f your waiter or bartender were to recommend a cocktail of gin or vodka mixed with fortified wine, most people would likely decline. But call it a martini and presto, images of celebrities and good times will likely leap to mind as quickly as the drink orders are placed – and re-placed.
The key to this century-old concoction, of course, is vermouth. No matter if it’s mixed with gin or vodka, added in generous portions or a few drops (aka dry), vermouth is what gives the classic martini its unique edge – and drinkability. After all, without it you’d just be drinking a hefty shooter from a funny glass.
Wherever you go, the Martini brand of vermouth can be found behind most bars and even homes (tip: vermouth should always be kept in a fridge). Made by Martini & Rossi since 1863, vermouth is basically fortified wine with botanicals. I grew up seeing the distinctive Martini logo on race cars such as Porsche, and lately they’ve been plastered on the Williams F1 cars. It helps that I also started making martinis at a young age.
WAYS AND MEANS
Some people will order a high-end vermouth with a lot of botanical flavour – without any gin or vodka. And of course, there’s the mousetrap rule: distillers of all sizes are always trying to make a better one. Modern, small-batch vermouth can be enjoyed straight (no ice), if very cold or on the rocks (with ice, which can be added to a martini, but tsk tsk).
I have a relationship with martinis that dates back decades. It was the drink my mother enjoyed most (vodka, dry, straight up with olives), and always made with Martini vermouth. When I began bartending to pay for university, it was the first and best drink I poured. Fortunately, I’d had years of practice mixing them for her at home!
My martinis always had a drop of single malt whisky in them (a burnt martini, if you want to order one), which I didn’t tell customers but my tip jar can attest they loved. If a twist of lemon was requested instead of olives, then a few slivers of the zest about three centimetres long were placed on top to float around gracefully.
All bartenders should know how to make a classic martini, without all the fruity concoctions we find mixed in them these days. The recipe is simple; yet getting it right is extraordinarily difficult. The basic premise is to mix three parts gin or vodka with one part vermouth (more or less, depending on the customer). This concoction can be shaken or stirred with ice.
In my world, all martinis should be at least three ounces – with about half an ounce of vermouth, served in a V-shaped goblet big enough so the drink does not spill over the edge. That is perfection in a glass, and uniquely refreshing as well as energising. Be sure to enjoy some salty or meaty snacks along with it.
MARCHING FOR MARTINIS – IN HONG KONG
Upon first arriving in Hong Kong 20 years ago, I was delighted to meet a group of Canadian journalists with a shared fondness for martinis and saving money. After work, we’d hit happy hour at Jimmy’s Kitchen on Wyndham Street in Central and get excellent $20 martinis and delicious free snacks before staggering home, or to the FCC up the hill, or perhaps to Lan Kwai Fong. A mere $100 spent there made for interesting nights ahead.
These days it’s difficult to get two cocktails in Central for $200. I recently returned to Jimmy’s Kitchen for happy hour and although the $20 price and free snacks are long gone it’s still a lovely, quiet place to enjoy a martini after work ($72 each, plus service charge). You can order pig knuckles and other food at the bar tables rather than the dining room.
I ordered a martini as my mother did and it was better than expected. I noticed the bartender adds the vodka and vermouth (3:1) to ice in a shaker, doesn’t shake it ( good!) and gives it a nice, long stir (very good!). Then it’s strained into an empty V-shaped martini glass, pre-cooled with ice and water, which is removed before pouring the drink in a circular pattern ( bravo!).
The vodka was Stolichnaya, the olives had pits, and both were quite ok with me. The vermouth was Martini brand. I travelled back in time, reminiscing about racing cars and being here in the 90s with new friends who are now long-time ones. This is what makes martinis special – drinking one is an experience, something to be shared as well as savoured.
Curious about what one of the world’s top 50 bars has to offer martini lovers, I ventured up the hill to check out Quinary on Hollywood Road ( bypassing sister bar Origin on upper Wyndham, only because it was full). The Quinary cocktail menu has two (sort of ) martinis. One so-called martini had espresso in it, and the other contained earl grey caviar and elderflower syrup. To be honest, I stopped reading the list of items and just banished the whole idea from my mind.
Of course, I went with a gin martini, which many martini aficionados insist is the “correct” alcohol to use. Like vermouth, gin is also infused with botanicals so there’s a lot more going on than with vodka, which is ultimately regarded for its lack of taste. The vermouth isn’t Martini brand, but rather the more modern La Quintinye Vermouth Royal. It’s very nice, and rather moreish.
Gin may not always be a good choice, however. Personally, I like Hendrick’s gin, but just not in a martini. Maybe there’s too much botanical action. Its flavours are better suited to tonic or even soda, or neat on the rocks. It’s generally the vermouth that makes a martini special.
I remembered hearing that Morton’s of Chicago steak house makes a decent martini and has free meaty snacks during happy hour, so I popped over to the Sheraton in Tsim Sha Tsui. I ordered a reasonably priced gin martini, and it was above average. My only disappointment was that all Morton’s worldwide recently scrapped the free happy hour food.
Whenever my mother visited Hong Kong, we’d always go to the Mandarin Oriental and visit the Captain’s Bar (“best martinis I’ve ever had,” she said). So that became the next stop on this Hong Kong martini tour. Like Jimmy’s Kitchen, there’s a darkness of ambiance and abundance of wood (and money) in the Captain’s Bar.
Here they still serve very good snacks, and an excellent martini. I ordered the one that my mother liked so much and confirmed she was, and still is, right about this place. The vermouth was Dolin, the vodka was Belvedere and the olives were pitted. Most of the bankers have staggered home by 9pm, and often there’s a decent band playing. There’s always a top selection of high-end gins and vodkas, at various prices. It’s hard to top this place, but there is one Hong Kong bar that sits above all others when it comes to a martini.
ONE SO-CALLED MARTINI HAD ESPRESSO IN IT, AND THE OTHER HAD EARL GREY CAVIAR AND ELDERFLOWER SYRUP