There’s something magical about the Martini. The classic V-shaped, stemmed cocktail glass is commonly referred to as the Martini glass; it seems to have been forgotten that a Martini can also be served as a highball on the rocks. And any cocktail poured into this elegant glassware is magically transformed into some variety of Martini, although purists would argue that most of those are imposters.
No matter. The Martini has become the epitome of cool, favored by secret agents and quaffed by the gallon in all manner of television shows and movies. But where did this delightful elixir come from? The exact origins of the Martini are lost somewhere in the mists of time, but one thing is certain. There’s been a drink resembling the modern version hanging around almost as long as cocktails themselves.
It started with the Martinez
Like almost all cocktail stories, the tale of the Martini starts with “No one really knows for sure, but…” In this case, but the modern Martini probably descends from a drink called the Martinez. The recipe first appeared in print in Jerry Thomas’ classic The Bartenders Guide in 1887. The original recipe called for one pony of a sweetened gin called Old Tom Gin, one wineglass of Italian vermouth, 2 dashes maraschino liqueur, and 1 dash Bokers Bitters. The Martinez definitely was not a dry Martini!
In 1888. the name Martini first appeared when it was mentioned in the New and Improved Illustrated Bartending Manual. In 1896, a similar drink was listed in Stewart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them. Stewart called his drink a Marquerite, and his recipe calls for “1 dash orange bitters, 2/3 Plymouth Gin, and 1/3 French Vermouth.” Noticeably dryer than the Martinez, but this is still a pretty sweet cocktail by modern standards.
According to MartiniArt.com, by 1911 things were really coming together. At that time, the head bartender at the famed Knickerbocker Hotel in New York was a gentleman named Martini di Arma di Taggia. He mixed one part London Gin with one part Nolly Prat Vermouth, added a dash of orange bitters, chilled it on ice and strained it into a chilled glass. Although no one knew it at the time, a cultural icon was born.
The Traditional Martini
When the Martini was first introduced, it would have been far down the list of favorite cocktails for most Americans. Gin was far from the favorite spirit in the U.S. No, that honor went hands down to whiskey, especially the so-called ‘native’ whiskeys like rye and bourbon.
And then came Prohibition.
American taste in cocktails had to adjust, and fast. Our beloved whiskeys and their need for barrel aging had become impractical to distill. Gin, on the other hand, doesn’t require aging, making it much more readily available. Speakeasies flocked to it in droves, and the Martini soared in popularity. That Martini didn’t bear much resemblance to today’s dry Martini, or to hundreds of cocktails that have been dubbed “-tinis” of some sort. The Martini in the 1920s was made with equal parts of gin and dry vermouth. There was also a Sweet Martini, using sweet vermouth instead of dry, and of course, the Perfect Martini, which uses equal parts of sweet and dry vermouth.
The Modern Martini
Over the years, vermouth became much less important in the Martini. By the 1950’s, the accepted ratio was four or five parts gin to one part vermouth, and the Martini only continued to get dryer. The vermouth has now dwindled to the point that today, a 6:1 or 8:1 ratio seems to be the norm. The “in and out” is also popular – the vermouth is poured into a cocktail glass and swirled around, then the excess poured out, before adding the chilled gin. The Vodkatini, or Vodka Martini, substitutes vodka for gin, and is one of the most popular versions of the Martini today.