Everyone has their own specific, perfect way to prepare a Martini—dry, dirty, 50/50, shaken, stirred, rolled, with a twist, with olives, on the rocks… In this very same way, the various origin stories of the Martini are vast, contradictory, and contested. Like many old, famous cocktails (the Negroni and the French 75 come to mind), it is impossible to know for sure how, when, and who invented the Martini–that cold, boozy, polarizing, and impossibly simple cocktail we know and sometimes love—but we can try our best to get to the bottom of it.
Let’s start with the myths.
The first two of these origin stories take us to Northern California in the late 1800s and to a cocktail called the Martinez, often seen as the original Martini. Legend has it, a prospector had struck gold and went to the local bar in the town of Martinez and wanted to celebrate. When the bar didn’t have any champagne, the bartender invented a drink with what he had on hand: gin, Maraschino liqueur, sweet vermouth, and bitters. In our second origin story, the Martinez stays the same, but the drink was actually invented in San Francisco, either by a miner who stopped in the city on his way to Martinez, or by Jerry Thomas, a name cocktail nerds know as one of the earliest and most famous cocktail book writers. Of course, there’s no way to be sure, but as far as facts go, the first written recipe of a Martinez cocktail does appear in the third edition of Jerry Thomas’s seminal The Bar-Tender’s Guide (albeit, published two years after his death). So, whether or not Thomas invented the drink, the Martinez existed by 1887.
Our next two myths take us to New York, the city that wants to claim ownership of most of the classic cocktails we know today, even if it is only sometimes true. In our third origin story, the Martini was invented at the famous Knickerbocker Hotel for John D. Rockefeller by an Italian bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia, and in our fourth story, a civil war vet and frequenter of New York’s social clubs named Franklin Martine invented the drink at the iconic Delmonico’s steakhouse.
What do we actually know?
With a lot of help from the intrepid explorers who have scoured newspaper and cocktail book archives for the Martini’s earliest mentions and recipes, we know that some sort of gin-and-vermouth cocktail existed by the 1880s with a variety of similar names—the Martinez, the Martine, the Martena, the Martini. But how do we know who truly invented it? How do we know where it truly came from?
In short, we can’t. To understand why the origin is so difficult to trace, we must understand how cocktails came to be—and, more importantly, how they spread–in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Long before the internet, before movies, before cars, and before globalization, bartenders across the country were making cocktails with what they could get their hands on. It is very possible that, around the same time, bartenders on opposite coasts were inventing what would become the Martini simply because they had access to gin and vermouth and had to get creative. And when the bartender or the customer had to name the drink, it was often after the city they were in, the customer or bartender who requested it, or the social club where the drink was first made. Sometimes, the members of these social clubs would travel to other cities, and request that the bartender make the drink they’d had at home, thus explaining how certain cocktail recipes spread, and how often one drink appears to have many different names in its earliest iterations.
Once we understand this, it is in this part of the story where the Martini and the Manhattan become inextricably linked. At first pass, these two famous cocktails couldn’t be more dissimilar—one is whiskey-based, flavoursome, and complex while the other is gin-based, dry, and light. But when you consider three things—a) that both are basically just spirit-and-vermouth; b) that the gin that was available during this time period was of Dutch origin, and actually much closer to unaged whiskey than to the English dry gin with which we are quite familiar now; and c) that the only vermouth available in the States at the time was sweet Italian vermouth and that dry French vermouth would hit the scene a little bit later—the two drinks start to sound a whole lot more alike. We bring this up because when you dive into the archives, not only does the Manhattan cocktail have many different names, based on the social club where it was served, but the Manhattan cocktail, sometimes, shows up with gin instead of whiskey.
The invention of the “dry” Martini
By the late 1800s, it seems, the Manhattan and the Martini became more firmly what we know them as now, aided in part by the introduction of dry, pale-coloured French vermouth into the United States. And by the last few years of the century, people were already coming up with variations for the Martini, involving the type of vermouth (sweet vs. dry), how much vermouth (hello, the “dry” Martini), which bitters to use (if at all), and what kind of garnish (now, at last, the olive!).
It is worth noting that for quite some time, the Martini had a much higher vermouth ratio than many prefer it today; the “dry” Martini was only invented later, after all. In light of this, we invite you to try out a 50/50 Martini, a variation that is certainly coming back into style, especially with the proliferation of new vermouths:
The 50/50 Martini
- 1.5 oz/ 45 ml Brockmans Gin
- 1.5 oz/ 45 ml dry vermouth*
- 2 dashes orange bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until very cold, and strain into a chilled Martini glass or coupe. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
*The running theory among bartenders as to why many Martini drinkers want as little vermouth as possible is because many bartenders during the “dark ages” of the 1980s and 90s did not understand that vermouth needs to be refrigerated. Therefore, bartenders would keep their vermouth in their well, and it would go bad, giving vermouth a bad reputation. But vermouth is simply wine that has been “fortified” with herbs, roots, sugar, and extra liquor—what’s not to love?
At the end of the day, whichever way you like your Martini to be made is the right way for your Martini to be made. However, it doesn’t hurt to try something new, so here are a few more variations for your exploratory pleasure:
(made famous, of course, by James Bond)
- 3 oz/90 ml Brockmans Gin
- 1 oz/30 ml vodka
- .5 oz/15 ml Cocchi Americano (the original recipe calls for Lillet, but cocktail nerds will tell you that today’s Cocchi Americano recipe is far closer to the Lillet recipe of 1953, when Ian Fleming invented the cocktail)
Add all ingredients to a shaker and shake vigourously until cold. Of course, you are never to shake a cocktail that doesn’t have citrus. However, if James Bond wants it “shaken, not stirred,” then who are we to tell him no?
- 1.5 oz/45 ml Brockmans Gin
- 1.5 oz/45 ml sweet vermouth
- .25 oz/5 ml Maraschino liqueur
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Add all ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice and stir until very cold. Strain into a chilled Martini glass or coupe, and garnish with an orange twist.