It's not the original cocktail, nor the latest thing, but the Gin Martini, like a crisp tuxedo, will always be the classic. No other drink blends liquor, lore and literature into one alluring libation like the Gin Martini. It's at once elegant and licentious, comforting but dangerous. And, as straightforward as it seems, it provokes unequalled debate.
Spawned in the late nineteenth century as a complex, sweet variation of the Manhattan, it evolved into the Dry Martini, simplified to dry gin and French vermouth (dry and white) iced and strained. The classic—not the trendy new versions—has few variations—ratio of gin to vermouth, type of garnish, whether to shake or stir—and all are matters of taste.
The driest (read: strongest) Martini recipes ring with machismo (you've heard all the cute conceits for eliminating vermouth: mist it on, merely whisper the word, etc.), but drunken bravado aside the aperitif is supposed to be tasted. Four-to-one is a baseline gin/vermouth ratio to work up from. It stops being a Martini at about 10-to-1.
The garnish choice can change the name. With a lemon twist or olive, it's a Martini, but two olives makes a Franklin. With an onion, it's a Gibson. A Dickens has no olive or twist (smirk). Sour and tart work better than sweet—hence peppers, pickled corn, nuts, etc.
The stir-or-shake debate is argued in mad-scientist language that speaks of "bruising gin" and "layering on molecules." The substance is that shaking chills gin faster, but tends to cloud it and risks over dilution. If you're drinking for health, consider that a British Medical Journal study found that the Martini's antioxidant potential improves when shaken not stirred.
What isn't debatable is that it needs great spirits. Vermouth should be fresh (no older than a couple months) and refrigerated. The gin should say distilled or London dry on the bottle. These are some favorites:
Bombay (86 proof) All botanicals (including almond oil, lemon peel, licorice and orris root) are listed. Dialing back juniper lets flowers and spice sing out. Ultrapremium Sapphire (94 proof) is even more complex.
Tanqueray (94.6 proof) This quintessential full-flavored dry gin smacks of juniper, coriander and angelica. Ultrapremium No. 10 (hand-picked botanicals, 94.6 proof) is more perfumed. Martin Miller's Reformed (90.4 proof) Lemon top notes balance an otherwise sweet and flowery body.
Seagrams Extra Dry (80 proof) Barrel aging gives it a slight yellow color and the mellow, balanced flavor for palates that prefer mild.
Plymouth (82.4 proof) A separate category from London dry gin, but similar. Elegant and spicy, but with pronounced orange and cardamon.
Hendrick's (88 proof) It's marketed as "not for everyone," but the cucumber note makes an interesting Martini.
Beefeater's (80 proof) Classic dry gin with a citrus (mostly orange) snap and a subtle spiciness.
Don't skimp on Vermouth. Consider Noilly Prat (fresh and bright), Martini & Rossi (sweet and nutty) and Cinzano (dry and fruity).