Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Gin-to-Vermouth Ratios in Martinis


"Julia Child preferred an Upside-Down Martini, with five times as much dry vermouth as gin in the glass."


You wouldn't know it by looking at the way it's used today, but vermouth was the belle of the mixological ball once upon a time. While vermouth can list details such as "revolutionized the late 19th century cocktail" and "enabled creation of the Manhattan and the martini" on its resume, today it's like the elderly greeters at Wal-Mart, picking up whatever gigs it can get in the years that came after the glory ones.

While vermouth played a major role in countless cocktails from the Gilded Age and beyond, perhaps no other drink has been as tightly connected to its contemporary fortunes as the martini. As Jonathan Miles pointed out in last Sunday's New York Times, some early incarnations of the martini included equal parts gin and vermouth, and as recently as the 1930s, a two-to-one gin-to-vermouth ratio was the norm. (These drinks typically included a dash of orange bitters, which some may consider sacrilege, but I say hold your tongue until you've tried it.)

Some martini predecessors made with sweet vermouth went even further, with recipes calling for two parts of vermouth to one of gin. Indeed, the "dry martini" moniker was originally intended to denote a drink made with dry vermouth rather than sweet, and was completely unrelated to the quantity of vermouth in the glass. But in the 1940s, all that changed--the two-to-one martini began to look about as old-fashioned as a horse and buggy. Why?

Who knows.

Some have theorized that since "drier" martinis are more potent--with less vermouth in the glass, bartenders would pour more gin to keep the drink the same size as before--they became preferred by those seeking more alcoholic bang for the buck. Others have suggested that the middling quality of American vermouth, pretty much the only stuff available during and immediately after the war, may have had something to do with it. Others have said it's much like many other trends and fads--everybody started doing it simply because everybody else was doing it.

Regardless of the cause, the era of the super-dry martini had begun, and droppers, atomizers, and rituals ranging from elaborate to just plain silly became de rigeur every time cocktail hour rolled around.

As Miles notes, not everybody got on board of the less-is-better bandwagon. Julia Child preferred an Upside-Down Martini, with five times as much dry vermouth as gin in the glass. And in recent years, craft-cocktail bars across the country have rediscovered the beauty of vermouth, and have begun serving two-to-one or one-to-one martinis with increasing frequency.

Along with this change in fortune for vermouth comes a change in attitude--bartenders are realizing that as an aromatized wine, vermouth behaves more like Chardonnay than like whiskey--to be served at its best, it needs to be fresh, and kept refrigerated to prolong its short shelf life.

Fewer drinks get people more riled up than the martini, so let's hear your take on martini formulas. Do you take a twenty-to-one, arid-as-the-desert approach to your martinis, or a vermouth-is-freakin-delicious approach to this old standard? Or does your martini find itself somewhere in between?