How to make a classic martini

Comrade! Throw away everything you thought you knew about martinis.

It’s time for a REVOLUTION!

There is so much I want to tell you about martinis. I could keep you up all night.

For a start, if you asked me how to make ‘the perfect martini’ I would have to ask whether or not you meant ‘a perfect martini’ which is a specific type of drink (made with a 1:1 ratio of gin to vermouth – don’t worry, many bartenders don’t know this either), or if you meant something along the lines of “the ideal martini”.

Next, in order to work out what your ideal martini was, I would have to interrogate you on your preferences, past experiences, liking for botanicals, tolerance for strength, predilection for sweet or dry, and so on and so forth.

I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. In fact, it might be a lovely way to start an evening. It would also be a good way to get to know one another.

However, you are probably on this page because you want to find out how to make a classic martini – and because this is the internet, you probably want to find out fast.

For the UNDER 60 SECOND MARTINI GUIDE click here to skip to the end of the page.

Alternatively, read this slightly longer version (which should only take around 15-20 minutes) where I will tell you how to make a martini in the most simple, classic style, guaranteed for success.

Once you have mastered this method, you can then start to explore the many recipe variations that exist, find out your preferences and evolve into your own martini expert.

First, some basic principles

The history of the martini goes back to at least the 1860s, but the origins are somewhat blurred (what a surprise…).

The drink is 100% an American creation, one so successful it has spread across the globe.

Variations have subsequently popped up everywhere from London to Singapore, but don’t forget the origins of this classical drink.

Of all the stories documenting its beginning, one of the more believable is that it was created in the town of Martinez for a prospector who had struck gold nearby and requested something a little different to celebrate his find.

The original drink was much sweeter, but evolved over the years into the dry elixir we sip today.

Martinis are for all to enjoy

Martinis have been enjoyed by everyone from Bette Davis to Queen Elizabeth, from Homer Simpson to Joseph Stalin.

A martini is gender neutral. It is neither a ‘girly” drink, nor men-only.

Even for those who do not imbibe, there are some wonderful non-alcoholic variations as well.

How do you like them?

One of the most googled phrases related to martinis is “how do you order a martini at a bar”.

How DO you order a martini at a bar?

It’s very simple. Find out how you like your martinis, then order them that way.

That’s it! There is no dark art. There is no pretentiousness

However, it can take some time to work out how you like martinis, which can be a problem if it’s your first time.

As such, if you are in any doubt, or if you are just starting out, I would recommend ordering “a classic martini, medium dry, with a twist of lemon, please”.

If the bartender is gracious enough to ask you which gin you would prefer, you can leave it up to them to choose, or simply request a well-known, good quality brand, preferably one without too many botanicals, at least to start with.

You can explore the myriad of alternatives later.

“But I don’t like gin!”

If you really don’t like gin, it’s okay, you can have vodka.

In fact, knowing that you dislike gin and that you prefer vodka also means that you are already well on your way to knowing how to order at the bar.

So, if it’s your first time, simply request “a vodka martini, medium dry, with a twist of lemon, please”.

See? It’s easy.

Kangaroos

Just remember that a martini is made with gin and a vodka martini is made with vodka.

Some people have tried to argue with me on this, claiming that a martini should be made with vodka, but they are wrong. It’s nothing personal, nor a dislike for vodka (I, along with many of my martini comrades, adore a great variety of vodkas) – it’s just a fact.

The historical creation of the martini was always gin-based. Vodka martinis did not emerge for decades later, and even then they were called ‘kangaroos’ for some time.

I mean no offence to any Australian readers but I do not feel that a hopping marsupial is the most appropriate animal to represent such a smooth, simple, seductive – and dangerous – drink.

It’s clearly a taipan snake – which also meshes very nicely with the Cantonese term tai-pan (大班) which translates as “top class”.

Otherwise, however, a martini made with vodka should be referred to as a vodka martini to differentiate it from the original. The name is as pure and transparent as the drink itself.

There is also nothing wrong with a vodka martini. It’s a fine, elegant and subtle drink, endorsed by James Bond.

However, remember that his preference for vodka over gin was part of what made his character different. His penchant was highly uncommon for the time.

It brought in the edginess of a powerful drink associated with a formidable opponent – Russia – at the very height of the Cold War.

Another point to bear in mind is that gin virtually IS vodka (yes, give or take – to all the pedants). Gin is a similar spirit that has been flavoured via different techniques with a combination of botanicals, critically including juniper.

No snobbery!

There should be no snobbery over one or the other. Snobbery has no place in Martini Socialism. It’s just that as I said before, a martini is made with gin and a vodka martini is made with vodka. Let us leave it at that.

THE REVOLUTIONARY’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN!

Okay, so you’ve mastered the art of asking for a martini at a bar – but that isn’t the core element of Martini Socialism.

Not all comrades have access to a martini bar – but don’t worry. You can make some of the best martinis in the comfort of your own home.

Indeed, if you make them yourself, you have complete control over the contents, the setting – and of course – the service.

You will also see below that once you have mastered the basics, they are actually very simple, and not at all time consuming to make.

Ingredients

Let’s start with the contents. You will need a bottle of gin (or vodka if you prefer of course).

There are a lot to choose from, but start with what you know. Aim for simple quality, at least to begin with. Save particularly high quality spirits or ones with unusual botanicals for when you are more comfortable with the drink.

Fortify yourself

The next ingredient you will need is vermouth.

This is a type of aromatised wine, which is basically a wine to which a stronger spirit has been added, often a neutral grape spirit.

I love this progressive innovation:

We have produced a beautiful drink, enjoyed by emperors, priests, philosophers and poets since the ancient times – it is perfect – let’s make it stronger.

This mixture is then infused with herbs and other botanicals and sometimes sweetened in order to create the light, complex alcoholic drink we know as vermouth.

Vermouths originated in northern Italy, but are now widely associated with France as well. Both countries produce excellent varieties, although new brands are also slowly popping up elsewhere.

Germany has been champing at the bit, while the US and Australia have produced some solid new variations. Spain, with its vermuteria culture is also naturally one to watch as well.

Vermouth is an aperitif in its own right, and is commonly consumed with ice or maybe soda or tonic, particularly around Mediterranean countries.

However, it is perhaps more widely consumed around the world as a cocktail ingredient.

I often hesitate to call martinis ‘a cocktail’ simply because they usually only contain two key ingredients, one of which is vermouth. Nonetheless, in the words of James Bond himself, “n’enculons pas des mouches.

Martini ‘cocktail’ vs Martini vermouth

One of the most ubiquitous brands of vermouth is called ‘Martini’, which has led to decades of confusion. A martini is a cocktail, and Martini is a well-known and widely consumed brand of vermouth. Other vermouths include Cinzano, Dolin and Noilly Prat.

With almost all martini recipes, the vermouth should be white/blanc/bianco (ie clear/translucent) rather than red/rouge/rosso (ie ruby coloured). Save coloured vermouths for other cocktails.

Martini recipes also generally call for a dry vermouth, but if you are a new guest in this exclusive lounge of pleasant alcoholism, I would recommend starting with a sweet vermouth.

Sacré bleu!

Martini enthusiasts might baulk at my suggestion of using a sweet vermouth, but I have guided several thousand people into this world and if you start with a dry vermouth it often tastes so harsh to the uninitiated that it puts off many a potential enthusiast.

You can ease yourself onto the drier vermouths as you progress through your personal martini journey through life.

Remember what I said about snobbery. It has no place here!

Furthermore, if you only have access to poorer quality or more fiery gins, a sweeter vermouth can help counterbalance the burn.

Desperate times call for generous measures.

Finally, the garnish

A martini without a garnish has been referred to as a zen martini by one New York bar. However, P.J. O’Rourke also said that a zen martini was “a martini with no vermouth at all. And no gin, either.” so that brand is taken.

Let’s be honest, a drink that is so simple as a martini is affected by the smallest of changes. As such, the classic garnish is as much a part of this iconic drink as the gin and the vermouth.

The best garnishes are ones which impart their own subtle influence on the drink. A cocktail umbrella, for example, provides only visual stimulation. Apart from being decidedly passé, it also brings nothing to the sensation of a martini.

Martinis demand at least some sort of contribution from anything bold enough to share a glass with them.

Naturally, the iconic visual garnish for a martini is an olive, preferably one that has been stored in brine, which compliments the clean palette of the drink.

However, equally important, and to very many people preferred, is the rapturous twist of lemon peel.

I will take a bold stance on this issue. Unless you dislike lemon, I would always recommend using a twist of fresh lemon peel as the garnish. You can always serve olives on the side, enjoy their flavour, even add them to the martini yourself using a cocktail stick.

This means that you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Otherwise though, the fresh citrus oil lovingly squeezed from the lemon peel into the glass creates an aroma and tantalising, clean aftertaste that you will never achieve from an olive garnish on its own.

Trust me – if you have a fresh lemon to hand, you won’t be disappointed. Properly prepared, the twist adds the string section to your martini orchestra.

And as I said, if you love olives, you can serve them on the side. You can even go full-scale bourgeois and drop them into the drink alongside the lemon peel.

When it comes to choosing a lemon to garnish your martini, the fresher the better. They should also ideally be unwaxed, otherwise you have to wash them in warm water to try and remove the chemicals – not ideal.

You want the lemon to be shiny and bursting with natural oil in its skin, but naturally so, not chemically induced. Indeed, you will learn to appreciate and love the skin of a fresh lemon like never before.

Equipment

First of all, we will NOT be using any cocktail shakers.

“What?” I hear you ask?

No! You don’t need one.

You want your martini to be cold – yes of course, but you will see below that there is a much more efficient method of getting it to a rapturous, ice-cold temperature.

Some martini variations require a froth, (such as an espresso martini). In this case, you will need a shaker, but these variations are in the minority.

Otherwise, shaking a martini with ice is mostly a gimmick.

It’s inefficient, time-consuming, it waters down your drink and these days it is mostly used by bartenders hoping to earn more tips.

In the new world order of martini socialism, bartenders will be paid the proper wages of any trained professional.

Like the doctor who prescribes you medicine to make you feel better, so too will our bartenders be accorded the respect of a proper wage worthy of the time, effort and passion they put into their calling.

They will not require your tips.

Martini socialism also calls for modern, technological efficiency, which brings me to the first piece of absolutely essential equipment you will need…

A FREEZER

You do not need ice. You do not need a spoon.

No, the classic martini is unlike any other cocktail. Having a freezer means that you can get your drink to the perfect temperature with barely any effort at all, just a bit of advance planning – and no unnecessary watering down!

The vessel

Next, you need proper glasses. For a classic martini you want the distinctive conical-shaped cocktail glass with a long stem that will forever be associated with the drink.

The difficult part is finding one the right size.

Many cocktail glasses, especially these days, are made to contain up to 200-300ml of liquid (6-10 US fluid ounces). This might work for a cosmopolitan or any other cocktail that includes a mixer, but it is preposterous for a martini.

A martini glass should be around 100-120ml (3-4 US fluid ounces).

A 300ml martini would be just shy of your weekly recommended alcohol intake, which is a fairly substantial amount for a single tipple before dinner.

Other equipment

You will also need a sharp knife, a small chopping board and a good peeler.

I cannot stress enough how important a good peeler is, especially if you are making quite a few martinis or intend on making them regularly.

I will not tolerate a bad peeler

If your blunt peeler ravages the lemon peel and leaves it ragged it will look unappealing as a garnish.

A bad peeler can also cause some of the lemon oil to burst out prematurely during the peeling process, which is frankly unacceptable.

It will also leave you feeling frustrated every time you make a martini. This is no frame of mind to be in when entering the martini ceremony (yes, it is indeed a ceremony, I will elaborate more on this later).

So please – get yourself a good, sharp peeler with a nice, weighty handle. You will thank yourself every time to peel a strip.

In advance

At least six hours before you intend to drink, put your gin (or vodka) into the freezer, along with the glasses you intend to use.

If you really get into this, you will keep these in the freezer permanently, because you never know when you, a spouse, relative or unexpected visitor will need an emergency dose of the ‘silver bullet’.

Once a bottle of vermouth is opened, it should always be kept in the fridge to stop it going off. They will last about 3-6 months once opened.

Luckily, a bottle of vermouth never gets the chance to go off in my household.

Even unopened, you should keep the bottle of vermouth in the fridge on the day you want to first use it so it’s at the right temperature.

More chilling

Lemons are best used on the day they are bought, although you can store them in the fridge if you need them to last for a few days.

However, take them out on the day you intend to use them, preferably at least a few hours before the cocktail hour arrives so that their skins are firm but pliable when it’s time to serve.

With the drinks chilling before serving, you are left with plenty of time to get on with your day and go about your life.

However, this also gives you plenty of time to prepare for the martini ceremony.

Yes, I’ve already mentioned that the act of drinking a martini is ceremonial, but what does this entail?

Preparing the scene

A martini contains a sizeable amount of alcohol. It will irrevocably steer your evening one way or the other.

It will be THE most important drink of the night.

The stakes are high! So imagine getting it wrong, or having distractions in the middle of it. The night could theoretically be ruined.

Focus

Pay particular attention to the fact that this drink is served very cold. Any interruptions could lead to it warming up, which is uncivilised and makes the drink less palatable.

As such, you need to have everything in place so that you can relax and enjoy this peaceful hour in calm, quiet comfort.

The setting

The first aspect to prepare for is the setting. You want the atmosphere to be one of relaxation. Pick your music carefully, something calm perhaps (although there are infinite options to choose from).

Of course, a nice view will always enhance a martini, but it’s not essential if you can recreate peaceful opulence indoors.

Get your lighting right

Perhaps the best lighting comes from the sun, just after she has dipped below the horizon. This time, when the sky turns colour, is known as the ‘violet hour’ and is the perfect hue for a martini.

In terms of indoor lighting, aim for Danish hygge rather than harsh.

Quality control

Select your company with great care.

Ultimately, this is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of a martini.

Anyone who joins you for the ceremony must respect it, understand the dangers of the drink and realise the importance of the atmosphere (switch off your phones).

You need to trust them enough to enter this ritual. Choose wisely.

If you invite the uninitiated, it can be a bit of a gamble, because many people respond differently to the dark magic of the martini.

This unknown quantity of your drinking partner can add to the thrill of the evening, but things can also go south very quickly if you’ve picked the wrong person.

You should perhaps provide some sort of briefing in advance.

Don’t invite too many guests either. If things get out of hand you could be overwhelmed.

Nourishment

Finally, you need to make sure that the food is prepared. A martini is that little bit more delightful when accompanied by some light snacks (preferably salty) and there are countless options and variations that you can experiment with.

Take your inspiration from various cuisines around the world. I love to hear people’s suggestions and discoveries on this topic.

Of course, the classic martini nibble is the olive, but there are numerous other suitors. You can enjoy nuts, cheeses, cured meats, crisps/chips, pickles, popcorn, seafood and – my personal favourite – cocktail blini with an array of toppings.

I’ve also had inspiration from Russia, Iraq, Mexico, Italy, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, France, South Korea, Peru, China, Colombia, Japan, Scandinavia, East Africa, South Africa, Turkey, Jamaica, Finland, Iraq and even Ancient Greece, among many others, and there will be many more options and ideas to enrich the martini world.

Explore yourself, try your own local specialities – and don’t forget to share them with the rest of us. We are always hungry for new inspiration!

Proper nourishment

However, perhaps more importantly than snacks, nibbles and canapes, you need to make sure that dinner will be available when you finish your drink.

Otherwise, you will run the very real risk of descending into a night of drunken stupor.

You could have something in the oven, a take away being delivered or a restaurant reservation, but you MUST have something in place. Many a martini night has descended into ruin due to a lack of stomach-lining sustenance.

Serving

Okay, time for the ceremony itself.

When you are ready to serve the martinis, have your setting, table, guests, nibbles, etc all present and correct.

In your chosen point of drinks preparation, set out your chopping board, knife, peeler and lemon.

Take the gin (or vodka) and glasses out of the freezer.

Peel a generous strip of lemon zest. Twist and squeeze it gently into the glass. You will see the oil of the skin spray and coat the inside. If your glass is properly frosted the spray will be very visible.

Twist the peel lightly, so as to spray the oil without causing it to split or break.

You must never add lemon juice to a classic martini. The juice is acid, but lemon oil is more neutral. The juice will make the drink taste too sharp and will alter its smooth texture.

Save the lemon juice for some other cocktails, like the lemon drop martini, or to add to some hot water just before bed or in the morning to help aid the recovery of your liver.

When you are finished squeezing the lemon oil out of the peel (normally around 5-10 seconds), place the peel onto the chopping board and use the knife to cut it to a more elegant shape, such as a rhombus.

The vermouth

Pour vermouth into the glass according to your taste. Eventually, you will find your preferred ratio, which will lie somewhere between the spectrum range of the Churchill martini (zero vermouth, just gin) to an upside down martini (mostly vermouth with just a splash of gin).

Most people, however, will usually settle for something between a teaspoon and 15ml (0.5 US fluid ounces) of vermouth, although for a first try, I would recommend 15-20ml, or 3-4 teaspoons.

You can build up your tolerance over time. There is no rush. Enjoy this journey!

You might find that the drink tastes very dry and even fiery for the first 15 minutes. This is normal, but the mouthfeel should ease beyond this point.

If it does not, and you are really struggling, feel free to add more vermouth, but measure it by the teaspoonful so you can work out exactly how much you like in your drink for next time.

The spirit

Once you have poured the vermouth, top the glass up with the gin (or vodka).

Depending on your glass size this should vary from 80 to 115ml (2.7 to 3.8 US fluid ounces). Having been in the freezer for at least six hours the spirit should be highly chilled and almost oily in consistency.

If your freezer is particularly cold the spirit might have fragments of ice in it, or even have the consistency of slush or ice. With the latter, leave it to thaw out for a while before serving. Giving it a good shake can help loosen it up as well.

You could also add a splash of non-chilled gin to the bottle and shake it to try and thaw it a little, but without warming it up too much.

Finally, take the lemon peel that you have shaped and use it to stir the martini gently to make sure the vermouth and gin (or vodka) have mixed properly.

If you are serving it with olives, skewer one, two or three onto a cocktail stick and use them to stir the drink.

Drop the piece of peel or the olives into the glass and serve immediately.

The ritual

Once the martini is poured, time is of the essence. The drink will start to gradually warm up. Therefore, make sure that everything is in place before the ceremony begins.

Make sure everyone has been served then join them. This can be challenging if you have more than three guests so try to have as much prepared in advance as possible so you can serve the drinks in quick succession.

You can make them in assembly line fashion rather than one at a time: prepare the lemon or olives for each, then the vermouth and then the gin/vodka.

With more than four guests it will also help if at least one of them understands the rules of the ceremony so that they can guide and reassure the others sitting at the table while you are busy pouring.

For larger groups it can also help if you have one other person who can take the drinks to the table for your guests while you continue to pour more of them.

Once the drinks are poured and everyone is ready, you can cheers one another and make the briefest of toasts.

No touching!

Avoid physical clinking of the glasses. This is not advisable with a martini because of the higher-than-usual risk of spillage.

Simply raise it (slowly) to the height of your face as a gesture, make eye contact with each of your guests (to make sure they are okay, as much as to maintain tradition) – and then go!

The burn

The first sip of the drink could be likened to a fine steak being seared on a hot pan.

The steak is your tongue.

Essentially it is a light burning on the surface of your taste-buds. The smoother and colder the gin, the less the burn.

For Japanese friends I call it ‘tataki tongue’ (たたきタン) to explain it.

However, my preferred description is taken from the Italian word “scottare” (to sear). It just sounds so satisfying. If you wanted, you could start your toast with “salute, scottare!

Don’t worry, the sensation will ease.

How to drink

Sip. Never gulp. Ever.

Given that a martini equates to so much alcohol, you need to take it easy – and take your time!

A martini of 100-120ml (3-4 US fluid ounces) should last around 30-40 minutes if you are drinking with company or enjoying an aperitif before dinner.

It should not be drunk faster than this. Anyone who does is heading for a drunken night. If they are doing it through ignorance of the dangers involved you must intervene before they harm themselves.

If I am relaxing, I have been known to let a martini stretch out over 2-3 hours, sipping every now and then, but it warms up to room temperature by this time so is not ideal.

The ‘two martini’ rule

This is institutional law at Duke’s Bar, a London venue that sets the international benchmark for martini excellence.

You are allowed no more than two martinis in one sitting. It’s an eminently sensible guideline for martini consumption anywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Duke’s, at home or Buckingham Palace. It is for your own benefit.

Trust me – I have (scientifically) attempted to test this rule to its limit and it is there for very good reasons.

Conclusion

So there you have it. The introduction and guide to making a martini at home, for yourself, your family and friends, as well as some tips on how to order a martini at a bar if you’re unsure.

Now go, experiment, enjoy and report back with any insight and innovations you come up with.

I look forward to hearing from you!

And just in case, here’s a rapid recap on the above:

The 60 Second Martini Guide

  1. At least six hours before martini time put a bottle of gin (or vodka) plus the relevant number of martini glasses (ideally around 100 – 130ml or 3.4 – 4.4 US fluid ounces in volume) in the freezer.
  2. When it’s time to serve, take the glasses from the freezer.
  3. Peel some fresh lemon zest and squeeze it gently into each glass, spraying the oil.
  4. Use a sharp knife to shape the sliver of zest so it looks neat.
  5. Pour vermouth into the glass to taste (usually around 2 – 15ml or 0.5 – 3 teaspoons).
  6. Top up with the gin (or vodka) from the freezer – around 80 – 120ml or 3 – 4 US fluid ounces, depending on glass size/preference.
  7. Use the lemon peel to stir the drink.
  8. Serve – preferably with nibbles and good company.