The Surprise Favorite:
What do you want when you drink a martini?
I know what I want: A crisp, cold, silky-smooth drink that tastes of juniper and woody herbs and citrus peel. I want subtle hints of spices, in both the aroma and the flavor, and I especially want to taste things like cardamom and coriander, even if it's just in the finish. I want to taste gin, and I absolutely want to taste vermouth. None of this nod-in-the-direction-of-the-bottle nonsense for me.
I'm on a quest to find the best gin for the job. Do you need to spend big bucks to make a great version of the drink? Does one style of gin work better than another? I convened a tasting of martinis made with ten different gins to test out a variety of gin styles and price points.
Our lineup included several classic London dry brands, as well as a newer gin in the London dry style, plus a lighter English gin that has a less juniper-forward profile than a London dry. We also tested three gins that offer a softer, more modern style as well as a gin that came out on top when we investigated the best gin to buy on a budget. The gins varied not just in style but also alcohol percentage, and the presence or absence of alcohol flavor and heat in the final drink was one criterion I asked tasters to note.
Some gins produced classic, crisp-tasting martinis, with lots of piney flavors and bright lemony accents. Some were more herbal and earthy, with savory notes of rosemary and lavender, whereas others were soft and citrusy and almost sweet. I expected the martinis made with the various London Dry gins to rate highly; after all, it's the classic style for the drink, offering that iconic juniper and woody-herb flavor. I figured that modern, softer styles wouldn't fare as well, since vermouth can monster-truck all over more subtle spirits. When the group's tallied results were revealed, there was one clear favorite, and though its provenance was what I expected (London Dry), it wasn't one of the iconic brands.
Mixing the Drinks
When polled on their preferred martini ratio, nearly all the bartenders I asked recommended mixing martinis with a ratio of two parts gin to one part vermouth, matching our go-to martini recipe on Serious Eats. It's a classic ratio with a long pedigree, and it allows both gin and vermouth to make substantial contributions to the drink. I used Martini & Rossi dry vermouth.
The day before the tasting, I premixed all the drinks at home, weighing each ingredient on a digital scale. I also prediluted the martinis with 25% water, which is about what you get when you stir a martini à la minute over fresh ice. The martinis were kept chilled until the tasting.
A Note on 'Dry' Martinis
Up until the early twentieth century, the martini used a sweet gin (Old Tom), and sweet vermouth. The word "dry" then came to mean a martini made with equal parts dry gin (London style) and dry vermouth. It wasn't until fairly recently that "dry" meant flipping the bird at a vermouth bottle in the liquor store where you bought your gin.
When considering topics off limits for the Thanksgiving table, I think of religion and politics, but you might add martini ratios; the subject can be that divisive. If you're curious about what happens when our favorite martini gin is used in a drier version of the cocktail, you can see my notes below.
Tasting the Drinks
Our tasting crew included three bartenders, one spirits writer, and Serious Eats editors Daniel and Max. The bar professionals included April Wachtel from Booker and Dax, Amanda Whitt from Amor y Amargo and The Up and Up, and Renee Serra from The Up and Up. Additionally, Leslie Pariseau from PUNCH magazine lent us her palate.
To try to control for the inevitable blow of palate fatigue, I staggered the tasting order from one tester to the next, so everyone tried the drinks in a different order. The idea here was that if everyone got palate fatigue on, say, the fifth martini, that fifth martini would be different for each person.
Tasters evaluated the martinis on several criteria:
- Presence or absence of juniper
- Presence or absence of other botanicals and flavors: citrus, coriander, cardamom, etc.
- Balance: Does the martini taste harmonious, or does either the gin or the vermouth steal the show?
- Aroma: Some gins smell piney, some like citrus, and some like herbs.
- Body: How does it feel in the mouth?
- Presence or absence of alcohol: Does the martini leave a burn in the mouth? Does it tingle? Does it taste "hot"?
- Overall Taste and General Impressions
What We Found
Generally speaking, our group favored the martinis made with old-school styled gins (whether they're longstanding brands or not). Tasters wanted juniper, and the softer modern gins didn't fare well, leading our panelists to complain about overly light and 'diluted'-tasting drinks. But it wasn't just about the juniper: Our tasters appreciated gins like Sapphire, which is sort of a hybrid of a classic and a modern gin and offered enough juniper to be present even if citrus and other botanicals were just as prominent.
Martinis lost points for being juniper-bombs, which led some higher-proof gins to receive lower scores. In addition to delivering a strong alcohol heat, the higher-proof gins tasted excessively junipery when mixed into the drink. While high proof gins can be great in, say, gin and tonics, alcohol content above 90 to 95 proof doesn't benefit a martini.
Below, you'll find our thoughts on the best gin for a martini as well as four others that got our blind tasters' approval.
The Overall Favorite: Ford's Gin
I expected the group to prefer a martini made from one of the iconic London dry gins, but Ford's Gin turned up as the favorite. Ford's was developed by the bartender Simon Ford in 2012. It's distilled at Thames Distillers in London, and while it's a new formulation, Ford designed it to be a mixable, affordable spirit very much in the classic London dry style.
Tasters preferred the Ford's martini for its impressive balance and also ranked it highest in terms of preferred aroma and taste, noting the drink's bright pine, peppercorn, lemon, coriander, grapefruit, and orange flavors. Nearly everyone praised its clear, strong juniper presence, one calling it "resinous and hoppy" and another noting a pleasant peppery aroma. The martini's silky body lead some tasters to note that it was easy to drink, and one found that the cocktail had a briny olive quality (though I used no garnishes when serving). Though our tasters were not unanimous in ranking the Ford's martini first, one bartender called it "perfectly proportioned" and wrote, "This is what I imagine a perfect martini to be."
After the tasting, I sat down with a 2:1 Ford's martini and a 4:1 version to taste them side by side to see if the same flavors come through. Most importantly, does the drier recipe kill the vermouth? I would say no. In addition to making our favorite 2:1 martini, Ford's Gin also makes a really nice dry martini that still allows the winey flavors (and earthy herbs) of the vermouth to come through.
Beefeater: The Floral Martini
The Beefeater martini wasn't quite as popular as the Ford's version, but a number of our tasters praised its balance, aroma, and flavor. Most noted that the martini made with Beefeater was floral, with flavors of lavender, violet, peppercorn, citrus peel, and coriander. (Some tasters found the floral notes a little distracting, however.) While one taster found it "lightly sweet, well balanced, charming, and refreshing," others said this martini was a little soft and a little less complex than they'd hoped.
After the blind test, I compared a 2:1 Beefeater martini with a 4:1 version, and my observations were similar to those above, except that where I thought the 2:1 was a little soft, the 4:1 was just right: punchy and herbal and piney. If you're using this gin, consider bumping up your ratios.
Bombay Dry: The Earthy Martini
The Bombay Dry produced a noticeably earthy martini, with tasters noting grassy flavors and hints of clover honey, plus lemon peel, cucumber, and eucalyptus. Some praised this drink for being light and well balanced, creamy and soft with "enough bite to feel like a serious drink," though others believed it could use it a little more viscosity and a bit more punch of citrus and spice. One bartender listed the Bombay Dry martini as her favorite, calling it "wonderfully balanced" with a beautiful aroma and a pleasing texture.
Plymouth: The Mellow Martini
Tasters ranked the martinis made with Plymouth and Bombay Sapphire equally. They noted that the Plymouth produced a martini that was silky-textured, "cool and lightly sweet," with flavors of citrus, cucumber, lavender, black tea, cardamom, and green grass. One taster noted that it tasted like the gin itself was neutral, with most of the botanical flavor seeming to come from the vermouth, not the gin. One wrote that this cocktail "starts mellow, ends strong," and while one called it harmonious and easy to drink, he said "It's good but not addictive."
Bombay Sapphire: The Savory Martini
The Sapphire martini seemed less sweet and more savory to most tasters, offering lots of juniper, lemon, hay, and herbal flavors, along with citrus peel and a hint of salinity. One taster praised the Sapphire martini for having a little more hefty weight, and another loved its "nice, cool lingering finish." A bartender described the drink as dry and gin forward-tasting, but overall a bit strong and out of balance. Another bartender disagreed, writing: "Juniper is balanced, hints of rosemary, sage, orange peel. Well balanced."
Note: All gins except for Bombay Dry were provided as samples for this tasting.