In my blog about the history of the Martinez cocktail, I explored the timeline of a drink that is considered a classic, but is known today by a relatively standard recipe. In searching through old recipes I found that many, including some of the oldest, called for dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth, and that over the years the recipe had undergone many changes. Since then I’ve been asked by a lot of bartenders which recipe I like the best and if there is a definitive recipe for the classic Martinez. The answer to the latter question is of course that there is no definitive recipe, but my thought is that the Martinez is more of a style of drink than a single drink with only one recipe.
If we look at other classics that developed around the same time such as the Manhattan and the Martini, we see striking similarities. They are cocktails that feature a spirit combined with vermouth and bitters, they are simple stirred drinks and of course they have stood the test of time to become classics. The one difference between our understanding of the Martinez and the others though is that both the Martini and the Manhattan appear as a family of drinks that include different styles of vermouths in different ratios. We’re all familiar with sweet or perfect Manhattans, and the same was originally true of the Martini, but for some unknown reason the Martinez has always been assumed to be a drink made only with sweet vermouth.
Having put together a time line of recipes from 1884 to 1947 of Martinez recipes it struck me that perhaps we’ve been missing a trick. The earliest recipe to feature in a cocktail book comes in 1884, where O H Byron states that the Martinez is the same as a Manhattan only with Gin. He also gives us two recipes for the Manhattan, one sweet and one dry, so surely this points to the fact that the Martinez may have been served both ways.
While die-hard fans of the modern recipe for the Martinez may think I’m stark raving mad for proposing this understanding of the drink, it has stuck with me, and having tasted them both ways I had found merit in both versions. So to get back to the first part of the question posed earlier, which recipe do I like best, I though the only way to get to the bottom of it would be for me to taste all nine unique recipes side by side. Having mentioned this to a couple of people, I realised that I could take it a step further and conduct a blind tasting and get feedback from a small group of people about the merits of each of the recipes.
I recently published the findings of this blind tasting on BarLifeUK, the top online trade publication here in the UK, and I revealed the top three recipes that came from the tasting. Below is a brief summary from that article where I also promised to go a little more in depth with the feedback from each of the nine recipes.
To make a truly blind tasting is a difficult task. You see if even one person in the room knows which drink is which they can unintentionally influence the other people in the tasting. I’ve seen it happen enough times to realise that the power of persuasion can ruin the results. So with this in mind I teamed up with Richard Wynne of Callooh Callay, to devise a method to ensure that no one in the room would know which drink was which until the end of the tasting. Having set a date to get a few willing volunteers together in the lovely JubJub bar at Callooh Callay, all was set for an interesting evening of sipping Martinezes (can someone please help me to work out the plural of Martinez?).
It was agreed that I would pre make all nine of the recipes in advance and put them into the fridge in an order that only I knew. When the tasting started Richard would then select them in a random order, while keeping track of which was which. In this way neither he nor I would know which recipe we were tasting at any point. I know it sounds like extreme lengths to go to, but I wanted to ensure that no preconceived ideas snuck in and ruined the results.
Having secured the services of an all-star line-up that included Emma Stokes, the famous Gin Monkey, Sarah and Adam from the Juniper Society, Simon from BarLifeUK, Adam Elmegirab of Boker’s bitters fame as well as a key contributor to my original Martinez article, I was almost ready to go. It only remained to find some willing non-drinks industry cocktail fans who like a drop or two of gin, to round out the tasting panel. Fortunately I am engaged to just such a person, and Sarah enlisted the help of two of her co-workers, Christina and Sophie.
The one thing I asked of all the tasters was that they temporarily push aside any preconceived ideas of what a Martinez should taste like, and instead focus on the individual merits of each drink. Taking each recipe as a chance to experience a different expression of the gin and vermouth based cocktail and judging them on their balance and complexity would be the key to getting a fair result. With that one criteria agreed, we set about the hard task of sipping nine very different incarnations of the Martinez cocktail. The results are below starting with the least favourite and working up to the recipes judged as best. It was interesting to me that every recipe got at least one vote though.
Bear in mind though that this was not an attempt to find the best recipe but to explore the whole family of Martinez recipes just to experience how different versions would taste. I should also give thanks to Ransom Old Tom Gin, Hammer & Son Old English Gin, Plymouth and Beefeater, who all kindly donated a bottle of each of their products for use in my little experiment. Your gins were truly appreciated and greatly enjoyed!
Old Mr. Boston – 1935 – ½ dry vermouth, ½ dry gin, 1 dash orange bitters, 1 dash curacao.
This recipe was possibly the least popular judging by the comments from the tasting panel. It wasn’t judged to be a bad drink, but everyone agreed that overall it was a bit one dimensional and was in fact too close to a very wet martini. It didn’t have enough depth or body to it and overall was judged to be uninspiring. Interestingly it was also commented on as being too sweet, despite having less sweet ingredients than many of the other recipes. Sorry Mr. B, your recipe for the Martinez cocktail fails to impress.
Cocktails, How to Mix Them by Robert – 1922 – Robert gave us two recipes, but this one is the one he states as being popular in England and combines 30ml of Plymouth Gin with 30ml of dry vermouth along with 2 dashes each of Angostura bitters and orange syrup.
The one comment that seemed to unite everyone when it came to this recipe is that it was a bit flat. The start of the flavour was fine, but the journey was short with very little to comment on in terms of finish. Many of the tasters also felt that there wasn’t enough sweetness in this incarnation of the Martinez. Robert, you failed us!
Also from Drinks, How to Mix Them by Robert – 1922 – this time we had Robert’s other recipe, featuring 30ml Old Tom Gin with 30ml dry vermouth, 2 dashes of orange bitters and 3 dashes of curacao or maraschino.
Having tried it both ways I opted for maraschino as the sweetener as the curacao version was simply dominated by orange. For Gin I chose Hammer & Son Old English, and despite trying my best to make the recipe work, the tasting panel remained largely unimpressed. The notes from our tasters hinted that a lot of the spicy and herbal note from the gin came through, but that overall the cocktail lacked depth and went from being interesting in the first few seconds to simply sweet with no real character on the finish. Once again Robert, you let us down.
O H Byron – 1884 – offering us two recipes O H Byron has the first Martinez recorded in a cocktail book. This was his sweet vermouth based version, with 30ml Old Tom Gin and 30ml sweet vermouth finished off with 2 dashes each of Angostura bitters and curacao. I chose Ransom Old Tom gin for this one.
All of the judges had something to say about this one, and not all of it bad. It seems that this one was a showcase for the vermouth, with the gin being a little lost behind sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters. Lots of spice and ginger came through, but overall it was judged too sweet and a little cloying. One judge said it was ok but they wouldn’t manage a third one.
Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock – 1930 – in his recipe for 6 people Harry employs 180ml of gin and 180ml of dry vermouth combined with 25ml curacao or maraschino and 12.5 ml of orange bitters.
Having tried the recipe a number of ways I opted for Beefeater 24 and maraschino for this one. The tasting panel felt that while there were many redeeming qualities to this drink including a light floral aroma and creamy mouth feel, overall it was a little too sweet and reminded several of them of dessert wine. Harry, you’re a legend, but this time your recipe wasn’t!
Trader Vic’s Bartenders Guide – 1947 – 22.5ml dry gin, 22.5ml dry vermouth, ½ barspoon orange bitters, ½ barspoon curacao. I chose Beefeater for the gin.
This one split the judges and was only one point away from creeping into the top three. Many found it pleasingly crisp, yet with a cream soda richness that led to a longish finish. Three of the judges said they found it easy to drink and would happily drink several, and overall it was found to be a tasty cocktail with a great balance between the gin and the vermouth. Vic, you did us proud.
Official Mixers Manual by Patrick Duffy and 1700 Drinks for the Man Behind The Bar – both 1934 – an identical recipe to the Savoy only using Plymouth Gin in place of London Dry – 180ml Old Tom Gin, 180ml dry vermouth, 25ml curacao or maraschino and 12.5ml orange bitters.
Despite the similarity to the Savoy recipe, using Plymouth Gin seems to have made a world of difference as overall the tasting panel found this cocktail a delight. There were one or two that found this drink a little too light for their taste, but overall most found it well balanced, complex and easy to drink. The sweetness was also judged to be pleasant and not overpowering, and despite not being what most would recognize as a Martinez, this recipe was second or third favourite with most judges. Well done chaps.
Bon Vivant’s Companion by Jerry Thomas – 1887 revised edition – 60ml sweet vermouth, 30ml Old Tom Gin, 2 dashes maraschino and 1 dash Boker’s bitters.
To most bartenders this is the recognized recipe for the Martinez cocktail as we know it today, so no surprise that it made it into the top three. What was surprising to many of our tasters was that it wasn’t the winning Martinez. In the end it was judged as being maybe a touch too sweet and very rich, not the sort of cocktail you would drink several of, but very pleasant with plenty of complexity and a long finish. JT you old dog, there’s a reason this recipe has lasted so long!
O H Byron – 1884 – the dry vermouth version of the Martinez and the first written recipe found in a cocktail book – 30ml dry vermouth, 15ml Old Tom Gin, 3-4 dashes angostura bitters, 3 dashes gomme.
This was the surprise of the night for several reasons. Obviously most people didn’t expect a dry vermouth based Martinez to come out as the best version, but also surprisingly many people were fooled into thinking it was a sweet vermouth version due to the colour. I chose to use Ransom Old Tom Gin and its yellowish colour combined with the reddish brown of the Angostura bitters gave it a sweet vermouth colouring. The last surprise was that this is the only recipe to use gomme in place of the curacao or maraschino. This recipe was found to be rich, complex and full flavoured, with ripe dark cherry, spice and ginger coming through on the nose. The finish was long and must have been enjoyable as one taster simply wrote YUM! And another chose to describe it as ‘amazing’. OHB we salute you!
Well as I said at the end of the tasting session, despite my best efforts, this all goes to prove almost nothing. As with all cocktails it comes down to the ingredients used and the skill of the person making the drink as to how it will taste. I guess for me the one thing that this exercise has done, is to open my eyes to the possibility that even with classic cocktails that we all think we know well, there may be more to the story than meets the eye.
In the case of the Martinez, I now look at it as a family of drinks that showcase vermouth balanced with gin and bitters, and I’m open to trying it either dry or sweet. A couple of months ago the idea of a dry Martinez would have had me rolling my eyes, but now it doesn’t seem quite so absurd. We’re never likely to know how the first ever Martinez cocktail was made, but one thing is certain, the recipes throughout the ages have been diverse and interesting, and while I’m sure Jerry Thomas’ version will remain the standard, maybe a few of you will experiment with dry versions too. You never know it might just catch on!