When it comes to drinking cocktails, you can have an almost endless choice in flavour, style and presentation. Over the years, the cocktail has grown from a simple drink designed mainly to mask the flavours in badly made, cheap booze during the late 1800s and early 1900s, to become an overblown and pompous affair, with some of the offerings looking as if they contain more fruit than the breakfast bar at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo.
A difficult time for the cocktail was made even worse by the 1988 Tom Cruise-starrer Cocktail (not to be confused with this year’s offering from India) and the introduction of ‘‘flaring”, where the bartenders throw bottles and shakers around like they’re in the circus. Here’s an idea: make me a good drink and stop messing about.
And so we find ourselves in a more refined period for the cocktail; a renaissance era of classic drinks, made in the simple, classic way with quality ingredients. Modern processes for booze-making have been enhanced to the point where we no longer need to hide the alcohol behind lots of sugar, tonnes of fruit and, worse still, small, colourful, plastic items protruding from the glass. If their sharp pointed ends don’t blind you, their neon-bright ugliness will.
But it is not just in cocktails that the world has seen a move towards quality over quantity, simplicity over intricacy. The world of fashion sees Tom Ford rock a plain white shirt better than any pattern I’ve ever seen, and sharp, well-cut suits are seriously on the rise. We have enough complexity in our lives through work and relationships, why would we want it in our drinks and suits as well?
The mythological embodiment of simple dressing and simple drinking is this month’s hero—James Bond. Almost always turning out in something simple, from a white safari suit through to a black-tie dinner suit, 007 knows that simplicity (and quality) in certain areas of his life will give room for over-complication in others.
It’s no secret that Bond’s drink of choice is the martini. And he is a smart man for choosing such a regal drink. Yes, there are many simple cocktails to choose from (last month’s article spoke of the ease with which one can knock up a Tom Collins or an Old Fashioned during a rain break in a cricket match). But for me, the best is the martini.
Made from just two simple liquids, this is actually quite a malleable cocktail for various reasons. Firstly, the main ingredient—gin. Often people will have a vodka martini, which is fine. But ‘‘fine” is not good enough when it comes to cocktails for me. Please, if you are going to use vodka in a martini, make sure it is a good one. No, make sure it is a great one. This, as with any simple-mix cocktail, is imperative. The lack of ingredients makes each individual part extremely important. So, choose a vodka that has been exceptionally well made, such as Grey Goose (distilled in France from wheat, so the base spirit is excellent) or the Polish Belvedere.
However, my choice of spirit for the traditional martini is gin. Again, I have spoken before in these pages of my love for gin; it really is a wonderful drink and, for me, the only spirit with which a martini should be made. Your choice of gin here is vital. Why? Because of the next ingredient in this magnificent mix—vermouth.
Vermouth is not a spirit most people will know a great deal about. And to be honest, it isn’t something that anyone needs to know too much about, save for the fact that it is a sweet wine and traditionally comes in two forms—dry and sweet. For the purpose of marking a good martini, you simply need a bottle of dry vermouth, with the most famous and easy to source brand being called...yes, you’ve guessed it, Martini-Rossi Extra Dry.
So, to recap, you need just two forms of booze here. Gin (or possibly vodka, if you really must) and a dry vermouth. You will also need a martini glass (one that is V-shaped) and some form of fruit peel or olive to throw in at the end (more on that later). Keep the glass and the gin in the freezer.
There are many variations on the structure of the martini, but I like to go for one part vermouth to five parts gin. Most of the time. However, the great Winston Churchill liked his to be served pretty much neat and was reputed to tell his barman, ‘‘Glance at the vermouth bottle briefly while pouring the juniper distillate freely”.
This now gives us our biggest clue as to why the gin base choice is so very important. The role of the vermouth here is to add some sweetness, some light elements to the drink, but the main heart of the flavour will come from the gin itself.
As per my article two issues back, make sure you have a good handle on which gins you like. At home, I like to use Beefeater 24 for a mid-afternoon martini, as there is a slight kick of tea infused in the spirit that balances out well with the vermouth. I would serve this with an olive in the glass, for extra body and savoury oily tones. If I’m serving before dinner, then Tanqueray 10 is the spirit for me. The additional citrus elements give a refreshing hit before one dives into a bottle of good wine and the first course. This martini I would serve with a twist of lemon zest and a glass of iced water on the side for extra refreshment.
I’m sure that if Bond were to be asked where he would find the world’s best martini, he’d be mad not to mention Duke’s Hotel at St. James, London. Alessandro Palazzi is the man in charge of all cocktail related things there and, in my opinion, you cannot be served a better one anywhere else in the world. His drinks are very much stirred, not shaken. But if you didn’t drop in for a gin martini made with No.3 Gin from Berry Brothers and Rudd, the supplier of wines to the Queen, then you’ll be shaken, not stirred.
Joel Harrison is a drinks writer and consultant and co-founder of the website Caskstrength.net
He is on Twitter at @WeHeartWhisky
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