“Martinis are the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.”—H. L. Mencken  (photo by Evgeny Karandaev)

As a spirits journalist, I am pretty much open to anything: Single-malts in a cocktail, peanut-flavorings, vodka made from grapes instead of grain or potato. I may not always truly enjoy or spiritually agree with the permutations, but a touch of unorthodoxy is to be encouraged and helps drive the world of liquor appreciation along. But, as in many areas of life, sometimes you have to draw a purist’s line in the sand. If the pants you are wearing have belt loops on them, you wear a belt. And a martini is made with gin.

Now that vodka version 007 inexplicably prefers is a perfectly fine drink. But it’s not a martini. If it was, you wouldn’t have to put the “vodka” in front of it, just as you’d have to order a “gin Bloody Mary,” which, by the way, can be quite delicious.

Martinis also have dry vermouth in them, and probably a little more than the current fashion favors. I mean, consider that, in the most likely origin fable, the name of the cocktail is a freaking homage to a common brand of vermouth when it hit the scene, most likely around 1922, right here in the U.S. of A., per most historians. If you merely thinly coat the inside of the coupe glass with quickly evaporating vermouth or jokingly wave the vermouth bottle around the shaker without putting any inside, you are essentially drinking cold gin. And that’s fine I suppose.

I have no idea why the nuanced, flavorful, and age-old concoction of vermouth has come to be regarded as the ketchup of the spirits world, but its essence and history is far from pedestrian. In fact, thinking way back to my parents’ bar, the vermouth was easily the most exotic bottle in the row.

Vermouth, of all stripes, is made from wine, or in some instances, unfermented wine must (juice). Additional neutral grain alcohol is added, and then each maker imparts a proprietary blend of aromatics to the mix: barks, herbs, roots, and so on. There is generally a re-distilling of the mixture at some point, and once smelling right and fortified, sugar (and occasionally coloring) is added in different measures depending on the final style desired. What we think of as vermouth originated in Northern Italy in the 18th century and was first viewed as a medicinal potion, but quickly started to be used as an aperitif on its own and then as a workhorse cocktail ingredient.

In any case, when you consider the complexity and variation of source wines, the abundant flavor options possible from botanicals, and the creation process itself, scoffing at vermouth and writing it off as an unnecessary component in some cocktails just seems a little silly. 

Beyond gin and a little more dry vermouth than most would find prudent, have at it. I prefer shaken (in fact, violently so), but stirred or even on the rocks is all good. I lean into olives, but sometimes the twist is just what the doctor ordered. Dirty martinis are in-bounds when the mood hits, as long as it starts with a wet-ish vermouth approach and gin.

For a martini, I go to more traditional, dry London style gins like Plymouth  so it tastes more like medicine (which it kind of is), but newer, more artisanal herbaceous gins like Empress bring something to the party, as well. Classic bar-pour dry vermouth? No problem. Meticulously crafted cult vermouth? No problem.

Enjoyable, shorthand banter is one of the joys of the bar experience. But it’s so much more interesting if there is an element of narrative and engagement to it all. I’m sorry, but it your story starts with, “very dry Stoli martini,” it pales in comparison to mine: “Bombaynot Sapphiremartini up, medium wet, shake the living bejesus out of it. Three olives, please.” And if it arrives with a dividend of excess to top off my cocktail on my own, an appreciative tear might well up.