The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Food & Drink -

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.


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.


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.




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