How to Build a Better Vodka Martini

Jon Howard, with 21 Martini variations between his two drink menus at The Continental and The Vesper Club in Nashville, offers tips and advice.

A Martini variation made with vodka, dry vermouth, Suze, Italicus, and lemon oil at The Vesper Club in Nashville
A Martini variation made with vodka, dry vermouth, Suze, Italicus, and lemon oil at The Vesper Club in Nashville Image:

John Troxell

There was never a world in which bar director Jon Howard wouldn’t serve Martinis at The Continental, chef Sean Brock’s ode to throwback hotel dining at the Grand Hyatt Nashville. But what started as a list of four Martinis has since grown to 16, plus an additional five at The Vesper Club, a bar-within-a-bar, where Howard and his team pair Martinis and caviar. “I wanted to achieve the full scope of what that drink can be,” says Howard, who also leads the bar programs at Brock’s Audrey and June

Drinks like the Gibson, Martinez, Diplomat, Caprice, Ford, and Tuxedo represent gin-based classics from the Martini family tree, but Howard’s menus also give vodka—a spirit either loved or maligned, depending on the Martini drinker—its due. And his approach is instructive to realizing vodka’s potential in the most classic of cocktail forms (and one that’s currently undergoing a revival). 

“Vodka is a misunderstood spirit,” says Howard. “So many people think of it as flavorless and odorless, but I think of it as clean. Vodka Martinis allow you to take that clean freshness and not throw tons of sugar and herbs and fruit on it. You can let that spirit sing in a beautiful way.”

Choosing a Vodka

Howard thinks of vodka Martinis in three categories: punchy, soft, and floral. Though their differences are subtle, he selects a vodka type to help him achieve that character. For a punchy Martini, he starts with a rye-based vodka like Wodka that’s lean and dry with a hint of spice. Potato-based Chopin has a lush, soft mouthfeel and hint of earth, and vodkas like Ketel One and Grey Goose owe their silky texture, minerality, and sweetness to a wheat base. Vodkas like Ciroc are distilled from grapes and often have citrus and herbal notes. 

Vermouth, the Power Player

Without the botanicals of gin, vermouth is responsible for a great deal, if not all, of a vodka Martini’s complexity, and Howard stocks at least a dozen vermouths and fortified wines, from classic Dolin blanc to the new-school California-produced Lo-Fi, on his back bar. For a potent and punchy Martini, Howard uses two and a half ounces of vodka to a half-ounce of vermouth, and adds an extra half-ounce of vermouth for a more floral build. Vermouths like the velvety, fruity, and slightly sweet Carpano bianco soften and round a Martini’s texture. Likewise, Lustau blanco, a Spanish sherry-based vermouth, has a bitter, nutty, briny quality that energizes softer vodkas. 

Howard also uses Lustau blanco to amplify the olive character of his high-tech Dirty Martini. He builds and batch-freezes the drink made with Grey Goose vodka, vermouth, Castelvetrano distillate (made by distilling olives and ethyl alcohol in a rotary evaporator), 20 percent salt solution, and water for dilution. Poured to order and topped with a few drops of olive oil, the silky, crystal-clear Dirty Martini has a pure olive flavor supported by the right vermouth and a delicate vodka. 

Vodka as Flavor Extender

Vodka can also work to lengthen the flavor of potent vermouths and other modifiers. In the case of a 50/50 Martini, says Howard, vodka “stretches out vermouth’s botanicals” across a greater volume of liquid, letting the flavors shine while boosting its ABV. “Vodka allows you to present vermouth in a more poignant way. It’s not just botanical-on-botanical.”

Vodkas plays in a similar manner with Benedictine, a herbal and aromatic cognac-based liqueur. “Benedictine is a big player in the world of classic Martini-style drinks,” says Howard. “If you look in the history books, it’s there.” 

Howard’s Gypsy Queen, whose original recipe appeared in a 1938 cocktail book from The Russian Tea Room in New York, combines Grey Goose, Benedictine, and Angostura bitters—again extending the liqueur’s flavor over three ounces of spirits and taming its sweetness without obscuring Benedictine’s character. 

Embracing the Esoteric

While The Continental’s Martini list is a grand tour of the classics, Howard gives guests a more esoteric experience at The Vesper Club, whose cocktail tasting menu consists of four vodka Martinis and one gin Martini, all nameless and listed only by their ingredients, and designed to be enjoyed alongside caviar. 

To pair with a citrusy osetra caviar from Israel, Howard mixes Chopin vodka with coriander-spiced, orange-oil-laced Lo-Fi dry vermouth, Italicus bergamot liqueur, and Suze. The drink, built on Martini bones, is herbal, bitter, and refreshing. “You get this awesome citrus from the caviar that turns to orange and then bergamot with the drink,” says Howard. “It’s this awesome palate journey.”

The most Vesper-like drink at The Vesper Club, according to Howard, combines Ketel One, Nashville-made Junmai sake from Proper Saké Co., Lillet, absinthe, a black locust flower vinegar, and a jumbo cocktail onion. “It’s a Vesper for all intents and purposes, just with sake in place of vermouth,” he says.

Dilute to Add Complexity

Howard is also tinkering with the Martini’s third essential ingredient: water. A Martini’s ideal rate of dilution ranges from 20 and 30 percent, achieved while stirring with ice or adding water directly into the mix and freezing the drink. But with the advent of zero-proof spirits, Howard developed a batched and frozen martini with Ciroc vodka, Dolin dry vermouth, and 25 percent addition of Seedlip Spice 94 in place of water. Seedlip lowers the drink’s ABV while adding depth, rendering a definitely-vodka-but-kind-of-gin Martini that’s “silky, complex, and decadent,” says Howard, who finishes the cocktail with drops of smoked hickory oil.

When in Doubt, Mix 2:1 

For all his experimentation, Howard says there is a tried-and-true formula for making a vodka Martini, and from that base, drink-makers, whether home bartenders or professionals, can start to dabble in more advanced techniques and ingredients. “If you stick to a 2:1 ratio of vodka to dry vermouth, stirred, with a lemon twist, it’s always going to work,” he says.