Unlike the fabled advertising execs of Madison Avenue, I tend to consume three Martinis over the course of a weekend, bringing my annual total to a conservative estimate of 150 Martinis — a slow quarter for suited ’60s swingers, no doubt, but a decent batting average by modern drinking standards. I mention these figures seeking neither congratulations nor condemnation, but simply to highlight that this is a cocktail I care deeply about.
Like the Empire State looming over midtown Manhattan, the Martini towers above other classic cocktails in the facet of customization. Aficionados are free to select their ideal pairing of gin and dry vermouth, experimenting with the botanical bills of different brands, and inching toward their preferred ratio. While this concept can apply to other drinks, it never reaches the same extremes — try drinking a 15:1 Manhattan, and see how that turns out for you. All of which makes one’s particular Martini order the most personal of experiences in the cocktail realm.
Ultimately, however, the success of this drink lies in preparation and, by extension, temperature. On the latter front, drinkers may have noticed a growing trend in recent times — a race to reach the coldest Martini physically possible. Given my affection for this cocktail, I’ve experimented with the techniques budding home bartenders can employ to mimic this pursuit in a non-professional setting, and I’ve eagerly sought out those bars leading the charge with ice-cold Martinis. Over time, I’ve arrived at a conclusion: I don’t want my Martini served sub-zero.
The Shackleton-esque quest for Martinis that touch the southernmost tip of the thermometer is by no means a purely modern pursuit in the bar world. But new technologies and, arguably, greater media spotlight on this particular topic have seen those boundaries pushed.
Among the most notable in the modern landscape is the Martini served at the British New York steakhouse Hawksmoor, which was devised by bar manager Adam Montgomerie. To fully understand his preparation, we must first explore the concept of batched, freezer Martinis.
Hailed as a labor-, time-, and even water-saving hack for professional bartenders and amateurs alike, this version of the cocktail sees gin and vermouth mixed at scale, with a calculated quantity of water added for dilution, which would normally be delivered by stirring over ice. The preparer incorporates all ingredients and decants into a large-format bottle, which is transferred to the freezer to bring the crystal solution to an ice-cold serving temperature. If the mixologist has done their sums right, and if the freezer isn’t set too low, the cocktail soon awaits as a ready-to-serve Martini for whenever the time calls.
The Hawksmoor Martini utilizes this technique, but first sees the ingredients passed through an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner, which has the unexpected benefit of “aging” the ingredients, and results in an intangible yet — and I can attest to this — subtly noticeable improvement in the final flavor and harmony of the cocktail.
Despite the topic of this piece, I should make it clear that I am a big fan of this Martini and have enjoyed it on multiple occasions. And I appreciate the benefits of batching in a professional setting: Freezer Martinis stay colder for longer, and serving at this temperature brings an almost unctuous texture to the drink. But there also becomes a trade-off between temperature and perception of flavor. For my palate, at least, it’s hard to perceive the nuance of the base ingredients and fully appreciate the marriage of gin and vermouth when taking the first sip of a 10 degrees Fahrenheit Martini.
A more archaic and ubiquitously celebrated ice-cold preparation can be found at the Dukes Hotel in London’s St. James neighborhood. Prepared tableside on a creaking wooden trolley, the Dukes Martini sees a chilled V-shaped glass rinsed with a trickle of vermouth, which one of the impeccably dressed Italian bar staff then throws out onto the carpet. Next, a frosted bottle of gin flows into the glass — so cold, its consistency resembles glycerin. A final giant lemon twist garnishes the cocktail — one of only two the guest will be permitted to consume, such is the strength of almost 6 ounces of pure gin.
Would we even class this drink as a Martini by modern standards? Sipping on one during a recent visit to Dukes, I thought of all the times I’ve heard stateside drinkers lament the lack of vermouth in average-Joe, dive-bar Martinis, and scoffed at the drinks being served as “essentially just cold gin.” After reaching the two-drink threshold at Dukes, I left the space feeling that not only was this not the “best Martini in England,” as claimed by the fabled San Francisco Chronicle journalist Stanton Delaplane, who brought worldwide attention to this Martini in 1987; I’d argue it isn’t even the best in London.
Never encountering a mixing glass or ice, it lacks the vital component of dilution, which softens the edges of both spirit and aromatized wine, and makes the marriage more seamless. Dilution is also an area where our old pal the freezer Martini can be left lacking in the non-professional setting.
Whenever I’ve succumbed to the convenience of having a batched Martini waiting in my freezer, I’ve invariably been left wanting by the results. I’ll measure out ingredients by weight, and stick to exacting dilution proportions. But when left to chill in the freezer, the batched Martini soon resembles a semi-frozen Margarita. This is a product of home freezers being colder than the minus 12 degrees Celcius that bars such as Hawksmoor use to bring the cocktail to the precipice of freezing without forming ice crystals. Most of us can’t do this at home — we require lower temperatures to safely preserve food and indeed freeze ice for cocktails. And even afforded the hypothetical luxury of a dedicated cocktail freezer, a final vital component of the drink would remain lost.
All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare famously noted. And the act of mixing a Martini is pure theater. When sipping on a batched Martini, I mourn the loss of the quickly frosting mixing glass, which slowly numbs the hand indicating that a cocktail I’ve been waiting all week for is almost ready. No, my Martini requires the experience of mixing the drink — or watching infinitely more skilled hands prep one for me.
Arguably, the most egregious crime against the Martini in pursuit of sub-zero perfection is currently embodied by the Super Cool Martini at Barcelona’s Paradiso bar. Now, I have not tasted this Martini, so I will be clear in noting my argument here is solely philosophical.
This bar utilizes something called “Supercooling Magic Technology” to chill water down to minus 5 degrees Celsius, while maintaining it in its liquid state. When subsequently poured into a frozen vessel — i.e., a cocktail glass — the water transforms into a miniature stalagmite. The bar then adds gin and vermouth to the drinking vessel. Those components melt the awkward ice finger, which in turn provides dilution and brings the temperature down.
Theater? Absolutely. But definitely not the kind of show I want to watch.
Perhaps you’ve seen videos of the preparation — it’s certainly done the rounds on #drinkstagram. Each time I do, and with every sip I take from an ever-so-slightly too cold mix of gin and vermouth, I’m reminded of the words of a leather jacket-clad Jeff Goldblum, on an island set to be overrun by velociraptor overlords:
scientists mixologists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”