WHEN I WAS a child, my grandfather taught me how to make the ultimate martini. Well, perhaps “taught” is a stretch — he would prepare a martini and narrate the method, gifting me with the kind of jazzy cosmopolitan wisdom that I surely would need in my future as a swinging, sophisticated woman of the world. His method was this: Take 3 ounces of gin, and pour it in the shaker with the ice. Pick up the bottle of vermouth; open it; and then casually wave it over the shaker, without actually pouring any in. Cap the shaker, shake the drink and pour it into your glass. Add an olive, and consume.
At the time, this seemed a perfectly reasonable recipe, complete with the kind of meaningless ritual that a person who believed in Santa Claus could get behind. It wasn’t until I grew up, got past my Jell-O shots and fishbowl-cocktails phase, and got into really grown-up drinking that I discovered that my grandfather’s recipe is really just a glass full of gin with an appetizer soaking in it — an act he probably gleaned from Winston Churchill, who famously suggested that to make a martini, one “glance at the vermouth bottle briefly while pouring the juniper distillate freely.”
Over the years, the presence of too much vermouth in a martini has taken on a kind of machoism, the vermouth accused of being “too sweet” or “cloying.”
This, I tell you, is bunk. Unless you are drinking a very fine, herbaceous gin worthy of sipping like whiskey, a glass of straight booze with an olive slowly pickling in it is not what I would call a well-balanced cocktail.
If you have a bar at home, you probably have a bottle of vermouth, probably covered in dust, shoved in the back of the liquor cabinet. And if it’s older than three months, it definitely has gone off, which is why it tastes meh when you add it to your dry martini.
Vermouth is actually a fortified wine, spiked with aromatics, spices and brandy, an old-fashioned libation created for medicinal purposes (and often sipped as an aperitif) that happens to work like magic in cocktails, adding just a hint of sweetness while bringing with it a complex panoply of flavors like coriander, wormwood and saffron. There are dry vermouths and sweet vermouths (the former are for a martini, and the latter for a Manhattan), and they are featured in classic cocktails like the Rob Roy and the Negroni.
Vermouth lately has experienced an improvement in reputation, and the craft liquor industry has obliged with a whole host of niche craft vermouths. Offerings from DiStefano Winery in Woodinville include a dry version made from sauvignon blanc and both a bittersweet and a sweet version from cabernet sauvignon. It is also worth noting that chef Julia Child, no slouch in the tippling department, preferred a “reverse martini,” with a 1:5 ratio of gin to vermouth, and Julia definitely had a better palate than Winston.