Half the fun of sipping on a cocktail is the aesthetic factor. Ordering something iconic like a gin martini communicates a certain level of know-how: It’s elegant but unfussy, civilized but not pretentious, boozy but not over-the-top; it’s the ideal beverage for someone who enjoys the concept of having a signature drink, especially because it requires having an opinion (olives versus a twist, dry versus wet, dirty, and so on). The gin martini also happens to be having a renaissance at the moment, with article headlines in recent months ranging from “How Martinis Came Roaring Back in 2022” to “Wellness Is Dead. Long Live the Martini.” But this is far from the cocktail’s first revival — it’s been around since the 19th century and has remained more or less in the zeitgeist ever since.
Most would argue that the gin martini found its beginnings in the 1800s. And it continues into 2022, making pitstops along the way in the hands of legendary figures ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Ian Flemming’s James Bond and in bars all around the world. Ahead, industry experts weigh in on the origins and evolution of this classy cocktail, with insights on everything you need to know before ordering (or whipping up) your next martini.
Before diving into the gin martini’s illustrious backstory, if you’re not familiar — a quick overview of how it’s served today: “A traditional gin martini is a cocktail composed of gin and dry vermouth; the ratios are to taste, but I prefer two-parts gin to one-part dry vermouth,” Scott Taylor, beverage director of Harris’ Restaurant in San Francisco tells TZR. “Stir to control the water dilution and strain with a garnish of lemon peel or a brined olive.” You can also add a couple dashes of orange bitters.
The answer to when the martini first made its grand debut is a bit murky. “There is no specific evidence to prove the exact date the martini was created,” Death & Co New York City Head Bartender Javelle Taft says. What is known is that it was created in the late 1800s and the original recipe was equal parts London dry gin, French dry vermouth, and two dashes of orange bitters, with the ratio of gin increasing gradually over the years, he explains to TZR. “One story claims the martini was invented in Martinez, California by a bartender making a celebratory drink for a gold miner after a big score. Another believes it to originate from a gold miner leaving San Francisco on the way to Martinez who needed a pick-me-up drink,” Taylor says. “The consistencies are that it circles around Martinez, California in the mid-to-late 1800s when it was published in the Bartender’s Manual.”
One significant marker in the martini’s timeline is the Martinez cocktail, which is widely regarded as the grandparent to the contemporary gin martini. “Sweet vermouth existed before dry did, and the Manhattan cocktail became popular using rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters,” Barr Hill Gin President and Head Distiller Ryan Christiansen says. "Bartenders continued experimenting with a gin variation on the Manhattan and created the Martinez cocktail. Soon after the Martinez became a commonplace cocktail, dry gin became incredibly more popular as palates started to shift to dryer and dryer cocktails. So, it was not before long that people started calling for cocktails made with dry vermouth instead of sweet.”
From here on, the martini began picking up speed. “In the 1920s during Prohibition, people made bathtub gin — it was terrible,” Lo-Fi Aperitifs Brand Ambassador Victoria Canty says. “Whiskey took time to age, so gin it was. Very vermouth-heavy martinis came into play to mask the flavor of the horrible gin they had made in their bathtubs.” Post-prohibition, Taylor notes that the martini had some prominent mentions. “One example of this is in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: ‘I’ve never tasted anything so cool and clean...They make me feel civilized,’ the author writes.”
Then, of course, James Bond entered the picture, further thrusting the martini into the spotlight. “Ian Flemming and many of his friends would always have drinks at Jamaica Inn on the terrace. On a particularly warm summer day, the group of friends, in high spirits and in need of the ideal drink, concocted the vesper martini,” Hubert ‘Teddy’ Tucker once noted. (He was the beloved bartender at Jamaica Inn for 60 years and has since died.) “This was birthed as some friends were ardent vodka lovers while some, were straight gin men. Unable to decide on the alcohol base of the drink, a compromise was met; to use both gin and vodka to make the perfect cool and refreshing cocktail. Cool and refreshing, only after being ‘shaken, not stirred,” Tucker added.
It was also right around this time when the Don Draper period of martinis was hitting its stride. "Around the 1950s, the gin martini gained a substantial amount of popularity with the Mad Men era martini lunch, when it was a fashionable cocktail for the business and investment crowd,” Taylor says. It wasn’t until around 1970 that another liquor crept into the picture. "Gin was king of the martini, but the emergence of vodka, an odorless, tasteless spirit swept the nation,” Taft says. “It quickly replaced gin’s place as the main ingredient in a martini for a period of time.” And because vodka’s flavor profile is softer than gin, vermouth began to decline. “In the ‘70s it was common to hear a patron yell out, ‘I’ll have a vodka martini very dry or no vermouth!’”
Then, in the early 2000s, another cocktail renaissance took place, “which reintroduced cocktail ingredients and recipes similarly to the way they were created pre-prohibition time,” Taft says. “Legendary NYC bars like the Rainbow Room, Milk and Honey, and Pegu Club were instrumental in contributing to the cocktail renaissance and you could be sure to get a great gin martini in one of those bars.” Fast forward to today, and “we see dedicated menus honoring the martini like Dante West Village’s martini menu on Hudson St in NYC,” Canty adds.
Taking over 100 years’ worth of history into consideration, there are a few key shifts that have impacted the way consumers view and drink the martini now. “The biggest changes to the gin martini’s evolution is this gradual shift from sweet vermouth, a lot of it, to dry vermouth, with less and less of it,” Christiansen says. “Other shifts that impact the gin martini included an increase in vodka consumption and cocktails moving away from stronger flavors. People used less and less vermouth, and more and more of the base spirit, but thanks to the cocktail renaissance, people are becoming more educated around what vermouth is and how delicious it can be and how well the aromatized wine can pair with the botanicals in gin.”
Another notable evolution is what Taylor describes as a “choose your own adventure approach” to ordering a martini. “People are tweaking the traditional recipe based on their tastes and the amount of vermouth used is decreasing,” he says. “Garnishes are becoming more creative and fruit and herb infused gins are gaining popularity. Beyond juniper, brands are also adding other botanicals to the spirit, like St George Terroir, who are upping the flavor with savory notes of Douglas fir, bay laurel, and sage.”
It’s all a build on the classic recipe and where people’s creative paths take them, within the scope of the drink’s main elements Canty adds. “The bar's style of cocktails play a part, as well as the guest’s preferences of salt, citrus, and florals, and then of course at the heart of all of this, is the style of gin and the style of vermouth you’re pouring in,” she says. “Garnishes are preferential as well. For classic serves, an olive or a lemon twist are the options. Others prefer something like a cocktail onion to switch it up, which would shift it to what's called a Gibson serve.” Other garnishes might be olive oil drops, capers, berries, aromatic sprays and herbs, limes, and even cheese — the takeaway? You can’t put the martini in a box.
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