The Real Martini

The Classic Cocktail isn't what you thought it was. Robert Hess offers martini recipes straight from history
 The Real Martini

Written by Robert Hess


The Martini has achieved a stature that has elevated it beyond simply being a cocktail, and into being an iconic libation that has a life unto itself. Unfortunately, with this popularity also come myths, rumors, misunderstandings and general confusion. To many people, any drink served in the classic “V” shaped cocktail glass should be referred to as a Martini. This is about the same as saying that any dish with pasta in it should be called Spaghetti.

The term “cocktail” was first coined in either the very late 1700’s or very early 1800’s. The exact details are unknown, although many diligent researchers are gradually narrowing things down. It is properly used to refer to a specific style of mixed drink, one that uniquely would virtually always include “bitters” as an ingredient. The “Old Fashioned” (when properly made) could be considered a very good representation of the original form of the cocktail.

The Martini would enter the scene in the late 1800’s, during a time when cocktails were being slightly transformed by the inclusion of vermouths or other aromatized wines, and the omission of a sweetening ingredient. It was specifically because of drinks like the Martini and the Manhattan that the term “Old Fashioned” was coined to describe the style of cocktail which preceded them.

Today’s Martini is seen by true connoisseurs as a fairly sad imitation of what a Martini should really be like. Originally, the Martini included a lot more vermouth then most would consider using today; in some cases, even more vermouth than gin. But the surprises aren’t over yet. The vermouth in those days would have always been sweet, in fact the term “dry Martini” was how customers would request their Martini to be made with dry vermouth instead of sweet. And as a cocktail, the Martini would have always included bitters. Since it was a gin based cocktail, it would typically use “orange bitters” instead of “aromatic bitters”, which would traditionally be used for cocktails like a Manhattan.

One of the earliest recipes for the Martini comes from “The New And Improved Bartenders’ Manual” by Harry Johnson, which was published in 1888:

Martini Cocktail

(use a large bar glass)

Fill the glass up with ice;

2 or 3 dashes of Gum Syrup;

2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Boker’s genuine only);

1 dash curacao;

1/2 wine glassful of Old Tom Gin;

1/2 wine glassful of Vermouth.

Stir up well with a spoon, strain it into a fancy cocktail glass, squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top, and serve.

(The measurement of “wine glass” is intended to mean 2 oz, so 1/2 wine glassful would be 1 ounce)

We don’t see  a published recipe for a “dry Martini” cocktail until 1904, in the French cocktail book “American Bar—Boissons Anglaise & Américaines”, which lists the recipe as (translated):


Glass No 5

Using mixing glass No 1, and a few pieces of ice:

3 dashes of angostura or orange bitter.

Finish with gin and dry vermouth, equal quantities, stir well, pour into glass No 5, serve with a piece of lemon peel, a cherry or an olive, based on the taste of the consumer.

As we lead into American Prohibition, the recipe for the Dry Martini will vary from equal parts gin and dry vermouth, to sometimes 3 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, but always with a dash or two of orange bitters.


Once prohibition is over, well trained bartenders are non-existent and the general public is far too used to bootleg hooch which had been mixed with almost anything at hand to make it more palatable. They want to ring back in the golden years of cocktails, which were taking place right before prohibition, but they seem to have lost their way.

In search of direction, they look in vain for somebody to provide them guidance. Who they turn to are the celebrities of the day – Churchill, Rockefeller, Hemingway, Bogart, many of whom have very colorful anecdotes of how to make the best Martini. Churchill was said to prefer “merely glancing at the vermouth while you pour the gin”, or “look in the direction of France”, while others would instruct you to simply whisper “vermouth” over the mixing glass.


This is most likely what inspired today’s modern idea of the need to restrict the quantity of vermouth that you used. A problem here, however, is that in virtually any instance where somebody is describing such gymnastics, they are either a borderline or full blown alcoholic. They weren’t trying to perfect the culinary achievement of the Martini, but instead were simply trying to increase its octane.

Today, we are still saddled with the notion that the only good Martini is a bone-dry Martini, and for many, it should be made with vodka instead of gin, with the vodka usually coming straight out of the freezer. Unfortunately, such beliefs prevent people from discovering the “cuisine de cocktail” that the Martini can provide when it is properly made. I have made countless “extra dry vodka Martini” drinkers seriously re-think their choice by simply making them a proper Martini as it would have been made right before Prohibition began:

Classic Martini

·         1 1/2 ounces gin

·         1/2 ounce dry vermouth

·         1 dash orange bitters

Stir well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Obviously quality products should always be used. For the gin I would recommend Plymouth, Tanqueray, or Beefeater. For the dry vermouth, I’d recommend Dolin if you can find it, if not, Martini & Rossi, and for the orange bitters, either Angostura Orange Bitters, or Regan’s Orange Bitters.

Once you’ve accustomed yourself to the notion of using far more vermouth than you would have thought possible, I would recommend taking this even a step further, and try a “Fity-Fity” Martini, as they serve it at The Pegu Club in New York. It is made with half Plymouth gin, half Dolin dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, with a lemon twist for garnish. It has made a believer of many a skeptic.

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