Though cocktail purists may insist that gin is the only proper way to make a Martini, the Vodka Martini’s enduring popularity shows that not all agree. While gin will open added dimensions of aroma and flavor to create a more complex cocktail profile, using vodka as the base spirit will create a cleaner drink that allows the subtler notes of vermouth to more effortlessly come through.
There’s no definitive origin story to who first popularized swapping gin for vodka in a classic Martini—the list of claims is too long to be worth going into detail—but the practice grew in the mid-20th century as efforts increased to grow vodka’s acceptance in the U.S. market. The spirit was often described to unfamiliar consumers as “white whiskey” or “flavorless gin,” and found an audience in those seeking cocktails with lighter profiles.
Consequently, in the ensuing years, substituting vodka for gin in an array of formerly gin-based cocktails became mainstream. For the Martini, this practice perhaps reached its peak of visibility after Ian Fleming’s fictional spy James Bond first enjoyed a “medium dry vodka martini…shaken not stirred” in the 1962 film version of Dr. No. (Notably, in the original novel Casino Royale, Bond’s preferred specifications for what’s now known as a Vesper Martini called for both gin and vodka, with a heaver proportion of gin).
Regardless of its murky origins and rise to fame, the Vodka Martini is still a popular Martini variation that will work well for drinkers who seek a clean, straight-forward cocktail that doesn’t overwhelm the palate with overly complex flavors. Vodka can also provide something of a blank canvas for those seeking to experiment with the growing array of dry vermouth options on the market. Without the weight of gin’s often juniper-heavy notes dominating the cocktail, vermouth’s often more herbal and citrus-forward notes have room to stand and be better appreciated on their own.
Here's how to make a classic Vodka Martini.
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2 1/2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
Garnish: lemon twist or olive
Add the vodka, dry vermouth and orange bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until very well-chilled, about 20 to 30 seconds.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist, olive, or both.
Were Martinis Originally Gin or Vodka?
While the Martini originally called for a gin base—at the time of the cocktail’s invention, vodka was relatively unknown outside of Russia and parts of Eastern Europe—early recipes were a far stylistic cry from the version known today. Old Tom, a slightly sweetened type of gin, was the original Martini spirit of choice, which would create a drink the differs greatly from most contemporary, drier iterations.
In addition to gin, some early Martini recipes like the one found in Henry J. Wehmen's 1891 drinks manual Bartender’s Guide, call for ingredients like gum syrup and curaçao, now unheard of in modern variations. This goes to show that with cocktails like the Martini that have undergone such drastic stylistic changes over the years, sometimes it’s best not to get too hung up on traditional recipe specifications.
What’s the Best Vodka for a Martini?
While spirit choice always comes down to personal preference, because of its straightforward flavor profile, a high-quality vodka is particularly preferable in a Vodka Martini, as there’s little else ingredient-wise to mask off-flavors. It’s important to aim for something cleaner that doesn’t demonstrate overt alcoholic heat, as this can mute the subtler notes of the vermouth, which should take prominence.