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There is a very old joke about the Martini. It goes something like this: If you are ever stranded on a deserted island or find yourself washed ashore after a shipwreck, see if you can make yourself a Martini. No sooner will you have begun the process, you will be rescued because hundreds of people will miraculously appear to tell you that you are doing it all wrong. And they will offer to teach you the correct way to make a Martini.
In fact, there is no one way to make a Martini and experience teaches us that. Essentially, the original Martini is a drink made by adding vermouth to gin. If you add lots of gin and only a little vermouth then it is called a Martini. If you decrease the proportion of gin then the drink is called Gin and French (an oddly English name) or (on some fancy bar menus) a Virgin (Vermouth and Gin: geddit?)
This is how it would have stayed were it not for James Bond. Ian Fleming, the creator of the British superspy, believed that the best Martinis were made with vodka rather than gin. In the Fifties, when Fleming wrote his books, vodka was much less popular than gin and was associated with the Soviet Union (as it then was). So why would a spy who dedicated his life to fighting Russians give up on gin (a very British drink) and use the enemy’s favourite drink for his Martini instead?
No idea. But the Vodka Martini (the younger generation does not know any other kind) owes its popularity to Fleming. And his creation, Bond, also started the controversy about whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred (he liked his shaken) and about which method of mixing would bruise the vodka less.
The influence of Bond was enough to send vodka sales soaring (by the end of the Seventies, vodka was the best-selling spirit in the US) and it made vodka the barman’s favourite because it was a relatively neutral, odourless base for any cocktail.
But over the last two decades, vodka has moved beyond its neutral-spirit image to become a premium drink. This means that high-quality vodka is often wasted in a cocktail. But because a Martini is mostly vodka (as time as gone on, the proportion of Vermouth in the recipe has been drastically reduced), it is one of those cocktails that benefits from high-quality vodka; you can really taste the difference.
In the days of Fleming’s Bond, the high-quality vodkas either did not exist or were not easily available so I imagine that 007 drank whatever the Russians exported. And in the era of the Daniel Craig Bond, the choice of vodka is purely a product placement-type of commercial decision.
But I’d like to think that if Fleming was writing today, he’d make Bond put a really premium vodka into the Martini. One contender could be Grey Goose, a high-quality vodka made in the Cognac region of France (also a NATO member so Bond would not have had to consort with the enemy) which makes for a very smooth Martini.
The Grey Goose Martini is really a way of showing off the quality of the vodka. According to the official recipe, you first fill a shaker with ice. Then you add a little vermouth (I reckon any quality brand will do). You coat the ice with vermouth and then --- get this --- you strain the vermouth out. So all you have then is ice that has been coated with vermouth. You add Grey Goose vodka to the shaker and let it mix.
Pour it (without the ice) into a Martini glass. Add an olive for garnish. And drink.
That’s about it.
You can add bitters, if you like. Bond was not a purist. He even added a French spirit called Lillet to his Martini in some books.
But these days, a Martini is just a way of showcasing the vodka. And the better the vodka, the less you need to do to it.