The Vodka Martini

Some people think that a martini is made with vodka by default. Other people look down on a vodka martini as inferior.

They are both wrong.

A martini is made with gin and a vodka martini is made with vodka. A vodka martini is a variation on the original that did not appear for several decades after the creation of the martini. It would be at least half a century before it was even considered a standard version in its own right.

Even after martinis started being made with vodka, they were known for many years as something entirely different: a kangaroo.

These are facts.

A martini is therefore made with gin as a default. A vodka martini is a variation on the recipe.

However, to look down on the vodka martini as being somehow inferior to the gin-based original does not fit the concept of martini socialism.

The beauty of vodka martinis

Martinis should be for everyone to enjoy, and everyone is different. If you have a preference for vodka over gin, we should welcome the diversity!

Secondly, to look down on vodka martinis is to limit your experiences. There are many amazing vodkas that work fantastically in martini form. It may be a variation on the original, but the palette-neutrality of many vodkas can provide wide-ranging versatility for your imbibing pleasure, including a range of classic cocktails (such as the Espresso Martini or Pornstar Martini for example) that simply wouldn’t work with gin.

Furthermore, even for martini purists who prefer not to dally with the wider cocktail world, there are still situations where even the most ardent gin fan might find a vodka to be preferable. For example, if you ever find yourself in possession of a new or unusual vermouth, there is no better way to sample its complexity in a martini form but in a vodka martini. The neutrality of the vodka allows for the flavours of the vermouth to shine through untampered, whereas a gin martini might leave the botanicals of the two drinks competing with one another in the glass.

Remember that all martinis can be made with vodka, but not all martinis can be made with gin.

Purity

If you find yourself looking down on vodka as inferior, ask yourself whether or not you might have a bias against the drink. Cheap vodka, destined for sugary mixers may not be suitable for a martini, but a good quality vodka is something to be savoured. If properly chilled, it can provide a beautifully smooth texture as good as any gin. And remember the history of gin: much of it involves using botanicals to mask poor quality liquor.

Vodka cannot hide behind any such disguises. It is pure and honest.

With some of the best quality vodkas, I wouldn’t even use them in a martini. I would have them chilled and on their own so as to savour the smoothness and subtle depth. If you haven’t already, you should try it out. Consider sampling some of the beautiful vodkas from countries like Poland or Russia. They usually set the benchmark for quality, but there are good quality vodkas available from a range of producers around the world.

That one guy who has a lot to answer for

There is a certain fictional character who has had more of an impact on martini culture – particularly vodka martini culture – than any other.

He needs no introduction and it is a testament to the power of fiction and appeal of his character that so many people believe that a martini is made with vodka by default.

However, let’s take a closer look, first at what James Bond actually drank, as well as what it meant.

For a start, Bond frequently drinks gin martinis, particularly in Sir Ian Fleming’s novels. However, while Daniel Craig emblazoned the rapturous Vesper Martini recipe in the 2006 film Casino Royale – which very clearly contains gin, most of the character’s on-screen portrayals have opted for vodka-only versions. This might be testament to the sponsorship deals arranged with the films producers, but even in the books, Bond drinks more vodka martinis than gin ones.

Indeed, it is a significant and deliberately crafted aspect of his character.

East and West

Bond was created during the Cold War. Imbibing a martini – very much an American drink – signified Western sophistication, culture and influence. However, despite representing the British establishment, the omission of gin and its replacement with a spirit ubiquitous throughout the USSR and Warsaw pact countries implies an edgy but also almost nonchalant familiarity with a part of the world which at the time constituted a source of fear, discomfort or perhaps racy danger for the average fan.

It was also a time in history when international travel had become heavily curtailed. Much of the world was closed. Millions of people were struggling with post-war reconstruction, numerous countries were grappling with insurgencies or independence-related upheaval, while perhaps most inexorable of all, the descent of the Iron Curtain shut off a great swathe of the world.

The luxury of travel was simply not available to average person. Conversely, the vodka martini of Sir Ian Fleming’s novels, many of which were penned in Jamaica, signified a truly global drink, adding to the exotic, untouchable image of James Bond’s character.

Let us perhaps skip over the actual quantities of alcohol that he consumed, a red flag for anyone struggling with inner demons – or in the case of some, wrestling with their own loyalties. I present you with Kim Philby as a prime example.

Essentially, the vodka martini symbolised an unconventional character, familiar with allies and enemies, and not afraid of dalliances with either.

So, how do you make a vodka martini?

A view to a chill

Sir Ian Fleming’s novels may talk about shaking the drink with ice, which you are welcome to try, but consider this more efficient and effective method. Given his predilection for technology I feel that Bond himself would be satisfied.

Note that apart from the vodka, this recipe is made in exactly the same way as a classic martini with gin.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

  1. At least six hours before you intend to drink, put a bottle of vodka plus the relevant number of martini glasses in the freezer.
  2. When it’s time to serve, take the glasses from the freezer.
  3. If you are using lemon, peel some fresh lemon zest and squeeze it gently into the glass(es), spraying the oil onto the inside of the glass.
  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 the glass with the vodka from the freezer – around 80-120ml or 3-4 US fluid ounces.
  7. Use the lemon peel to stir the drink, or if you prefer olives, put 1-3 onto a cocktails stick and use that to quickly stir the drink. It won’t need much.
  8. Serve.

Reflection

Has this post shed any light on your understanding of James Bond’s character and his association with the martini?

If you haven’t previously drunk vodka martinis, are you now more likely to try it out?

Are there any vodkas in particular you would like to use in a martini?

Are there any interesting vermouths you would like to try that might work in a vodka martini?