Cocktail aficionados may stir in the saleable theory that the Martinez Special—a drink thought to be crafted for a miner who struck California gold during the 1860s—was the first version of the Martini, but its origins are as opaque as gin cradled against chilled glassware. What is certain about this American cocktail with more than a century of history, is that it has changed incredibly over its existence.
The first documented Martini recipe was printed in Harry Johnson’s New And Improved Bartender’s Manual (1888), and if it was served today it would be unrecognisable not only because of the use of sweet gin (Old Tom Gin) and vermouth, but because it called for gum syrup, orange curacao, and Boker’s bitters. A lemon twist was the garnish of choice, and cherries were acceptable for a short while.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Martini often featured orange bitters and an orange peel garnish. The main difference between the Martini and its strikingly similar contemporaries—the Margaurite and Olivette—was that it called for dry Italian vermouth (instead of the then typical use of French vermouth), making it more clean-cut than the very sweet concoctions of the times.
While olives were the go-to garnish for Olivettes, a few 1910s-era recipes also recommend them as toppings for Martinis. Over the next two decades, the use of bitters and orange peels would be weaned from the Martini, usurped by the olive as the iconic garnish. Between 1880-1924 over four million Italians immigrated to the U.S.A., many of them Sicilians who brought goods from the old country (like their famous olives).
According to the acclaimed gin makers behind Sipsmith, “the salinity and brininess of the ingredient serve to highlight the aromatics in the gin, complement the vermouth, and counterpoise the Martini’s bracing intensity.” The olive was doubtlessly useful in taming the bite of the strong ‘bathtub gin’ produced in America when alcohol was prohibited from 1920 to 1933.
In 1925, an Art Deco exhibition in Paris revealed a wide, long-stemmed V-shaped cocktail glass. It was designed to be another way to stylishly house champagne, but that very year the “Martini set” was patented, consisting of a cocktail shaker, this new glassware, and the name of the Jazz Era’s favourite drink. The sharp edge and the wide rim not only opened up the botanicals of a Martini’s gin but also provided ideal support for a skewer of olives: it was a beau idéal match.
After the 32nd American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, repealed prohibition, he soon popularised the Dirty Martini (an added dash of olive juice or brine) with two olives. He would bring a cocktail set on his diplomatic travels and disappoint world leaders from Stalin to Churchill with his badly made Martinis, which are thought to have been ‘bruised’ and diluted by his vigorous shaking. However, the Dirty Martini got the spotlight, and they grew more popular, as long as FDR wasn’t serving them.
While the dry Martini originally referred to the use of dry vermouth, and later dry gin, this was now considered an inherent quality of the cocktail and ordering them so essentially meant adding more gin than vermouth. Prohibition had done wonders for the martini as bathtub gin was easier to make in clandestine homegrown stills, making gin-heavy cocktails all the more practical compared to costlier smuggled spirits, a tradition that stuck even when the playing field was levelled out.
During the 1940s and 1950s a staggering ascent in the proportions of gin to vermouth became standard; director Alfred Hitchcock ordered his drink, “five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth,” writer Ernest Hemingway enjoyed a balance of 15 to one, and actor Clark Gable simply caressed the rim of his glass with a vermouth cork. All of them took their drinks with a skewer of silverskin cocktail onions, which makes the cocktail a Gibson in the eyes of bien-pensant bartenders.
The shift toward vodka Martinis emerged in the 1950s. Milton Goodman, an ad man, came up with the catchy phrase, “Smirnoff. It leaves you breathless,” in 1953. Whether intended or not, many Americans interpreted the slogan to mean that vodka left a less or no discernable trace of liquor on one’s breath.
The phrase ‘the three-martini lunch’ is believed to have been first used in print in 1954, the newspaper (The Atlanta Constitution), noting that lunchtime Martinis were “enjoyed by… those with generous expense accounts”. By the early 1960s, this phrase became adopted by advertisers who liked the ring of it, but matters took a turn. ‘The three-martini lunch’ rapidly gained the infamous connotation of corporate executives getting sloshed on tax-free expense accounts—afternoon Martinis during business hours went from cool to crass in the public eye, but did nothing to vodka sales when the 1970s took over.
By 1975, it was possible more vodka martinis were made in America than gin ones. Americans consumed a whopping 80.3 gallons that year alone: the cold war didn’t matter, just cold vodka. By the 1980s the American vodka drinker had largely forsaken the Martini and moved on to sweeter, flashier cocktails.
The late 1990s marked the era of the Appletini. The drink of Salinger had become that of Sex and the City. The advent of the Appletini is what many believe Lowell Edmunds, perhaps the foremost source of information on the Martini, was referring to when he wrote in his definitive book, Martini Straight Up, “What Aristotle said of Greek tragedy is also true of the Martini: ‘Having passed through many changes, it found its natural forms, and there it stopped.’”
It was a moment where slapping ‘tini’ at the end of any cocktail in a V-shaped glass meant it was Martini, even if every element of the classic one was left out. This wasn’t just adding vodka or a cocktail onion, but irksomely eroding its soul—like comparing Sean Connery’s Bond to Paul Blart Mall Cop; yes, they both fight crime, but in vastly different ways. Calling these ‘tinis’ a homage would be beyond hackneyed, it would be incorrect.
Today, the mid-20th century incarnations have made a comeback, oft-times with a 3:1 ratio of gin to vermouth. Just remember to serve all the elements of this classic American cocktail—English gin, Italian vermouth, Sicilian olives (Spanish), and French glassware—so chilled one can’t help slipping into a dry Martini.
This story originally appeared in NGTI’s March-April 2021 print issue.
Gibson with a silverskin cocktail onion
Kangaroo with vodka instead of gin
Vesper with a lemon twist (can also include the addition of vodka to the gin base)
Blenton with Angostura bitters
Imperial with a splash of maraschino liqueur
Dirty with a splash of olive brine
Perfect with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth
Dry with less vermouth
Wet with more vermouth
Shaken (a Bradford) ice sloshed in a cocktail shaker with the base liquors
Stirred ice stirred in the base liquors and then subsequently strained
Burnt with a splash of smoky single malt
In and Out Martini (aka Bone Dry) a splash of vermouth used to rinse the glass, which is subsequently poured out before adding the gin
Thrown poured from one tumbler into another upside just like cutting chai
Montgomery Martini 15:1 gin to vermouth ratio—a preparation linked to WWI Field Marshal Montgomery, who reportedly never attacked the enemy unless he outnumbered them 15 to one
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.