Bad Vermouth and the Myth of the Dry Martini

Okay, look, the so called dry martini with all its apocryphal lore is a pernicious myth leftover from the dark intersection of the post-prohibition loss of cocktail knowledge and America’s post-war takeover by processed food. The dry martini is a product of the fact that for decades the only vermouth widely available in the U.S. was Martini & Rossi. And Martini & Rossi is undrinkable bitter shit. Martini & Rossi is the TV dinner of vermouth. It’s the Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup and Hamburger Helper casserole of vermouth. It’s the Velveeta processed cheese product of vermouth. That multiple generations of bartenders and patrons were taught to make martinis extra-dry was tacit recognition that Martini & Rossi vermouth is a good way to ruin a decent glass of gin.

Another indicator here would be the dominance of the brined olive as the martini garnish of choice. The use of a bitter wine shifted the drink toward the bitter end of the taste spectrum. The olive became the logical garnish. The dirty martini became the next logical evolution of the drink (perhaps I will make a follow-up post in praise of the bitter martini, but debunking it is my mission today). In recent years, the lemon twist has returned to the martini, in some establishments even becoming the default garnish. For years I found the lemon twist confusing, wrong, incongruent with the otherwise bitter cocktail and considered it a popularizing, pandering concession to the lemon drop, cosmopolitan, appletini crowd.

It’s only taken me fifteen years to figure this out, but the key to a good martini is not dry, but wet, just not the Martini & Rossi. Use a flavorful, aromatic vermouth such as Dolin and a martini ceases to be a bitter drink suitably garnished with olives and becomes a fragrant, effervescent drink more appropriate to citrus.

Across a number of domains America is rediscovering quality and undoing the damage of generations of public tastes being formed around the requirements of corporate mass-production. It’s time for Martini & Rossi and the dry martini to go the way of the TV dinner, the casserole, the Velveeta.

To be more general about the matter, a martini should be made with a good quantity of a flavorful, robust white aperitif wine. One way to understand the martini is to realize that it is part of a family of cocktails, one close relative being the Vesper, which uses Lillet Blanc where the vermouth would be. And once you see that substitutions of various aperitif wines is a way to make variations on the martini — Cocchi Americano would be another option — then you understand dry vermouth and its proper place in the martini. Another general rule here would be that vermouth shouldn’t be some miscreant liquor, stalking the outer reaches of your bar, in the little bottle, only there for the sake of the occasional drop in a martini. Generally, if you wouldn’t drink it on its own, you shouldn’t put it in a cocktail (a more distantly related principle is that you should at least occasionally have a glass of your various components on their own, at least for the sake of discerning their place in mixtures; but also, aperitif wines are yummy and worth the occasional sip or slug on their own terms). Another way to get an appreciation for the place of vermouth in a martini is to consider the renaissance of vermouth cocktails in recent years.

What’s the proper ratio? Depends. Somewhere in the neighborhood of three-to-one. Here’s the New York Times head-to-head gin review from a few years back that made Plymouth’s current reputation. They mix their martinis at a ratio of four-to-one — because they “wanted to make sure that the gin was featured prominently.” That’s right: a four-to-one ratio was a deviation meant to foreground the gin for the sake of a gin tasting (Asimov, Eric, “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis,” The New York Times, 2 May 2007).

And here’s Derek Brown, royalty of D.C.’s craft cocktail revival (Wikipedia | twitter), with Kojo Nnamdi mixing a martini at a 50/50 ratio. His preparation is too fastidious for my tastes, but you get the idea regarding ratios and ingredients.

Coda: keeping me honest with myself is one of the reasons for this blog. Three years ago I had a fairly different position on martinis (“How to Make a Mean Martini,” 6 May 2010), but over the course of maybe the last six months I’ve had a few experiences that have completely changed my opinion on this matter (here’s the tweet from 12 March 2013 that’s maybe the moment of realization). Well, I guess I stand by my opposition to the pretense of “mean martini” claims and all the dogmatic and wrong-headed shit-talk. So maybe I’ll stick by my previous point that “most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store.”

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One thought on “Bad Vermouth and the Myth of the Dry Martini

  1. I would love it if you also taught people vermouth should be kept in the fridge once opened and only lives for a few weeks, as it is a fortified wine, and not liquor at all.

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