The Basics History & Trends

How Contemporary Bartenders Are Reinventing the Martini

They’re pushing the boundaries of the beloved classic.

The Japanese Delmonico Martini at The Lowback in London
The Japanese Delmonico Martini at The Lowback in London Image:

The Lowback

The modern Martini is everywhere at the moment, but it may be difficult to recognize with its 21st century facelift.

Cocktail bartenders have taken the hallmarks of the Martini cocktail—a clear base spirit plus an aromatized or fortified wine and bitters—and have elaborated on the simple formula, pushing the boundaries of the beloved classic farther than ever before. 

Today, Martinis are no longer just dry, dirty, perfect, or fifty-fifty and made with the usual ingredients (which is to say, gin or vodka, vermouth, and orange bitters). They’re now augmented with fashionable spirits like tequila and eaux de vie, as well as bespoke flavors such as cucumber, cacao, beetroot, and beyond by way of infusions, ferments, and other avant-garde techniques. And imbibers are here for it.

“There has definitely been a huge surge in interest in Martinis over the last couple of years,” says Liam Davy, the head of drinks at The Lowback, a newly opened London cocktail bar that features a list of modern Martinis, including the Douglas Fir Silver Bullet made with Hepple vodka, douglas fir, and dill oil. “It feels like a drink whose time has come—again—and that's down to a combination of factors, one of which being the craze for new gins. This has made people look beyond just the Gin & Tonic and explore the slightly more fashionable Martini.”

In addition to the craft-gin boom, which has given bartenders a lo-fi way to put twists on the classic Martini by simply swapping one gin for another, many cocktail enthusiasts have also, in recent years, begun to steer away from juice-laden drinks in favor of clean, minimalist serves—a style epitomized by the Martini.

“The beauty of Martinis is that they are, essentially, composed of two ingredients, vermouth and base spirit, both of which you can slightly augment with bitters, new techniques, and so on,” says Giulia Cuccurullo, the head bartender at Artesian in London. “With more people willing to drink cocktails that are clean and easy in flavor, the Martini offers a great format for creating interesting twists that meet consumer preferences.”

Countless Variations

At the newly opened bar from Team Lyan, Seed Library, the elegant Sansho Leaf Martini embraces this philosophy of clean and simple yet flavorful with a balance of “very cold” Belvedere Heritage vodka, Cocchi dry vermouth, and green sansho oil: a Vodka Martini that even a dedicated gin-drinker can get behind.

At Sweeties at The Standard, London, head bartender Jack Sotti created a Martini riff called, simply, “The Martini,” with the goal of making guests feel uplifted. “We kept it super-simple; we weren’t reinventing the wheel,” says Sotti. “We just wanted our guests to feel cleansed inside and out, like they have just visited the spa.” His team keeps its glasses and ice frozen at -15 degrees C (5 degrees F), and the drink sees Ketel One vodka combined with a whisper of dry vermouth and fino sherry, silver needle tea, and a dash of fresh cucumber cordial. 

Meanwhile, at Hawksmoor NYC, the bar stays true to the classic Martini formula for its “Ultimate” Martini range, with the innovative aspect coming from the technique used as opposed to flavor: The bar uses a technology it refers to as “ultrasonic aging,” employing a repurposed ultrasonic jewelry cleaner, to integrate the Martini’s flavors before chilling the drinks to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and serving them from thermoses that maintain the temperature. 

“When we put the Ultimate Martini on the Hawksmoor menu in 2019, the idea was to really try and deliver the best possible version of a Martini,” says Adam Montgomerie, the restaurant’s bar manager. “They’ve been hugely popular; in fact, keeping up with production is not easy.”

Beyond these subtle modern Martini twists that apply clever methods and ingredients to reinvent the classic, there are also the versions featuring less-common flavors, some of which are even nods to the bastardized “Martinis” of old, such as the much-maligned Appletini.

“When we put the Apple Martini on the Hawksmoor NYC menu, we wanted to take a drink that was viewed as pretty awful and do a delicious, modern version of it,” says Montgomerie. His rendition employs both apple and pear eaux de vie, with a touch of verjus, Lillet blanc, simple syrup, and a malic acid mixture. “It tastes like biting into a fresh, bright, green apple and is bright and refreshing.”

Defining the Boundaries

KOL Mezcaleria's unorthodox Cucumber and Pine Martini has piqued the interest of many drinkers, although it leaves some enthusiasts questioning whether it’s even a Martini at all, given how far it pushes the boundaries. “KOL’s Martini is super-delicious, made with tequila, cucumber, pine, and cacao,” says Sotti. “At first I was skeptical of it being labeled as a Martini, but it looks like a Martini and, more importantly, it felt like one going down, which I think are two important factors to consider.” 

This begs the question: How far is too far when it comes to reimagined Martinis? At what point does a Martini stop being a Martini?

With so many innovative reinvented riffs currently being seen, it could be argued that the drink is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis.

"From my perspective, Martinis must be spirit-forward, made with a neutral-ish base spirit, a wine (e.g. vermouth, sherry, wine, sake, etc.), bitters or tinctures, and, in some cases, a hint of sweetness [as is the case in the classic Tuxedo No. 2],” says Sotti. “A much more basic way of putting it: it must look like a Martini and feel like a Martini when you drink it.”

Artesian’s Cuccurullo is more in the camp of “less is more” when it comes to crafting Martinis, and Hawksmoor’s Montgomerie believes that a well-made classic is always better than a twist for twist’s sake.

Creating Your Own Martini Variation

For those looking to put their own twists on the Martini, the easiest way is to pick your favorite format and start with simple substitutions and additions. “Start with a classic template and make little adjustments,” says Montgomerie. “Half a teaspoon of pear eau de vie or smoky scotch are great ways to tweak a Martini. Don’t be afraid to get creative, but always keep in the back of your mind your end goal for the drink.”

With the overwhelming number of ingredients and flavors available to today’s bartenders, creating a contemplative or noteworthy Martini is all about focus, purpose, and understanding the classics.

“There are so many modifications you can make from the spirit, vermouth, bitters, and garnish, but less is more,” says Sotti. “Think about why you are choosing specific ingredients to go together, when will the guest be consuming it, and above all, is it better than a well-made classic dry gin Martini? If your answer is no, then go back to the drawing board.”