This is my last column for Half Full. Over the past five-and-a-half years, I’ve been lucky enough to write a great number of them here, on any topic I found interesting. Anything from the crucial role African American bartenders played in the development of the American way of mixing drinks; to the history of America’s oldest whiskey brand, Old Overholt; to the difference between Aristotelian bartending and Platonic bartending; to the epic, or at least epically long, story of New Orleans’ oldest bar (in four parts, no less); and a whole lot of other things besides.
Histories of cocktails, biographies of famous bartenders, appreciations of classic bars, all kinds of stuff. But panta rhei, as Heraclitus said—“all things flow”—and that hasn’t changed an iota in the 2,500-odd years since he said it. All we can do is try to stay afloat in that mighty river and hope to wash up somewhere interesting, at least for a time. Half Full was somewhere interesting. I’m looking forward to the next shoal.
I’m going to try to go out as helpfully as I can. I’m not going to unroll a lengthy investigation into the origins of rum or attempt to figure out who invented the Bloody Mary. This isn’t the time for such stuff, and besides, at this point in our national dysfunction the idea of writing such things fills me with as much fatigue as the thought of reading it must instill in you. So let me do something simple. Let me show you how to make the best Dry Martini you’ll ever have.
Yeah, I know. But hear me out anyway.
There are two ways a Dry Martini can be great: it can be sharp and incisive, an icy liquid blade that slices through the tough tentacles of worry and duty and aggravation that drag down the spirit and prevent it from soaring. Or it can be what Ogden Nash called “a yellow, mellow Martini,” where it’s a soft and elegant and comforting drink; even a sweetly (but not sweet) nostalgic one. Cutting the poetry, that means a Martini where the gin takes a firm lead, and one where the vermouth is more than an “also appearing.”
Both versions can be exceptionally good. The ginny one, however, can easily topple into tasting like rocket fuel, while the vermouthy one can sag into ditchwater. The very best Martinis stand in between: like cat’s paws, they’re soft and smooth yet with a wickedly sharp edge. But that takes careful balancing and people get most anxious about the details of that.
After more than 40 years of drinking Dry Martinis and at least 30 of mixing them with embarrassing frequency I’ve come to believe that it’s actually quite simple: if your Martini after stirring and straining ends up being over 32 percent alcohol, it’s gonna taste like jet fuel. Now, you may want—need—jet fuel, but that’s a medicinal judgment, not a culinary one. On the other hand, if it’s under 28 percent, you’ve got ditchwater. There are times when ditchwater is the only thing you think you can handle, just as there are times when you just wanna put your head down on the desk and wait for someone to bring you milk and cookies. We strive for a fuller life than that.
By the way: how do you calculate the alcohol-percentage of your Martini? The formula is simple: (gu x gp) + (vu x vp) ÷ (tu x 1.25) where gu = number of units of gin in the drink, gp = gin proof in percent ABV (they have to put that on the label), vu = number of units of vermouth in the drink, vp = vermouth proof in percent ABV and tu = total units in the drink. The final figure includes 25 percent dilution from stirring with ice. Easy. (If you prefer the so-called “Direct Martini,” where you skip the ice and dilution and just put the thing in the freezer—and God help you if you do—just drop the x 1.25). Thus a 3-ounce Martini with 2.25 ounces (3 parts) Tanqueray Gin (47.4 percent ABV) and .75 ounce Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth (18 percent ABV) will, after stirring with ice, proof out at 32 percent alcohol, rounding off the tiny numbers.
I guess I should have said you can skip that last paragraph. You can skip that last paragraph.
Anyway, that 32 percent Martini is right on the upper border of the sweet spot; where the cat’s paw lies. There’s a little leeway here, to be sure: with a clean, neutral gin you can creep up to 33 percent or even a fraction higher before you need to post No Smoking signs, while with a very junipery gin you can sink to about 26 percent before the algae start to bloom. But in general, the safe range is 28 percent to 32 percent.
How you reach that safe range is a matter of weighing gin proof against proportion. There’s a whole lot of religion attached to that process, but (as I probably say far too often) there are in fact many paths through the woods. Historically, the popular proportions where vermouth plays a part in the drink have been 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, 5-1 (it’s difficult to make a standard 3-ounce Martini to a 4-1 proportion with American, non-metric jiggers, so you rarely see those). For gin-vermouth ratios beyond 5-1, such as the “in and out” Martini (where the vermouth is used only to coat the ice cubes in the mixing glass) and Hemingway’s 15-1 “Montgomery” Martini, the vermouth has at most a negligible effect on the drink’s proof (if you’re using, say, Tanqueray, the teaspoon of vermouth in a Montgomery will roll the proof back by a mere one-and-a-half percent). Lord knows I’ve drunk my fair share of Montgomerys and much more than that of all-gin Martinis (the “see through” Martini of 1950s fame), but they’re pure jet fuel and thus, as the academics say, beyond the scope of this article.
With a gin that’s on the weaker side (40 or 41 percent), you’re going to have to resort to pretty stiff proportions if you want to see the cat’s claws. A gin in the 41 percent range, such as Plymouth, Hayman’s London Dock or Sipsmith, will need to be mixed at 3-1 (28.3 percent) or 5-1 (29.9 percent) to hit the sweet spot (you can even go full-on Montgomery without entirely escaping it, if that’s your kink). However, once you’re at the 5-1 range, the vermouth is rapidly losing its cushioning effect. That effect isn’t just a factor of proof; otherwise we’d be using white port in our Martinis. The interplay between the gin’s bright, pine-and-citrus notes and the vermouth’s upland-meadow notes is what makes the drink a Martini; a unified whole, rather than an anthology of parts.
With a stronger gin—44 percent (the old British standard for budget gin) or 47 percent (the old British standard for premium gin)—you can use more vermouth and still keep the edge sharp. With a heavy, determinedly old-fashioned gin like Tanqueray, you can even make a 1-1 Martini, with equal parts gin and vermouth, come out just fine (26.1 percent).
Indeed, that’s how it was most commonly made in its youth, before World War I; those folks weren’t so dumb. At 1-1, the Martini can be the most elegant of comfort drinks, as New York’s pioneering and lamented Pegu Club proved over and over every night with its Tanqueray-driven 1-1 “Fitty Fitty,” and if not for the Pandemic would still be doing so.
At 2-1 (30 percent), the way Martinis were commonly made from the 1910s through World War II, and 3-1 (32 percent), there’s still enough vermouth in there to do what vermouth does, but the claws are in plain sight, if relaxed. As long as your gin is a classic London dry style—junipery and crisp, not muddy with excess botanicals—and your vermouth French and old-school (Noilly Prat; Dolin dry), this is within micrometer range of perfection, particularly if you tip in a couple dashes of good orange bitters (such as the Bitter Truth’s or the 50-50 mix of Fee’s and Regans’ favored by many modern bartenders) and twist a thin-cut swatch of lemon peel over the top.
But in these matters, I’m a perfectionist and I’m perfectly willing to cheat to get there.
There exists such a thing as “Navy Strength Gin.” This was introduced by Plymouth Gin back in 2001, formalizing the distillery’s practice at sometimes bottling their gin at full British proof (which translates to 114 American proof, or 57 percent ABV) for presentation to various naval vessels based in the nearby base.
The name is pure marketing: the Royal Navy never officially purchased gin for its sailors, even if many officers used their allotted mess money to stock their wardrooms with it, and the one spirit the Navy did purchase, rum, was issued at 54.5 percent ABV, not 57 percent. But even if it’s lousy history, a good “Navy strength” gin such as Plymouth or Hayman’s Royal Dock can make for a splendid Martini as long as you don’t skimp on the vermouth. Mixed at 1-1, a gin that is not 47 percent but 57 percent makes for a drink that still slides into home at a round 30 percent alcohol, which floats it right over the middle of the sweet spot.
And if you cheat just a little bit more and bump the gin up and the vermouth down a quarter-ounce each, not forgetting the traditional dashes of orange bitters and final squeeze of lemon peel, that Martini will assay out at 32.6 percent ABV, which is just over the border into fuel country, or would be if you didn’t still have a full ounce-and-a-quarter of vermouth in there to cushion the drink’s landing.
This is the best of all possible Martinis, as Leibniz would say if he were a bartender and not an old German philosopher. If he were, it should be pointed out, he wouldn’t have been broke all the time, not if he was serving these.
The Best of All Possible Dry Martinis
- 1.75 oz Hayman’s Royal Dock or Plymouth Navy Strength gin
- 1.25 oz Noilly Prat or Dolin Dry vermouth
- 2 dashes The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
- Garnish: Twist of thin-cut lemon peel
- Glass: Cocktail
Add all of the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist the lemon peel over the top.