British super-spy James Bond may be the world’s most famous martini fan, but the cocktail is decidedly an American classic. The most common origin story traces to the Gold Rush town of Martinez, California, hence the name, but there are competing claims from New York to San Francisco. We do know for sure that its recipe appeared in printed bartending guides in the 1880s, and it may very well have been around for decades before that.
The martini has always enjoyed a special place in pop culture. Bond ordered his first in the 1953 novel “Casino Royale,” at the same time executives were popularizing the three-martini lunch across the United States, later immortalized in “Mad Men.” “Sex and the City” helped martinis make the jump from the classic recipe to modern spinoffs, popularizing variants such as the Cosmopolitan. But no one captured the allure of the drink as eloquently as Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway, who famously ran up a tab for 51 dry martinis in Paris after the city was liberated in World War II. In “A Farewell to Arms,” he wrote, “I’ve never tasted anything so cool and clean … They make me feel civilized.”
Hemingway drank the original, made with gin; Bond mixed gin and vodka to create the Vesper variant; and in the ‘80s, vodka replaced gin for most newcomers to the cocktail and subsequent variants like the Cosmo. “Originally gin was king, but since the ‘80s, vodka has taken over,” says Megan Corrigan, lead bartender at River Bar & Lounge at Sea Island. “When a guest orders a classic martini, up or on the rocks, 80% of the time it is vodka. We also make a lot of Cosmos, Vespers, Lemon Drops and right now the hot one is the Espresso martini. I would estimate that I make more than 160 of each of these per month.”
007 is famous for preferring his martinis “shaken, not stirred,” and Corrigan agrees that there is a difference, depending on your ingredients. “Gin is made up of a lot of delicate herbs and by shaking gin, you run the risk of ‘bruising’ its delicate nature. By stirring gin, you also preserve the velvety quality, often a feature gin lovers look for in a martini. So, gin martinis are stirred, and vodka martinis are shaken. Most important to note, the reason for utilizing either technique is the same — dilution.” That’s because they are usually mixed with ice to cool, then strained. The two classic presentations are up (neat), or on the rocks, and the most popular garnishes at Sea Island are olives, bleu cheese olives or a lemon twist. Drops of olive brine make it “dirty” or even “filthy.” Corrigan admits, “To me the true martini lover is someone who wants the simple elegance of the spirits, but personally I like adding a little olive brine.”
A small but growing trend is the miniature version, the “mar- teeny.” Mini versions allow patrons to sample more recipes and allows for glassware creativity. “The mar-teeny is usually served in a small coupe or wine glass, and it’s different visually. It gives a different look and breaks the monotony of 120 years of the same old glass,” Corrigan states.