"You don't want any of those oddball derivatives, I hope," Jason said, drawing himself up to his full height. "I make them, but I'm not going to do anything to promote any of that swill." Jason tends bar at a stodgy upscale inn down the coast (not a place you're likely to find me drinking, though I have seen Jason in his workplace a time or two) and he does a lot of weddings in the summer. "Good for making money but you wouldn't believe some of the concoctions people order," he reports.
"None of those oddball derivatives," I promised, explaining that I just wanted his take on the best procedure for making a superior traditional gin martini.
It turns out there's a lot to know about making martinis, and most of it is about water, ice and temperature.
But we started with the age-old question of how much dry vermouth goes in the shaker. Over the last forty years the meaning of the words "dry martini" has gone from "martini made with dry vermouth" (instead of sweet red vermouth, which was a component of an older style of martini) to "martini made while nodding in the direction of the vermouth bottle."
I got a mini-lecture on balance, the gist of which was that gin is basically straight alcohol flavored with botanicals, most prominently juniper, but that gin alone has a rather sharp bite due to the alcohol. Many straight gin and superdry martini drinkers have become accustomed to that bite and they like it, but for the rest of the world, a rounding-off of the gin's edge is in order. Here's where vermouth comes in, with a mellower, more floral set of botanical modifiers and an overall softer, brighter taste. Blended with the gin it starts the process of producing a smooth, bracing refreshment instead of an aggressive assault.
"That's all fine," I said, "but how much is enough." He hemmed and hawed (did anyone ever hem without hawing?) and dodged and weaved but eventually I got him to own up to a 6:1 ratio between gin and vermouth. The old standard had been 4:1 and the new standard might well be 40:1, but for Jason 6:1 is it. So if the gin is 2 ounces (more-or-less standard), which is a quarter cup, the vermouth is about 2 teaspoons. I'm pretty happy with Jason's martinis, I should have said earlier, so I'm going to join him on this 6:1 bandwagon.
"So, dump the gin and vermouth in a shaker, give it a couple of shakes and strain it out?" I asked, while thinking "Where's the mystery? Where's the art? Is that all just fluff bartenders put out to enhance their position?"
"Not so fast," Jason shot back. "Where's the gin?"
"In the freezer," I told him. I like my martinis cold.
"You're joking, of course," Jason said, looking me up and down and backing away slightly.
He just about fell over when I told him the shaker was in there too.
This led to another mini-lecture, this time on the topic of "The Melt." Apparently water is an important ingredient in a martini, again to contribute to smooth refreshment instead of harsh assault.
"That's what the shaker is for," Jason explained patiently. "If we just wanted it cold, your method would be fine. But what we want is cold with a tiny bit of ice water in the mix, preferably from just-melted ice." While he was talking he was decanting my frozen gin into a one of the stainless steel frothing pitchers he found near the espresso machine, and running the frozen shaker full of tap water.
And this is the reason cracked or shaved ice, not cubes, should go into the shaker, Jason explained, wrapping some cubes in a clean towel and smashing away with a meat tenderizer. When the ice is cracked it yields big pieces and smaller shards. The big pieces are good for cooling the drink down fast while it's in the shaker and the shards are for The Melt. But if the shaker and the gin are already frozen, there's no warmth to promote The Melt.
"Okay," I said, "now that we've warmed up the booze and the shaker and cracked the ice....can we make the drinks?"
"Sure," said Jason. "Where's your stirrer?"
"What about 'shaken, not stirred'?" I asked. It's the most famous instruction to a bartender since "set'em up Joe." Everyone knows that the jet set likes martinis shaken, not stirred.
"To much melt with shaking. Too much air. To rough. We just want to swirl the ice around in the drink."
I was getting the idea: every step is part of a ritual. A ritual that Jason and his legions of predecessors had thought through and debated for generations. I dug up a long-handled metal drink-strirring spoon.
"Is there a correct order for putting stuff into the shaker," I asked. "And by the way, how do you like my nifty glass shaker from the forties?" It's stenciled with quaint drink recipes in various colors, and little drawings of fruit, umbrellas, etc..
"Yes, there is an order," he said, "and, I wasn't going to say anything but since you asked, metal is better."
"The Melt?" I'm trying to learn over here.
"The Melt. Your hand slightly warms the shaker...always hold it in the bottom third, by the way, where the drink is...but glass is a better insulator than metal so The Melt can be a little inhibited with glass. And another thing," he continued, "the correct shape for a shaker is narrow at the bottom, so your hand can get nearly all around it." At least my shaker had the right profile.
"Ice first?" I guessed. Jason nodded.
"Give it a little stir, to start The Melt," he instructed, "and then add the vermouth and give another little stir."
I followed instructions and as soon as I'd stirred the vermouth Jason poured in the gin.
"Now stir," he commanded.
"I don't know, but you watch the clock and I'll tell you when to stop."
It turned out to be almost exactly 30 seconds.
When the stir was completed, Jason smoothly and discretely added a half-teaspoonful of water. "I try not to let the customers see that, for fear that I'd be accused of watering their drinks, but I've found that just a little water added at the end completes the smoothing just perfectly." By this point I was just taking notes so there was no discussion of this.
Jason took the shaker and expertly strained the drinks into the glasses, which fortunately had also been in the freezer. ("Once the melt has been completed and we're ready to drink, we want the cocktail to stay as cold as possible, so frosted glasses are perfect," he explained.)
Then came a short discussion of garnishes. Jason is of the school that says gin martinis require olives and nothing else will do. Tipsy Olives are his choice - big and juicy and soaked in vermouth. He rinses them quickly under the tap and says that the vermouth soaking cuts the brine flavor perfectly, again to contribute to the smooth balance of the superior martini. Twists, onions, etc,. were dismissed with a wave of the hand. Like I said, it was a short discussion.
The drinks were in fact superior.
Jason's Gin Martini
2 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin, or other top shelf gin, at room temperature
2 tsp Noilly Prat or other top quality dry vermouth, at room temperature
metal shaker, room temperature
cracked ice to fill shaker about 1/3 full for 1 drink, 1/2 full for 2
metal stirring spoon, at room temperature
frosted martini glass
1/2 tsp water
3 Tipsy Olives, rinsed, on a decorative pick
Place the ice in the shaker and give it a stir. Pour in the vermouth and stir again. Add the gin and stir gently but firmly about 30 seconds. Add the water, stir once more, and strain the drink into the frosted glass. Garnish with the olives and serve immediately.
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