & Frank Grill in Los Angeles takes it a step further. There, a standard Martini order will get you a dry gin or vodka cocktail without a touch of vermouth, says general manager and wine director Andrea Scuto.
Vodka Martinis and Dirty Martinis may also omit the vermouth, as at Spoon & Stable. “Generally, we have found that the folks ordering those styles of drinks prefer no or little vermouth,” says Pollak.
If you’re not sure what you prefer, Pollak recommends that newcomers start with a 50/50 Martini, which contains equal parts spirit and dry vermouth, or a Dirty Martini if you enjoy olives. “The saltiness of the brine softens the burn of the alcohol, so it feels less spirit-forward and a little more entry-level,” she says.
Should a Martini be Stirred or Shaken? It’s Not That Simple
As a rule of thumb, cocktails with only spirits and liqueurs, like the Martini or Manhattan, are stirred rather than shaken, for several reasons. These drinks don’t include ingredients that require aeration, like fruit juices or egg whites. Stirring also dilutes the cocktail less than shaking, and in a more controlled way, which “maintains the rich texture of the spirit,” says Pollak.
However, stirred Martinis aren’t gospel. Shaking ultimately produces a colder cocktail more quickly, which you may find to be the most important factor if your base spirit has a neutral profile.
“We shake our vodka because it doesn’t really have too much of a flavor profile—sorry, I had to say it—and I think the colder the vodka, the better it tastes,” says Rachel Napoleon, a manager at Bernie’s.
Dirty Martinis often go in the shaker, too, as at Swift & Sons. Pomajzl explains that making a colder cocktail helps to tamp down the taste of alcohol. “It’s putting the ‘dirt’ [in the Dirty Martini] first,” he says.
“It really is a texture thing,” says Casuga. “I prefer my Martinis stirred, but someone who wants a more diluted, lighter in texture Martini should opt for shaken.”
How to Pick Your Martini Garnish
Most bars or restaurants will ask which garnish you’d prefer: a lemon twist or an olive. Like the spirit, it’s a decision that comes down to personal preference.
“Gin with lemon is just a great combination,” says Pomajzl.
There’s also no shame in asking for both. Both Casuga and Pollak opt for an olive and a lemon twist when they’re drinking Martinis. “The twist adds a lovely bright aroma over the cocktail and livens it up, while an olive adds a touch of salinity and it’s a satisfying little treat to enjoy as you sip your Martini,” says Pollak.
Decoding Common Martini Styles
With so much variation to the drink, a veritable dictionary of shorthand has emerged to help answer the age-old Martini question, “How would you like it?” Here are some of the most common Martini terms—though bear in mind that exact specifications will vary from establishment to establishment.
This style, which is what many Martinis looked like in the early 1900s, is made in equal parts. It consists of 50% spirit mixed with 50% dry vermouth.
This order will generally get you a Martini with no vermouth.
In its most classic form, a Dirty Martini adds olive brine to the standard Martini recipe. Some places, such as Bemelmans and Musso & Frank’s, will split the dry vermouth and olive brine, substituting a portion of the vermouth with an equal amount of brine. Other bars, including Spoon & Stable and Temple Bar, replace the vermouth entirely with brine. Dirty Martinis are often (but not always) made with vodka as the primary spirit, and shaken.
A Dry Martini contains less dry vermouth than a standard Martini. Ratios can vary wildly, but you can generally expect your bartender to decrease the amount of vermouth and sometimes increase the spirit, resulting in a ratio of anywhere from 5:1 to 8:1 spirit-to-vermouth.
Extra-dirty (or filthy)
This Martini style simply has more olive brine than a Dirty Martini, often in a ratio that surpasses a classic Martini’s specifications for the amount of dry vermouth. You can expect anywhere from an ounce to a half-ounce of brine. Temple Bar takes it a step further, with a house recipe that calls for equal parts spirit and brine.
An Extra-dry Martini will have an even smaller proportion of dry vermouth than a Dry Martini. At most places, you can expect your bartender to only rinse the glass with vermouth, or swirl a small amount of dry vermouth to coat the interior of the glass before tossing out any excess.
A Gibson is simply a Martini garnished with a cocktail onion, rather than an olive or lemon twist. It will likely be made according to the same specs as a standard Martini, so if you’d like further tweaks, make sure to specify according to your preferred Martini ratios and style.
On the rocks
It’s not a sin to order your Martini on the rocks, or served over fresh ice. This style may be ideal if you prefer a version of the drink that will last longer, since it maintains its cold temperature and dilutes over time, allowing the flavors to evolve. Be sure to specify this order, as Martinis are generally served up by default, and most bartenders won’t ask.
A Perfect Martini is generally made in a 2:1 spirit-to-vermouth ratio. However, the vermouth is further split into equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. The resulting drink is sweeter and more aromatic than a standard Martini. Pomajzl says the sweet vermouth gives the drink more body and notes of spice.
A Reverse Martini flips the usual specs and typically contains two parts vermouth to one part gin or vodka. It’s a good option if you’re a fan of vermouths or are experimenting with artisanal vermouths whose flavors you’d like to give more prominence. It can also be a fantastic order for a less boozy drink, as in a lunch Martini.
This term can vary, and is best to avoid in the context of Martinis. Some bartenders may take it to mean no vermouth, while others may interpret it as another way of saying “up.” If you’d like your Martini with no vermouth, you’re better off simply asking for no vermouth.
“Up” means that the drink has been strained into a cocktail glass without ice. Martinis are almost always served up, so you generally don’t need to specify this in your order.
A Wet Martini is heavier on the dry vermouth, meaning your bartender may bump the vermouth up by half an ounce or more. However, at places where Dry Martinis are the default, the specs for a Wet Martini may be the same as those of a standard Martini at other bars. At Spoon & Stable, the house Wet Martini employs Old Tom gin and blanc vermouth to produce a richer and slightly sweeter drink.
With a twist
Ordering your Martini with a twist will ensure that you receive a lemon peel as garnish, and indicates to the bartender that they should skip the olive.