The classic Martini is a simple cocktail. On paper, there’s not much to the perpetually stylish drink’s build: two parts gin, one part vermouth, stirred until cold, and served up, garnished with an olive or lemon twist. The earliest Martini recipes also called for a couple dashes of orange bitters, but that part of the equation was jettisoned for decades, only recently revived by knowing bartenders. The gin, vermouth, garnish, and temperature are the true mainstays.
Still, within such a supposedly simple template lies a deeper complexity. Various technique-driven decisions during the drink-making process can elevate the Martini from a decent drink at your neighborhood pub to a mind-blowing cocktail made by a master bartender. These techniques tend to be deliberate and nuanced, noticed only by the most astute fans. When used in tandem, they can create a transcendent cocktail.
“There’s not a single technique that makes a Martini great,” says bar legend Dale DeGroff. “It’s the coming together of a series of events.”
It’s important to focus on each technique separately in order to understand how they come together as a whole, and what allows experts to transform a simple drink with minimal parts into an art form.
While there are many aspects that go into creating a well-made Martini, dilution—that is, the addition of water to the drink to lower its potency—is the foundational element. It’s the guidepost that ultimately controls the drink’s build, as top bartenders will often take dilution into consideration when determining other techniques.
Proper dilution is what creates a balanced Martini. Too little dilution leaves the alcohol too aggressive and mutes the ingredients’ flavors. Too much dilution waters the drink down. A bartender dialed into the mechanics of this process will be in complete control of this balance.
Harnessing dilution demands precision and grace, which is why a great Martini should be stirred and not shaken.
“Stirring is the most elegant technique and it respects all the ingredients,” says Agostino Perrone, director of mixology at The Connaught Bar in London. “It brings down the temperature to the right level and creates the appropriate amount of dilution without excessively disrupting the overall liquid.”
This doesn’t just mean throwing a bunch of ice into a mixing glass and pushing the gin and vermouth around with a bar spoon for a bit. There’s a distinct science to the act.
“If you don’t stir a Martini enough, the flavors of the gin and vermouth will come across separately. You will get a sip that tastes like just gin or just vermouth,” says Takuma Watanabe, co-founder of Martiny’s in New York City’s Gramercy neighborhood. “If you stir too much, the flavors will be watery, and you will lose the flavor of what a Martini should taste like. To make a perfect Martini, you need to stop stirring before the ice melts too much.”
“Human body heat also has an effect. I’ll stir it less when the bar is filled up at midnight than I will earlier when it’s not as crowded. In a packed room, the temperature will rise. This will make the ice sweat and produce ‘wetter’ ice.”
—Javelle Taft, bar manager, Death & Co NYC
There’s no pre-set number of revolutions a savvy bartender makes with their spoon when stirring a Martini. Elements like ice size and gin strength can require adjustments to the stirring time needed to produce a Martini in its finest form. Achieving perfection can also require attention to details that are easily overlooked.
“How long I stir a Martini depends on a few factors,” says Watanabe. “These factors include the room temperature, humidity, the season, and the gin’s condition, which includes its temperature and smell.”
“Human body heat also has an effect,” says Javelle Taft, bar manager at Death & Co in New York City’s East Village. “I’ll stir it less when the bar is filled up at midnight than I will earlier when it’s not as crowded. In a packed room, the temperature will rise. This will make the ice sweat and produce ‘wetter’ ice.”
A bartender’s sensory elements also provide confirmation of their instincts. While this mainly involves straw-tasting the drink to ensure the accurate level of dilution, some veteran bartenders can rely on other sensations keenly developed over time.
“Because of my experience in my career, I’ve learned how to know the proper dilution in a Martini from the smell of the gin when I’m mixing,” says Watanabe.
Ice releases water as the bartender stirs the drink, creating the necessary dilution. It’s a basic principle with variable results, depending on the ice used. A larger cube will dilute slower because of its surface area. This extends the stir time and, more importantly, lengthens the window of time that a bartender can achieve the ideal amount of dilution in the drink before it becomes watered down.
Many Martini experts gravitate toward larger, clear cubes with minimal impurities. This gives them more command over the Martini’s quality, but it also enhances the experience beyond dilution.
“Stirring a Martini over high-quality, crystal-clear ice conveys a silky texture that truly elevates the cocktail,” says Perrone.
A Martini is a drink best served frigid. “The chill is the basis of the cocktail,” says DeGroff. “If you’re doing a classic Martini, it must be icy cold.”
“Ideally, I want the Martini to be as cold as Antarctica,” says Taft. “I want guests to feel the wind chill on their teeth.”
Ice naturally plays a key role in keeping a Martini’s temperature down. Yet exclusively relying on the ice to maintain this temperature can potentially do more harm than good.
“You will not get your Martini colder by stirring for a very long time. Once it hits its peak cold temperature, it will just continue to dilute.”
—Jacques Bezuidenhout, industry specialist, Liquid Productions
“You will not get your Martini colder by stirring for a very long time,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, a San Francisco Bay Area-based industry specialist with beverage agency Liquid Productions. “Once it hits its peak cold temperature, it will just continue to dilute.”
Care must also be taken to create a drink whose temperature won’t swing upward rapidly once poured. Adept bartenders will keep their Martini glassware in the freezer to lengthen the drink’s frostiness after it’s served. If they use a specific gin for their house Martini build, they may also store the bottle in the freezer. Others may also extend the chill by serving the Martini as a half-portion, placing the remaining cocktail in a sidecar glass filled with ice to stay cold, away from the warmth of a guest’s touch.
The right Martini glass isn’t just chilled. It’s properly sized to hold the ideal amount of liquid. While a classic Martini glass or a Nick and Nora delivers elegance, proper glassware is ultimately a matter of function triumphing over form.
“I like smaller Martini glasses between three ounces and six ounces,” says Bezuidenhout. “Style is really up to what you like, but you don’t want to be serving a 10-ounce Martini.”
“The steakhouses back in the ’80s and ’90s used to serve Martinis in 11-ounce glasses. This was a bad idea."
The reason a larger glass isn’t ideal comes down to science. The larger the glass, the greater the surface tension, which will warm the drink too quickly and wreck the cocktail’s integrity. As a side benefit, the smaller size also can also help to control a guest’s drinking speed and volume.
“The steakhouses back in the ’80s and ’90s used to serve Martinis in 11-ounce glasses,” says DeGroff. “This was a bad idea. A dozen [Nick and Nora] Martinis would fit in two and a half of those steakhouse glasses.”
A bar spoon is an essential tool, and choosing the right one to stir a Martini is often a personal choice. Discerning bartenders will usually find a favorite bar spoon based on feel, which can be further broken down into the way it fits in between their fingers and how its length jibes ergonomically with their body size and shape. Ultimately, the right match can help the bartender stir the drink as efficiently and smoothly as possible, which allows them to hit that sweet spot of dilution.
While the “right” bar spoon varies by person, there are a few elements that are more universal in nature.
“A good bar spoon must have a good weight and balance, so the weights of the two ends balance each other,” says Giorgio Bargiani, assistant director of mixology at The Connaught Bar. “A good bar spoon is also made of stainless steel, which makes it an excellent conductor. It gives it a significant influence in stirring, as it helps ice blend.”
Additionally, the mixing glass shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought. “The size and shape of the mixing glass and the type of ice that can be fit into it is important,” says Bezuidenhout. “I think the mixing glass you use is probably more important to the dilution of the cocktail.”
Even masters of the Martini art form can’t create an exceptional drink with subpar ingredients. Industry heavyweights all have their favorite gins, and each label carries a reputation for excellence—Ford’s, Sipsmith, Hendrick’s, and Hayman’s, to name a few. What gin ends up in their mixing glass can influence the Martini’s build, particularly depending on its alcohol by volume.
“If you use an overproof gin, you’ll need a little more dilution,” says Taft. “That way, the proof doesn’t cause the drink to get ‘hot’ or abrasive.”
And despite some popular preferences for Dry Martinis, vermouth shouldn’t be shied away from, but celebrated. As is the case with gin, choosing a quality vermouth label, such as Dolin or Noilly Prat, is essential.
“Use a decent vermouth, for God’s sake,” says DeGroff. “Economy brands are just not that good, so try and stay away. Besides, the selection of vermouth is so much better now than what it used to be. There are some great new vermouths from Spain and France hitting the market.”
A great Martini properly acknowledges a garnish’s place as a crucial cocktail ingredient.
“The garnish is functional, as it does affect the final result,” says Bargiani. “For example, the lemons we use need to be unwaxed to properly release the oils. For olives, we suggest using olives from brine and not from oil.”
These garnishes must also be treated with respect. Storing olives (or pickled onions for a Gibson Martini) in the refrigerator between drinks is key, as any left on a bar top throughout service will reach room temperature and contribute to a tepid cocktail. Even when stored properly, some bartenders may refrain from placing the garnish in the drink at all.
“I like to place the olive on the side,” says Watanabe. “That way, they can taste the flavor of the Martini alone and then enjoy it paired with the olive.”
A bartender may produce a Martini with the perfect dilution, chill, and garnish in a perfect glass, but it isn’t perfect if the customer doesn’t enjoy it. Service is what ties all these elements together, making guests feel the technique and craft that went into their drink.
For even the most seasoned professional, the most critical part of being a bartender is creating an experience that makes their guests feel happy and welcomed, regardless of how they prefer their Martini.
“Some people may scoff at, say, adding blue cheese olives into a Martini,” says Bezuidenhout. “But some people like that. And to me, the importance of a Martini—and any cocktail—is really how the person drinking it wants it to be.”