Ah, the venerable martini. Clear as water, flammable, and with a reputation for elegance and purity.

But for many, it remains an intimidating beverage choice because they simply don’t know how to order a martini in the first place. Telling a bartender that you’d like a martini will prompt a cascade of questions – vodka or gin, shaken or stirred, up or on the rocks…?

Ahhh! But all I wanted was a martini!

Let’s break it down so that next time you can walk up to the counter like a pro and order the Don Draper go-to.

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The key thing to remember is that the martini is basically like drinking pure vodka or gin. Sure, there’s a little vermouth in there and a touch of olive flavor, but really, it’s a whole lot of alcohol. Consequently, a martini isn’t for everyone.

But for those of us that enjoy a good martini, we know that there’s a special kind of magic involved when one chills vodka or gin and combines it with a soft touch of vermouth. Simple as can be, but oh so wonderful!

In my own humble opinion, I believe that when you want to complement your dinner, order wine. When you want to celebrate, order champagne. When relaxing with friends, beer. And when you simply want to feel a bit loose (or tight, in Hemingway parlance), order a martini.

Step 1: Gin or vodka

Let’s begin with the rather polarizing topic of whether a martini should be made with gin or vodka. I’m a vodka guy, but I’ll admit that the “classic martini” is one made with gin. And stirred, so as not to bruise the spirit, which does happen. Remember, gin is made with botanicals, so different brands can taste very unique.

Vodka, on the other hand, is a little bit more robust. It has a far different taste and mouth-feel than its British counterpart. If you’re going to try a vodka martini for the first time, please heed my advice: Go top shelf. Budget vodkas are just fine for mixed drinks and brunch staples (here’s looking at you, bloody mary), but the cheap stuff will go down like rubbing alcohol when only paired with vermouth.

Step 2: Dry or wet

Dry or wet refers to how much vermouth you want in your martini. Vermouth, for your reference, is a type of botanical wine, and a dry vermouth will be somewhat bitter. Ordering a dry martini means that you’ll have only a splash of vermouth – sometimes no more than just enough to wet your glass.

Conversely, a wet martini is one made with more dry vermouth. This cocktail will cut through the sharp vodka taste and give you a more bitter and therefore, vermouth flavored cocktail.

Historically, martinis were nearer to a one-to-one ratio of vodka/gin to vermouth. Over the years, the proportion of vermouth has receded and our glasses have been filled more with vodka or gin. Today, a modern martini is dry.

Step 3: Shaken?

Or stirred? I’m sure you know what James Bond likes to order, but what’s the difference between the two styles?

Martinis shaken in a cocktail shaker, aside from being a bit theatrical, end up with small ice shards floating on top. Personally, I like this. The ice dilutes after only a couple of minutes, but I enjoy the first couple sips with the soft texture that the ice lends to the drink.

Remember, don’t shake gin, only vodka. Gin will bruise and you’ll compromise the integrity of the drink.

Stirred is fine whether you’re drinking gin or vodka.

Step 4: Up or on the rocks?

Ordering a martini on the rocks is a little weird, kind of like buttoning your bottom button on a suit – sure you can do it…but just don’t.

Order your drink “up” for a clean and classic look.

Step 5: Garnish

As I’m sure you already know, the default garnish for a martini is with an olive. However, asking for one with a twist with get you a thin lemon peel for a bit of citrus taste (try this with a wet martini).

3 martinis you should know:

Dirty martini

Made with a splash of olive juice (or a big splash depending on your inclination). The dirty martini is actually how I first developed my taste for martinis. You’ll get a significant olive flavor and the drink will appear cloudy with a green hue.

Gibson martini

Just a different garnish – with a small pearl onion in place of the olive.

Vesper martini

Courtesy of Ian Fleming via James Bond, the Vesper martini is made with one measure vodka, 3 measures of gin, and a half measure Kina Lillet – a wine aperitif. Kina Lillet has been discontinued, but a fine contemporary substitute is Cocchi Americano.

Wrap up

Any questions?

After re-reading the above explanation, maybe ordering a martini is a bit complicated after all! Here’s all you need to know:

Store this away for future use: “I’d like a dry vodka martini, please. Up, one olive, and shaken.”

All you need now is a peaked lapel suit to match your discerning choice in beverages…

By Ryan Wagner

Bonus tips:

  1. Never spend more than $30 on a bottle of vodka. Vodka isn’t aged, so what are you really paying for? (It’s the marketing)
  2. You can’t go wrong with Leopold Brothers vodka. Plus, they are Denver based!
  3. Drink your martini reasonably fast, as you don’t want it to warm up.