Martini BarCode

The menial tasks at the end of the shift give you ample time to focus and deconstruct the rollicking dinner party that just unfolded.  You polish the stemware and replace it for tomorrow’s bartender to find. Leave a few notes for tomorrow’s staff about prep, and stocking, a few notes for yourself about what to re-order and what to permanently doom to the ’86 file.  You head back to the glassware and begin polishing again, mentally making a note at the sheer number of cocktail glasses that were put into service over the course of the evening, judging on what is going to have to be restocked and re-ordered for the week, the guests were drinking martinis, and lots of them.

One of our local restaurant critics has tasked herself here with compiling a list of the top five Martini’s in Denver, working from the framework that the cocktail is at least made of gin, vermouth, and the permissible bitters. Four of the five listed are at places that wield barspoons, have bartenders with (questionable) facial hair, tattoos, a sense that those who are working behind the stick are there for awhile, it’s a career path, not an excuse for a failed modeling career. Is this to say that only the serious can make martini’s properly? that it takes a degree in Mixology to combine simple ingredients in the correct proportions that elevate such a simple libation to cult, feverish status? What is it that these places are doing and what can you do to make sure the drink you order is the one you get.

Without going into mind-numbing, naval gazing details, The Martini is an old drink, perhaps named after a person, a place, or a thing (no shit). It shows up in some of the earliest bar manuals, was most likely originally made with the sweet, Italian variety of vermouth, orange bitters, maybe some curacao and/or maraschino liqueur, and served in a cocktail glass with a thin swath of lemon peel. Serve this to a modern “Martini” drinking and the poor-bartender in question will most likely end up wearing the drink. I occasionally have to make a few martinis, and they terrify me, absolutely petrify me. To be honest, the order comes in and every single time, it’s as if Al Capone has asked me to make him his mother’s red sauce. It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be what the guest expects, and I’m never going to be able to make them happy.

Let’s start with the gin. I love and hate gin at the same time. Gin by itself has questionable tastes, it’s pungent, potent, savory, reeks of juniper, occasionally has pretty flowery botanicals, or just plain tastes like firewater.  Gin doesn’t really have a history of being sipped and savored on it’s own, unlike pretty much every single other ingredient behind the modern, and vintage bar (Dutch Genever is one of the few exceptions to this observation).  Which leads us to the assumption that gin is made for mixing, and blending, it’s there to make supporting ingredients taste stronger, to take some edges off, and to make the taste of the cocktail taste unlike merely the sum of its parts. These five bars stock a plethora of gins, from the basic Beefeater and plymouths, to the exotic Oxley and Old Raj which is noted for it’s hair growth causing 110 proof and the addition of saffron. Even a dive bar has a decent gin selection usually, so it’s not the gin that’s setting them apart.

On to vermouth.  Jesus, I would not want to be vermouth in the modern bar.  Treated like a petulant Linus, vermouth spawns such scorn you would think that it has harmed everyone’s mother.  Stories run amok that people would barely stomach the thought of looking at a bottle of the stuff and that was almost too much for their beloved martini. I’ve tried to find the history of it, expecting that it fathered illegitimate children, divorced their wives after paralysis, told racist jokes, and wandered around with a leaking colostomy bag. In short, not your favorite uncle.  Nothing in it’s family history really hints at having a character disorder, so why does no one want to be its friend? The longer history of vermouth is a longer discussion for another day, but the long and short of it is bartenders treat vermouth like shit, they leave it out, and it oxidizes, you wouldn’t trust a bartender to pour you a glass of crap-ass pinot grigio that’s been sitting half consumed for the better part of a decade on a backbar, why would you trust them to serve you a similar product, that has been enhanced with herbs and botanicals to make it taste stronger.  A product treated like a turd is naturally going to taste like a turd.

The one unifying fact that all of these bars have going for them is the brand of vermouth that they use to make their martinis, and how they treat it.  It’s kept cold, with all of their other wines that they have open. It’s kept fresh like all of the other wines they have open, and it’s made by the venerable firm of Dolin and Chambery France.  They have a fricken AOC (That means that it actually confirms to strict rules and standards, think: multinational stamp-of-approval-of-awesomeness-and-goodness), they sell it in small, easy to consume 375mL bottles so it stays delicious.  AND they actually advertise that you’re supposed to drink their vermouth on the rocks, maybe with a spash of soda or a piece of fruit.  On top of the audacity of a liquor company actually suggesting that you drink their product, it’s delicious and wondrous. Unfortunately it’s hard to find, Dolin only makes roughly 150 barrels per year of the good stuff, as opposed to Martini & Rossi which makes 18,000,000 barrels.

The conclusion that this janitor has come to that the unifying factor in the quality of Martini being served directly correlates to the quality of vermouth being served.  Shitty ingredients will always beget a shitty cocktail so it’s no wonder people shudder at the thought of vermouth in their martini. If the bar in question doesn’t treat their ingredients well, don’t expect them to treat your drink well.

And now, a little BarCode.  Let’s take the mystery out of what various terms mean and how to make sure you get the drink you want to consume when you order it.

First. A Martini. “Barsteward!!! Bring me a Martini!” You sir, are going to get gin, with a significant amount of vermouth, orange bitters, and either a lemon twist, or a small olive.

– If you want 6 olives, order a snack. The garnish tray is NOT your amuse-bouche. Snacking from the garnish tray makes you an amuse-douche.

– if blue cheese olives aren’t on the menu, they probably don’t exist. You can ask, but do you really want someone to be cramming some sub par blue cheese into an olive and then leaving your drink with an oil slick coating the surface. My advice: Order a piece of blue cheese on the side to snack on next to your martini.

Second. Dry. “Barsteward!!!! I need a dry Martini!!” (people that order the redundantly dry martini, always speak with two exclamation points). Most likely you are going to get the 1960s facionable ‘martini’ with a ratio of roughly 5:1 spirit to vermouth.  At this point it would be polite to point out that if you would like your ‘martini’ made with vodka, please make it know.  It is a deviation, if you wanted your ‘martini’ made with Kummel or Aquavit you wouldn’t assume that the barsteward would ascertain this piece of information without making it clear.  By saying “dry” you are acknowledging that you indeed would like some vermouth in your drink.  This makes you an asshole if you send your dry martini back because you can taste the vermouth. Don’t be that guy.

-A decent bar may also stock different aromatized wines, such as Lillet or Cocchi, or a sherry or two.  If you’re feeling wily and adventurous these make fine substitutes and make for a decent cocktail indeed. If I find myself desiring a martini, an off dry sherry mixed with gin with an olive makes for a passable aperitif before a meal. A bonus that unlike vermouth a lot of sherries will survive longer than Twinkies after the nuclear holocaust.

Third. Extra-Dry. “Barsteward!!!!! I seriously need an extra-dry-martini, on the double!!!!” Based on the assumption that this individual’s BAC is at historically low levels, the number of exclamation points and exasperation is intensified.  Extra-Dry, does not mean that they want Extra Dry vermouth in there, they want as little as possible of the offending vermouth.  This has spawned the onslaught of a cottage industry of vermouth aerosols, the idea of an ‘in-and-out’ where the glass is coated or the ice is rinsed with the offending wine, and vermouth poseur-dom and absurd sorts. All sorts of nonsense and retardation abounds.  What the extra-dry martini is, is a drinker going through the mere stages of decency.  “Look ma, i’m not drinking grain alcohol straight from the freezer! there’s a little bit of vermouth in there, that makes me classy, slurp.”

-If you want your spirit of choice, whether it’s gin or vodka, to be served chilled, in a glass, with a garnish, this is a good place to specify that you don’t want any vermouth any where near your potion of pleasure. Seriously.  If you don’t want it in there because you think you don’t like it, just ask for it to not be removed. Feelings won’t be hurt, the bar doesn’t waste product, and you get the drink that you would like to consume.  Another way to achieve this drink is to order your spirit ‘straight-up’ as in “un-aldulterated, in an ‘up’ glass” It’s win-win-win.

Fourth. Up, Straight-Up, Rocks. “Barsteward!!!!!!!!! Ketel One, extra-dry, straight up!!!!!!!!!!!” The sign of the impending douchpocalypse is immenent. One cannot have an extra-dry ‘martini’ straight up: see above. That shit just doesn’t make sense, and it’s very likely that you learned your order because you’re trying to impress someone and that’s how they bark at their servant. Don’t confuse your bartender by ordering something like that. If your platonic ideal consists of pulling the bottle from your freezer, pouring a few ounces into a glass and dropping an olive, that’s cool, just let the good tender in on this secret and they’ll do their best to replicate the experience for you.

-If you want it served in a rocks glass, then order it that way.

-If the thought of a cocktail glass threatens your masculinity just make sure it doesn’t clash with your bedazzled going out shirt and lady’s jeans, bro, and you will be fine.

Fifth. Dirty. A little bit of olive brine is tipped into your drink.  This janitor does not understand the appeal of drinking boozy vinegar and salt. If you would like your drink, ‘a little dirty’ expect a hint of brine, If you normally make your drinks with as much brine as your spirit of choice then you should ask for it that way.  In the hip lingo of our times that would be a 50-50, but with olive brine instead of vermouth (typing that caused my Kidneys to contract and throw up just a little bit.)

Lastly keep in mind that a martini is a drink that should be tossed back fairly quickly, it’s not a shot, but shouldn’t linger for more than 10 minutes, don’t let it get warm, consume it when it’s fresh, quivering, and straight from the mixing glass when it’s alive and with energy. It’s an appetite stimulant, not a session drink to be had throughout your meal. Keep in mind when it was originally created it would have been roughly the size of the standard shot-glass meaning the ‘three martini lunch’ isn’t nearly as horrific as we make it out to be.  It wasn’t until the 80’s that massive martini glasses became the norm and steakhouses began offering “Cougar-tini’s” (half a bottle of grey goose in a cocktail glass). Let’s be responsible.  Order your drink, and order it correctly. Pay your server and your bartender, tip them well for their service, and you’ll be rewarded in kind.


About Kevin Burke

Kevin is an occasional barman and fulltime practitioner of the Janitorial Arts at Colt & Gray.

  • Ryan

    The Martini is such a misunderstood bastard child of the bar scene of the eighties. Cheers for sharing your enlightened frustrated insight, discussing the martini is always a little fun/awkward at the bar. You can tell a lot about a person in how a drink is ordered, its a revealing insight to a bar guest. Thanks for sharing your janitorial insights.

  • Jake

    The Pliny pic at the top is killing me… it’s the analogous bastardization and mutilation of an equivalently fine drink. Yes, I love me a very delicious Gin martini, made with good Vermouth and care for details. I also love me a delicious, finely-crafted ale out of the appropriate glassware. Great article.

    • Kevin Burke

      You’re absolutely right Jake, to treat any drink without respect is a travesty. Rest assured that Pliny was consumed through proper glassware and I was merely re-hydrating at the end of getting my ass kicked, I simply couldn’t bring myself to dirty another glass at the end of the night.