The Iconic Martini

By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

We have witnessed food and restaurants achieve new heights in the last two decades in the form of incredible chefs, and a renewed focus on heirloom vegetables and artisan cheeses to name a few. Advances in cooking equipment and food science has opened so many doors. These really are exciting times in the culinary world.

Despite this renaissance, there are certain dishes that stand the test of time such as the Caesar salad, a well-prepared steak, a Cobb salad or the classic hamburger.

Cocktails and spirits have been riding the same wave. Bartenders are now mixologists, and they are creating bitters, syrups, shrubs and all manner of libation ingredients with amazing talent and precision. Yet certain spirits and cocktails remain timeless—the margarita, or a well-aged bourbon, for example.

But for me, one cocktail stands out above all others. That would be the contrivance of gin, vermouth, ice and an olive—better known as the martini.

The origin of the martini is up for debate, its roots traced to the Occidental Hotel during the California gold rush, the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, and the commonly used ingredient of Martini & Rossi vermouth. But the most common belief is that its humble beginnings lie during the California gold rush in either Martinez or San Francisco.

Recipes and interpretations have evolved over the years. For example, the portion of vermouth has increased and decreased. Both Peychaud and orange bitters were at one time the norm, and lemon peels and olives have traded blows over the decades as to which is the proper garnish. But one thing is certain, we love our martinis.

Classic actors and notables, when seen out on the town or on the silver screen, often had the timeless cocktail in their hand. From Hemmingway to Dietrich to Bogart—they all had martinis in their hands, and the public had to have them too.

Not too far behind the facial tissue being called by its most popular brand name, Kleenex, or all cotton swabs being called Q-Tips, the martini has almost become an ambiguous term, referring to any cocktail with alcohol, acid and sugar that is served up in a martini or coupe glass.

Many people, present company included, picture Frank Sinatra and the rest of his Rat Pack with martinis, as they were very popular during the days of their performances at the former Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, but in fact none of the Rat Pack enjoyed martinis. Almost all of them preferred Jack Daniels in some form or fashion.

As if this classic drink wasn’t popular enough among the elite, author Ian Fleming created a dapper spy with the name of James Bond who would forever cement the cocktail in the hearts and minds of readers and moviegoers. How can any of us forget “shaken and not stirred.”

So just what is a true James Bond martini? The recipe calls for three measures Gordon’s London Dry Gin, one measure vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken until very cold, and garnished with a thin slice of lemon peel. This cocktail later became known as the Vesper, after the original bond girl, Vesper Lynd.

While the Sazerac, rumored to be the original cocktail, is enjoying a lively revival, and the Manhattan and Old Fashioned have come back into fashion, the martini’s popularity has never waned and I believe it will always be in vogue.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.