December 1, 2005

Cocktail of the Week - Vodka Martini

As I mentioned last week, I bought a couple of new vodkas (Rain and Tito's Handmade) and in order to give them a real test, I decided to make a real classic - an extra extra extra dry Martini. I'm much more of a Bombay Sapphire gin man, but I figure a martini is the best way to "taste" vodka. Here's my long evolved process on making the perfect martini:

  1. Most importantly, you need cold ingredients. This is where most bars fail. Store your vodka and gin in the freezer. Store your vermouth in the refrigerator (it's a wine, so it will freeze up solid if you put it in the freezer). You don't necessarily need to store your cocktail glasses in the freezer, although I do. If you put them in the ice tray about a half hour before you need them, you'll have nicely frosted glasses.
  2. Fresh, perfectly cracked, ice. Not ice that's been sitting in your freezer for months, slowly desiccating away, absorbing strange odors. And you need it cracked just the right size. Too big, and it won't chill things nicely. Too small, and it will water down your drink. Up until recently, I found the best tool for doing this was the Lewis Ice Bag. You put ice cubes in the heavy canvas bag, give it a few whacks with the wooden club, and you have correctly sized ice pieces. You can easily control how big or small the pieces are, just by how many times you whack it. It comes in a nice container, with some classic cocktail recipes, including the martini one I now use. Electric ice crushers don't work very well, as they tend to make the ice chips too small - more like slush than ice cubes, which means they melt too rapidly. But now I use the ice machine in our new refrigerator, which makes some pretty good crushed ice. Maybe a tad too small, but servicable nonetheless for making the perfect martini.
  3. Top shelf ingredients. Because there is nothing masking the taste of the liquor in a martini, you have to use great booze. We're a Bombay Sapphire family here. There just isn't enough taste to regular vodka to make it all that interesting as a martini. Tanqueray is a solid gin, especially the No. Ten label. However, gin seems to be affecting us a little more and for a little longer, as we get older, so moderation is the key here. Vodka doesn't seem to have this effect on us, so it has become a preferred mixer. I'm not nearly as wedded to a premium vodka brand as I am to Sapphire as a gin. We've done some taste testings in the past, and while you could taste some differences, it was more that - a difference - and not something that would create a preference either way. I've enjoyed all the big names in premium vodkas, like Belevedre, Grey Goose (what is it with these liquor web sites? Addicted to Flash and asking a stupid question about how old you are, like they are pron peddlers or something), and the like. I also like Three Olives Vodka, for something that tastes great and is a good price.
  4. The vermouth you use is amazingly important, despite the fact the the modern martini uses very very little (the Winston Churchill martini recipe calls for gin in a cocktail glass, and then look at a bottle of vermouth:-). This is especially true for a vodka martini, with the (dry!) vermouth adding most if not all of the flavor. I'm a Noilly Prat man myself. Remember, vermouth is a wine, so you need to keep it cold but it can also get old. Don't let it sit around in your refrigerator!
  5. Okay, now that you have your ingredients, it is time to make the drink. Put the perfectly cracked ice pieces into your cocktail shaker. I love to collect cocktail shakers, but I really only use the standard stainless steel tall cup, topped with a glass mug. Like James Bond, I like my martinis shaken not stirred. I used to stir it, but then I tried this recipe from the Lewis Ice Bag and have been shaking it ever since. Pour your cold vermouth into the shaker, give it a couple of vigorous shakes and then strain out all the vermouth you can get out, leaving just coated ice in there. That'll be plenty of vermouth.
  6. Now add your vodka or gin that you've pulled from the freezer. Don't be stingy, add plenty, because you have nice big cocktail glasses, chilling in the freezer right? Now shake it again, until your hand gets too cold to hold the steel cup. Set it aside to let it rest.
  7. While the martini is resting in the cocktail shaker, get out your olives. I don't like fancy olives. Give me a nice giant, pimento-stuffed green olive any day. All the other kinds add more flavors I don't want in my martini - anchovy, pepperoncini, etc. I have to admit, we did try almond-stuff olives last night. I figured the almonds wouldn't add flavor to the drink anyway. I still prefer standard ones. Put the olives (don't be stingy here either!) on a paper towel and squeeze. Try to dry them off. Again, you don't want olive brine to ruin your perfect martini, do you? While some like a "dirty" martini, where you actually add extra brine on purpose, the very idea of mangling a perfect cocktail like this makes my skin crawl. Stick the olives on a colorful toothpick and set them aside.
  8. Take your chilled cocktail glasses out of the freezer. You want a clear glass, so you can enjoy the transparent perfection of your creation. Don't hide it behind a colored cocktail glass please! Now strain your martini into the cocktail glasses. Don't worry about a few ice chips getting in there; that just adds to the beauty of the whole thing.
  9. Gently place your toothpick of olives into your cocktail glass and bask in the perfection that is a martini. Take a sip. It should almost take your breath away, even a vodka one. Freezing cold on the tongue, yet burning down the throat. Ahhhh, I can taste it now!
So that's my process for making the perfect martini. And I've never gotten any complaints, either! The main thing is to use cold ingredients, the right vermouth and to make it dry.

The Rain vodka martini was amazingly smooth. Too smooth perhaps, going so far as to have almost no character at all, even for a vodka martini. The drinking was good, though. The almonds in the olives were pretty bitter, but thankfully didn't add any taste to the martini.

The martinis made from Tito's Handmade Vodka had all the character you could possibly hope for from a vodka martini. There was a fullness on the palate that I don't remember from other vodkas. I'm looking forward to trying another martini from Texas again real soon.

Posted by jdarnold at 9:20 AM on cocktail | Comments (2)

Possibly more than I ever wanted to know about Martinis! I will send your commentary to my stepson and his wife - maybe they'll find time to add comments of their own (they're hard-core Martini-drinkers and know their Vodkas well.)

Posted by: Ellen C at May 3, 2006 5:46 PM

Look for a new martini recipe in this week's cocktail posting.

Posted by: Jonathan Arnold at May 4, 2006 1:17 PM

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