The Dry Martini was the most popular cocktail of the 20th century. So much so that it became literally iconic. As evidenced by the martini glass becoming the universally recognized symbol for “cocktails”.
Yet in some ways it remains an enigma. Incredibly simple to make and devastatingly potent. It spawned a huge number of variants sharing its name. Many of which had nothing else in common with it.
Some of these “martinis” are philosophically related to the Dry Martini. So closely related that I have decided to give them their own taste profile. However, the rules for inclusion in this taste profile are far less clear cut than for many others. There is quite a lot of overlap, as well as potential for confusion. More about that later.
Unlike many another classic cocktail, no-one knows for sure who created the Dry Martini or exactly when. The reason for this is simple. Like other classics such as the Manhattan and Martinez, the Dry Martini wasn’t created one day in a flash of inspiration. Instead it gradually evolved over time. The result of incremental changes from what came before. Not quite the same mechanism as for biological evolution, but a similar process nevertheless.
This evolutionary chain begins in the early 19th century with the Whiskey Cocktail and its use of Whiskey and Bitters. Then in the mid to late 19th century vermouth and European liqueurs such as Maraschino were added to the mix. The result was the development of the Manhattan, while the Whiskey Cocktail became Old Fashioned.
Then in the decades surrounding the turn of the century, Gin was introduced into the equation. Initially, attempts were made to simply replace the whiskey in a Manhattan with gin and then compensate with small adjustments. The finest example of this process was the Martinez. This kept the sweet vermouth and Maraschino often used in the Sweet Manhattan, while switching out the whiskey for gin and the Angostura for orange bitters.
However, while sweet vermouth tends to work best for whiskey, for gin dry vermouth is superior. This was slowly recognized over time, and is reflected in changing recipes. Sweet vermouth was exchanged for dry, and its proportion compared to gin steadily dropped. While bitters and other liqueurs were gradually omitted altogether. And the end result was something new…the Dry Martini.
Source of Inspiration
However, while the Dry Martini may represent a pinnacle of cocktail evolution, it is not a dead end. Far from it. Instead, it became the starting point for new generations of bartenders to experiment.
At its heart the Dry Martini is two things: first, it is an Alcoholic Powerhouse, with all that entails; second, it is a method for taking a high quality gin and bringing the absolute best out of its flavour. So, to my mind this presents two distinct and legitimate avenues for experimentation on the base formula, whilst still being able to call the result a “martini variant”.
The first is maintaining the alcoholic potency of the Dry Martini while introducing new flavours. Good examples of this would be the Vesper Martini, Smoky Martini or Dirty Martini.
The other set of legitimate variants echo the Dry Martini’s philosophy by other means. So rather than using vermouth to tease out the subtle botanicals of a quality gin, they use other ingredients or methods. But to achieve a similar goal. Examples include the Aviation, Corpse Reviver #2 and the Breakfast Martini. These have widely varying ingredients and strengths, yet all remain true to the Dry Martini’s gin-enhancing philosophy.
So, by this logic, the inclusion of vermouth in a Martini variant is optional.
The Martini Problem
I like to think that I make a good argument for each of the cocktails I choose to include in this Taste Profile. But of course this is only my opinion and not a universal distinction. And this has been an issue heavily debated in the cocktail world.
On one extreme, you’ve got the purists who consider a Martini to consist solely of gin and vermouth. To them not even a Vodka Martini counts as a proper Martini. And I sympathize with this opinion – no matter what James Bond (or actually Ian Fleming) has to say on the matter.
On the other extreme are those who believe that anything with the word “Martini” in its name counts as a Martini variant. After all, it can only be called a [whatever] Martini if it is served in a Martini glass (or equivalent, these days).
This is a layman’s mistake, though a perfectly excusable one. Nevertheless, the result is only ever confusion and resentment. Either for the purist who orders a [whatever] Martini and is given something weak, sweet and full of fruit juice. Or for the young lady who is used to French Martinis and expects a Dry Martini to be similar.
Having worked at a Martini Bar I have experienced both these issues. On the same night. Both groups get upset, complain, and think you’re being unreasonable or are outright stupid when you to try to explain. It can get very frustrating.
My solution to this Martini problem was to create a subdivision of cocktails I named Neo-Martinis. These are the alcoholically less potent cocktails which are still referred to as “[whatever] Martini”. Good examples would be the French Martini, the Porn Star Martini or the Espresso Martini.
Plenty of these are excellent drinks and classics to boot. But claiming that they are variants on the Dry Martini is going too far. Like claiming that the culture of modern day California is just a variant on English culture. True, there is a historical link between the two. But it is tenuous at best.
This was the clearest cut system I could come up with for solving the Martini problem. But it is not a perfect solution. There is still plenty of potential for both overlap and confusion. And it should be remembered that the Taste Profiles on my Axes of Taste are not mutually exclusive. A single cocktail can belong to two or even three Taste Profiles due to overlap between them. That overlap is especially evident here.