The Vodka Martini is, perhaps, one of the more maligned cocktails, especially among gin aficionados, but made with quality ingredients it's one of the cleanest, most refreshing cocktails imaginable, and, in spite of the endless pundits who raise its construction to the level of incantation and ritual, one of the easiest to make well.
The greatest problem faced by the Vodka Martini is that it’s called a Martini. Traditionally a Martini is made with gin, however, the debate still rages as to proportions, garnish, bitters, and almost every detail, but with reason. A cocktail of such high reputation deserves care and attention because simple is hard, and a Martini is, with just 2, possibly 3 ingredients, about as simple as it gets.
Simple also means there’s no place to hide. Use a mediocre gin, or vermouth well past its prime, and all you have is a ten dollar disappointment. One can imagine the struggle with quality leading up to Prohibition, but just think what it would have been, and probably was like when gin was made on the sly. Not only did Prohibition force the beverage industry either underground or into bankruptcy, with arguably good reason, but it changed the tastes of cocktail enthusiasts in general. Prohibition was a reset button, and America came out of it wanting a very different cocktail experience.
If Prohibition was the end of alcohol as we knew it, it was the birth of the soft drink as we know it. Soda pop wasn’t a new thing, and neither was sweet tea or any manner of ade or crush, but without the local bar, and the heavy booze laden drinks available there, some of which we still pour and still love, there was no recourse but to gather at the soda fountain. It was over this decade that Americans developed a taste for the sweet and the light, and, as war eventually dispersed a great many to far off places in service to a national military effort on a scale not seen since armies of North and South met on the fields of history's first modern conflict, it also revealed new beverages and new experiences among allies and in occupied lands.
Vodka in the 1940s became a widely available import, and while there are pre-war vodka cocktails on record, they aren’t many. It wasn’t until the spirit arrived at a scale sufficient for mass distribution that it became a favorite, and, coupled with several aggressive advertising campaigns by vodka producers, America’s new found taste for lighter, sweeter beverages, and a very contemporary and stylish entertainment industry, there came an associated flood of new vodka cocktails.
Some of these new vodka cocktails, such as the Screwdriver, which wasn’t really new, just newly named, evolved into the monstrosities that would define vodka’s moment atop the hill in the earthtone laden 70s and pastel adorned 80s. Yes, vodka really did and does exist to make other things alcoholic, and good gracious did it ever flow. Before all that, though, at a time when vodka espoused a certain international jet-set sophistication, the cocktails were often the classics re-imagined with vodka. Couple that with some product placement and a desire to be fabulous and the result becomes a Martini with vodka instead of gin.
Modern oral history contends the name of the Vodka Martini is originally the Kangaroo. Little evidence exists to support this, but it wouldn’t have been uncommon for similar cocktails to bear regional names. Or maybe it’s just made up stuff to make the Vodka Martini sound silly. Certainly there are snobs out there with opinions about Martinis, but it’s not really called for. The Vodka Martini has become the more popular version of the venerable drink, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
What is wrong, however, is the injustice of bad vodka in a Vodka Martini. Vodka, by law, must be flavorless and odorless, like a glass of alcoholic water, but the law says nothing about keeping it smooth. Hardly any survivor of a Spring Break booze fueled fling will disagree that low quality vodka, while void of odor and flavor, is nothing more than a cough and a burn and a regrettable hangover. In a Vodka Martini it’s like drinking nails.
The good news is that quality vodka isn’t that expensive, and is widely available from any number of producers. The high priced vodka trend started in the 90s by Grey Goose is deception, for vodka is one spirit that you can only improve so far before any more expense is just marketing. Of course, Grey Goose is superb vodka, well worth having, but consider it against other high end vodkas and decide for yourself if that fancy bottle is worth the significant increase in price.
The best way to select a vodka is to choose based on your preference for either grain or potato vodka, and buy from a producer that makes other things you like. For many small, local distillers a quality vodka is an item they can produce and sell while the whiskey is still in the barrel. Buying local vodka helps your favorite whiskey maker keep the lights on while the care goes into the aged products, but that doesn’t mean the vodka is an afterthought. Rather, vodka serves as a resume, an example of the quality the distiller can produce, and there’s no better way to support a local producer than by buying the product.
Medoyeff Vodka from Bull Run Distillery is one such product. It’s a staple product, just like it is for most distillers, but there’s no reason to go all boutique with it. There are a number of local vodkas, all of which are very reasonably priced, especially when compared to the high priced global brands. Any local vodka will give equivalent quality, but at a fraction of the price, and while a $15ish selection might seem like a compromise, it really isn’t. It’s fairly priced to make it available to as many customers as possible, and since local options don’t come with million dollar advertising campaigns, you’re spared the cost of the high priced agency the global brand hired to convince you otherwise.
With the vodka sorted, pay attention to the vermouth, and choose a traditional French vermouth. The fancy vermouths with assertive character suitable for sipping neat aren’t the best choice here. Vodka is delicate. It's odorless and flavorless, remember. You don’t want to water down a classy aperitif, unless, of course, that’s what you prefer, but, if staying true to the clean, refreshing, and delicate nature of the Vodka Martini, play it straight. Use Dolin Dry Vermouth because it’s about as straight as you can play it, and about the best of the traditional French vermouths.
Finally, take a moment and consider how you will make it. Obviously, this is a stirred drink, but you wouldn’t think so given the amount of ink spilled trying to convince so many as if the matter were still up for debate. Shaking a Martini, either gin or vodka, has merit, in fact no less a light than Harry Craddock recommends shaking, but Craddock is dead and his book is hard to understand. Stir your Vodka Martini, but stir it properly and until it’s as cold as it can possibly be. Shaking will get you there quicker, of course, but, in the blink of an eye it can become far too diluted. Then you have a glass of water with some alcohol in it, and that’s not what you want. As for garnish, we prefer an olive, but if you want more olives, or a lemon twist instead, go for it. If using olives, however, please do use a pick. It may look nice all alone at the bottom of a cocktail glass, but before you’re half way through it the drink will be briny and taste too much of olive. A pick allows the olive to be removed and either consumed or discarded, saving the drink from an unpleasant and salty finish. Unless, of course, you like your Martini dirty.
That’s what the Vodka Martini is really about. Choices. Simple is hard, and hard means making choices that, on their own don’t look like they’ll mean all that much, but when those choices are given nothing to hide behind, every single one of them matters. When applied to the Vodka Martini, if the choices are navigated correctly, you achieve a cultural icon, the kind Jeanie made spring forth from desert rocks on the TV show I Dream of Jeanie, one of the staples of afternoon syndication and reruns for years, and if you can impress Jeanie enough for her to cast her powers for Vodka Martinis galore, you’ve arrived at perfection indeed. Oh, and Ian Flemming wrote about it in some of his novels, but you already knew that, didn’t you?
Stir with ice and serve up. Garnish with one olive on a pick.
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