The plunk of a heavy bar glass on dark wood and the rattle of ice are the first auditory indicators that something special is going on behind the bar. Gin, vermouth, and a few other ingredients splash around the ice, stirred by a silver spoon, just long enough for the ingredients to become well acquainted but not diluted. The bartender strains the cocktail into a small glass with a tall stem and, with a flourishing garnish, presents a martini.
This enduring American classic has maintained a timeless popularity and a hotly debated origin. The story of the bartender in Martinez, California, who made the drink for a successful gold miner, celebrates the workingman and the American Dream. Supposedly the miner took the recipe with him to San Francisco, where it became a favorite. Others say the drink originated in a more urban setting, perhaps San Francisco or New York City. Esteemed bartender and author Harry Johnson published the first martini recipe in his 1888 book, New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual. He mixed cocktails in what he called a “plain and straight forward manner” in both California and New York, providing little clarity on the martini’s origin other than American.
Just as America was established by an influx of people and cultures from all over the world, so too has America’s favorite cocktail been built from foreign ingredients. Holland is often cited as the birthplace of gin, while the other primary ingredient of a martini, vermouth, was originally produced in Italy. These two ingredients met in America, where the martini made its first print appearance in Harry’s manual. His martini cocktail recipe is similar to the vermouth cocktail found in the 1882 edition of the manual. The addition of gin, a juniper berry-flavored spirit, to the vermouth cocktail brought the martini cocktail to bartenders across America, who looked to Harry for standardized cocktail recipes and bartender etiquette. His original martini cocktail recipe dictated that the drink be served stirred, strained, and with a twist:
57. Martini Cocktail
by Harry Johnson
(Use a large bar glass)
Fill the glass up with ice
2 or 3 dashes of Gum Syrup
2 or 3 dashes of Bitters (Boker’s Genuine only)
1 dash of Curaçoa
1/2 wine glassful of Old Tom Gin
1/2 wine glassful of Vermouth
Stir well with a spoon, strain it into a fancy cocktail glass, squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top, and serve.
Though this original rendition of the drink is a classic, the wide varieties of gin and vermouth, as well as decades of creative bartenders, have led to many interpretations of the martini. There are subtle ways to play with the flavors and create a unique or inventive cocktail.
Motor Supply Bistro’s head barman, Josh Streetman, warns against conjuring up a mental image of a brightly colored, syrupy concoction in a tall glass. The appeal of the word martini and the fancy glass have led many astray in their understanding of the drink. To correct this loose interpretation, Josh explains, “A martini should be small, booze-forward, ice cold, and made with gin or vodka.” His description defines a more floral and aromatic cocktail than a sugary or pink drink.
For the inexperienced but curious drinker, the terminology surrounding martinis can be daunting enough to impede ordering one, especially in a culture that is still learning to embrace craft and booze-forward cocktails. Shaken or stirred, dry or wet, olives or a twist, gin or vodka –– these components that determine the martini’s character have developed over the past century. Each variation has come from a mix of cocktail trends and tradition. The instruction to stir martinis rather than shake them is an effort to avoid diluting the drink by vigorously blending the more delicate ingredients with ice. A dry martini refers to the amount and type of vermouth used in the cocktail. The decision between gin and vodka is often dictated by a customer’s preference for or against the botanical flavor of gin. Vodka provides a less complex flavor that can make room for other ingredients to be more forward.
Those unfamiliar with the martini cocktail’s history might assume that the first step in the evolution of the martini was from gin to vodka. However, according to Josh, the divergence from this original formula was not altered by another spirit, but rather the addition of olive brine. The dirty martini, a concoction that departs both in ingredients and in preparation, brings a little science back behind the bar. For a classic martini, Harry instructed bartenders to stir the ingredients. Because olive brine and gin or vodka have different viscosities, the dirty martini must be shaken to emulsify the ingredients and present a cohesive cocktail.
The dirty martini opened the door to variations of the original while maintaining the parameters of small, booze-forward, and cold. From this point, martinis branch off into variations, like the Alaska, which features sherry and semi-sweet vermouth, or a Martinez with maraschino liqueur, and many more unnamed combinations.
Within the martini cocktail guidelines, a world of possibilities emerges for a creative cocktail craftsman like Josh. Spirits and garnishes from different parts of the country and the world can have important qualities that change the feel and flavor of a drink. As a runner-up in the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail competition, a festival held in New Orleans, Josh’s nuanced interpretation of martinis is widely recognized. He competed this past summer, and his competition martini cocktail, “Waiting for Spring,” featured a specific gin from Colorado and a seasonal South Carolina strawberry garnish, perfect for savoring once the glass is empty.
Waiting for Spring
by Josh Streetman, Motor Supply Bistro
2 ounces Woody Creek Gin
3⁄4 ounce Dolin Dry Vermouth
1⁄2 ounce Dolin Génépy des Alpes
1 slice ripe strawberry
Combine liquid ingredients and stir over ice. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Thinly slice strawberry for garnish.
Now that shorter and cooler days are changing the seasonally available ingredients, flavors showing up in martini glasses are changing as well. Josh says that winter fruits like pears and citrus fruits replace berries and melons. Robust herbal flavors, such as rosemary, thyme, and even teas, that transform food this time of year can be featured in cocktails as well.
Josh added a few ingredients to his award-winning martini but maintained the integrity of Harry’s original cocktail. It does not take an award-winning bartender to experiment with a classic though. Josh encourages customers to figure out what flavors and feels they enjoy. “You can be your own bartender,” he says. “Learn what is appealing and try it with new garnishes or a different style of gin, but always remember the original.”
For a departure from the gin and vermouth martini, Grill Marks has a couple of options on the menu, including the Cucumber Cilantro Martini and the Blue Skies Cocktail. The folks behind the bar at Grill Marks have started making liquor infusions that can be used in any of its cocktails, but are particularly interesting in martinis. They put ingredients like seasonal fruit in with various liquors and let them soak for three days before straining and adding them to cocktails. These hand-crafted infusions bring together local produce with well-know, widely distributed spirits.
At Ruth’s Chris Steak House, restaurant and bar manager Ryan Abbot says that the French Quarter Spritz is one of its most successful martinis. “It’s a delicate balance of sweet, sour, herbaceous, bitter, and bubbly,” he shares. “It’s very refreshing in the spring through fall, especially.”
For a liquid dessert, the Patron XO Espresso Martini is an often requested favorite. This cocktail features Patron XO Cafe, which is Patron silver tequila with a custom blend of coffee liqueur added, and takes the cocktail to new heights of balance, texture, and sweetness. “It doesn’t pack that tequila ‘punch,’ and it combines with Stolichnaya Vanil and Godiva Dark Chocolate liqueur to form a harmonious coffeehouse delight,” Ryan says. “You don’t have to love coffee to love this cocktail!”
French Quarter Spritz
by Ryan Abbot, Ruth’s Chris Steak House
1 ounce Lemon Sour
1/2 ounce Aperol
1 1/2 ounces Hendrick’s Gin
2 ounces Chloe Prosecco
In a mixing glass, add Lemon Sour, Aperol, and Hendrick’s Gin. Add ice, then shake and pour into coupe glass. Add prosecco and garnish with lemon twist.
Patron XO Espresso Martini
by Ryan Abbot, Ruth’s Chris Steak House
1 ounce cream or half and half
1 3/4 ounces Stolichnaya Vanil Vodka
1/2 ounce Patron XO Café
1/4 ounce Bailey’s Irish Cream
4 espresso beans
Combine half and half, Stolichnaya Vanil Vodka, Patron XO, and Bailey’s Irish Cream in mixing glass. Add ice, and shake with a Boston shaker. Strain into a martini glass. Crush espresso beans inside a napkin, and garnish the glass with crushed espresso beans and the lemon twist.
Columbia’s bartenders also can put the city’s unique stamp on the classic American cocktail by adding familiar flavors and local twists. When it comes to martini ingredients, Columbia has more to offer than seasonal garnishes. Copper Horse Distillery is a micro-craft distiller producing unique spirits only minutes from downtown Columbia, and its herbal Bulle Rock Gin, aged in a whiskey barrel, can be found in martinis across the Midlands. If this local gin fails to suit, substitute Old Mill Vodka to loop in another local favorite, which stands out from other distillers by using local grains milled by Adluh Flour and forgoing the charcoal filter so that the vodka maintains a distinctive aroma and grain notes. By bringing in local garnishes and spirits, South Carolina bartenders can make the classic martini their own, changing the perspective of Columbia visitors and natives alike. The new perspective on local martinis seems to be catching on.
At Tombo Grille in Forest Acres, bar manager and co-owner Gini Mason says the drinks are almost contagious. “Once one person hears the rattle of the shaker and sees the tall martini glass, other people in the restaurant start to pay attention,” she explains. According to Gini, Tombo Grille is a close-knit group of regular customers and staff, so the customers trust her when she pushes them to try something new from the bar.
Josh explains that the increase in craft cocktail demand mirrors the more conscious customer that can be seen across industries. “Currently customers are very interested in local, sustainable products. We feel that in our kitchen, but also at the bar,” Josh says. Just as bartenders can be a vehicle for introducing customers to new drinks, customer interests encourage restaurants to expand their offerings and keep this vintage American cocktail alive.