Mad Over Martinis? Here’s All You Need To Know About Bond’s Poison Of Choice On National Martini Day

For a drink comprising just two chief ingredients – gin and vermouth – the global dominance that the martini has acquired in the world of cocktails is incredible. What works for double-O seven in a particular arrangement (shaken and not stirred) must be the stuff that real men perhaps enjoy knocking back after a day of tremendous mental and physical rigour. No wonder this potent yet flavourful drink was preferred by iconic men in history, including Franklin Roosevelt, Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart and also, Winston Churchill. Martinis, over centuries, have been intrinsically associated with sophistication and class. And to quote Ernest Hemmingway, it’s a drink that makes one “feel civilised”. So, in many ways, someone who opts for a martini as their drink of choice is also subscribing to a lifestyle that is perceived to be synonymous with refinement and the good life.   

Ernest Hemingway preferred the Montgomery martini comprising 15 parts gin to 1 part vermouth.

New to Martys?
For the uninitiated, the martini is a smooth and refreshing cocktail made by combining gin and vermouth in a ratio that varies based on how dry, wet or dirty one wants their martini to be. The drier the martini, the lesser the proportion of vermouth in it and vice versa. But purists and those who love the classic version tend to prefer a martini that constitutes an equal proportion of both. It’s fairly well known that vermouth is said to extend a certain herbal quality to the drink, while gin contributes with the strong aromatic notes of juniper berries. Vermouth is, after all, nothing but aromatised wine that has been infused with herbal extracts, spices, brandy and is delicately sweetened to deliver a palatable flavour.

Let’s shake on that
James Bond may have had a particular weakness for his vodka martinis. But martini purists turn up their noses to this variant where gin is substituted by vodka in the cocktail. But then again, martinis, like tea or omelettes, are personal and the particular ingredients that go into them or even the way they’re combined can remarkably alter the final taste and experience. In fact, the ‘shaken-not-stirred’ option that Bond perenially seems to instruct bartenders taking down his order, is actually a less popular option that many martini connoisseurs would vehemently reject. To achieve the perfect blend of gin and vermouth, it is believed that a gentle stir would do the trick and allow the molecules to be assembled in a perfect symphony. Many also avoid the shaken approach not only because it tends to leave icy fragments on the surface but also because it inadvertently dilutes the drink. While this is true, both shaking and stirring martinis or any cocktail for that matter is only to ensure that it can be served chilled and also to intentionally dilute the drink. So opting for either method of mixing the cocktail will effectively dilute the drink, but shaking would do it much sooner. This is mainly because most bartenders may not stir for long enough to reach the desired temperature to manage the extent of dilution that shaking a drink would pull off in a matter of seconds.

Scientists have closely studied how shaking a martini can alter the drink’s composition compared to if it were to be stirred. Biochemists at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, determined that the process of mixing a martini can alter its antioxidants. Their study established that shaken martinis broke down the hydrogen peroxide component in the drink to a point where only 0.072% of the peroxide was left behind compared to stirred martinis, where 0.157% was left behind. This proves that a shaken martini has more antioxidants than its stirred sibling.

As for James Bond’s preference for shaken martinis, it perhaps had something to do with Ian Lancaster Fleming’s love for martinis which were prepared in this particular manner. The author of the James Bond novels, however, preferred martinis comprising gin and vermouth (as opposed to the ones made of vodka and vermouth that James Bond loved to knock back). Fleming also believed that stirring the drink reduced its flavour, according to his biographer Andrew Lycett. 

Ian Fleming (left), author of the James Bond novels preferred martinis comprising gin and vermouth as opposed to the ones made of vodka and vermouth that James Bond loved to knock back
(Image credits: Scio Central School Website Photo GalleryCC)

The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930 and credited to Harry Craddock suggests that martinis should be shaken in all their recipes. But to this day, most bartenders prefer to stir martinis and any cocktail with transparent ingredients (manhattans, negronis and such) to ensure that it remains a clear drink when served. Once a drink is shaken, it releases air bubbles and the violent act can reduce the ice cubes in the drink into small fragments. The final result could render the drink to appear cloudy and acquire a texture that would resemble a slushy. This obviously impacts the taste of the drink as well. For those who’re keen on spotting onscreen goofs, it would be curious to note that Bond’s martinis were always seen as clear drinks despite being shaken and not stirred, which is virtually impossible.

Another popular theory of the act of shaking a martini is based on how Fleming’s Casino Royale described it. The novel referred to shaking a martini as an act of “bruising” the drink. Some believe this expression describes the slightly bitter taste that the drink achieves on being shaken. It is a recorded fact that most reasonable vodka brands till the 1960s refined the alcohol from potatoes which let off a certain oily consistency. So to ensure that this oil was effectively distributed in the drink and the vermouth dissolved in the drink entirely, Bond would possibly request for his martinis to be shaken. In fact, in a scene, the international man of mystery can also be seen dispensing knowledge on how including vodka made from grain rather than potatoes makes martinis remarkably better.

A glass apart
The very mention of the martini can conjure the image of the iconic martini glass. The slender stem holding up the conical frame has become synonymous with the drink, as iconic as flutes are to champagne. Let’s say the drink wouldn’t be the same if it were poured into any other glass. It’s the glass that Bond so elegantly cradles while slipping sweet nothings into the ears of his female companions. As it turns out, the origins of the martini glass date back to a time before the drink was actually conceived. Many confuse the martini glass for a regular cocktail glass given their similarities in construct. But for keen observers, the difference, though subtle, is obvious: the cocktail glass is smaller, more rounded, and also flaunts a narrower rim.

The design of the cocktail glass was based on utility and not just aesthetics. Believed to be conceived in the late 19th century, the glass was meant to hold drinks that were “served up”. The tall stem which held up the bowl ensured that the cocktail wouldn’t be exposed to the warmth of hands, thus allowing the drink to remain chilled for longer durations.

By the early 20th century, one could distinguish a martini glass from a regular cocktail glass. The rounded sides of the martini glass took on a purely conical shape, with the glass walls converging at the bowl’s base. And these distinguished design features were only introduced to ensure martinis remained chilled till they were consumed. The wide brim also enhanced exposure to air, allowing the gin to open up. And since the spirit constituted complex botanicals, they are more discernible than those served in a narrower glass. The sloping sides ensure the cocktail’s ingredients don’t separate and help balance a toothpick or cocktail skewer that’s dropped into the drink along with a ring of olives, considered the most popular garnish for martinis. That said, the unique shape of the glass also made it very easy to pour the drink over. And this is where one of the popular theories about its origins can be traced. Some believe that the martini glass was invented during Prohibition. Its unique shape allowed one to empty the contents of the glass in a jiffy so if there was a raid and one had to down a drink in record time, it would be a convenient option. There are no conclusive records to confirm this theory, but it sure sounds like a good stab in the dark. 

During the 1920s Prohibition, the supply of gin dwindled and some even resorted to a bootleg variant popularly dubbed ‘bathtub gin’
(Image credits: Classic Projects, Cornell College; CC)

A cocktail is born
Like the glass that holds the drink, the origins of the martini are equally hazy. One of the popular theories suggests that the martini evolved from the Martinez (gin, vermouth, orange bitters and curaçao) which itself is said to have evolved from the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters). The Martinez traces its roots to 1860s San Francisco, when it was first served at the Occidental Hotel, whose patrons would frequent the bar before hopping on an evening ferry to the nearby town of Martinez, California. Some believe that the drink was created by a bartender who hailed from Martinez and that it was named after its town of origin. The Martinez cocktail was first described in Jerry Thomas’s 1887 edition of his Bartender’s Guide.

Mooting over vermouth
The actual origins of the martini may be unknown, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that it surely had much to do with Alessandro Martini, an Italian businessman who produced vermouth under the label Martini & Rossi. As it turns out, Martini invested in a wine company near Turin in northern Italy in 1830. Within a decade-and-a-half, several Italian businesses began producing wine, vermouth and other spirits for the Distilleria Nazionale di Spirito di Vino of Turin. The profits from the company and the potential to expand were so promising that Martini decided to expand. One of the major decisions he took was in 1863 when he joined the board of a company co-founded by a gentleman named Teofilo Sola and Luigi Rossi, the inventor of vermouth. The trio went on to produce the most celebrated brand of vermouth under the brand Martini, Sola and Rossi which was later renamed Martini, Sola & Cia. By 1867, the first crates were shipped to New York, which soon registered a steady and growing demand. Within the next few years, the brand exploded worldwide, sweeping awards for its unique blend of vermouth which was being poured into a range of cocktails. The brand soon picked up awards and accolades in Dublin (1865), Paris (1867 and 1878), Vienna (1873) and Philadelphia (1876) for its distinguished taste which had carved a market for itself. When Sola passed away in 1879, his family decided to liquidate their stake in the company, later renamed Martini & Rossi. 

It took three decades for Martinis to find their place of pride in bar menus around the world but when they did, Martini & Rossi, who had established themselves as a premium vermouth brand, were quick to cash in. In fact, one of their ad slogans went ‘It’s not a Martini unless you use Martini’, alluding to the preferred essential ingredient that gave the cocktail a distinct edge. The proportion of vermouth that went into martinis has also varied over decades and sometimes, it was a matter of consequence rather than personal taste. For instance, during 1920s Prohibition, when the supply of gin dwindled, some ever resorted to a bootleg variant popularly dubbed ‘bathtub gin’. Consequently, the proportion of vermouth in martinis went up to 1:1. But in later decades, it’s said to have been tilted in favour of gin mixed in a 3:1 and even 4:1 ratio. While vermouth may have been reduced to a supporting role in bars around the world, celebrated mixologists still like to concoct classic wet martinis for those who have acquired a taste for it, sticking to an equal measure breakup of gin and vermouth. 

Bottles of the most celebrated vermouth brand in the world called Martini, Sola and Rossi. The brand was renamed Martini, Sola & Cia and eventually dubbed Martini & Rossi.

(Image credits: Cool HuntingCC)

Martini gets a makeover
The first published martini recipe was found in the second edition of the Bartender Manual. The drink recipe shared by Harry Johnson was said to contain old tom gin, sweet vermouth, gum, orange curacao, bitters and a lemon twist. The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel was one of the early outfits to serve American cocktails in Europe and their martini recipe was largely a variation of the same. But over decades, there have been various changes to the composition of the martini, particularly with respect to the vermouth content. But over the turn of the 20th century, the fortified wine and bitters that seemed to be a popular choice became a distinguished preference of a few. The popularity of flavoured liqueurs, the malleable quality of vodka and the growing popularity of sweeter cocktails redefined the meaning of what passed for a martini. It was only after the 1990s that we saw a resurgence of the classic wet martini which had an equal split of vermouth and gin. The innovations in the gin industry have also allowed bartenders to infuse their martinis with a range of flavours and aromatic flourishes. 

Among the more adventurous, a range of cocktails and mocktails with the suffix ‘tini’ allowed those who enjoy fruity flavours such as apple (appletini) and peach (peachtini) to experience the classic cocktail in a contemporary twist. The ‘martini’ has, over the years, become a more loose term that’s used to describe various liquor-based drinks such as the Manhattan, Cosmopolitan or any other drink that’s poured into a tall conical glass. 

Three for the road 
One would imagine an elaborate cocktail like the martini would be a drink of choice for a leisurely post-work huddle, to let your hair down after a harrowing week or even to kickstart an evening of debauchery. But did you know there was a time in American history when the US government offered tax exemptions for business lunches? What were expected to be lunch meetings to help propel commerce and economy were actually extended lunches where businessmen downed multiple cocktails. Dubbed the three-martini lunch, these lavish affairs were perceived as excesses extended to the privileged. Gerald Ford, the president who replaced Nixon said in an address to the National Restaurant Association, “The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?” Now that’s an anecdote that would take a big swig to digest.  

President Richard Nixon loved martinis even though it didn't agree with his constitution. He preferred his martinis to be 7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth