Dry Martini: The King of Cocktails

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On occasion a customer will ask me, "What's your favorite cocktail? Generally that customer is looking for inspiration or perhaps they know that a bartender will always makes their personal favorite best. I tell them, unequivocally, the dry martini.

Whenever I give my answer, the customer often seems a bit bewildered--as though they laid hands on a Ouija board that just spelled out a message they can't be certain came from angel, devil, or man. Of course, I sympathize.

The dry martini is as scarce as it is ubiquitous, both everywhere and yet nowhere made with the proper sacrament. How can it be the greatest of all cocktails? It's more often a warm bowl of vodka, with two slimy devils plucked by hand from warm brine and tossed in the felonious soup or worse: a suffix tacked on a fruit, color, animal, mineral, or vegetable. Terrible.

Your first sip should be of a cold, taut surface with a bracing chill, punctuated by pockets of bright citrus oils, causing the mouth to water profusely.

Firstly, the dry martini must be served at the proper temperature. Your first sip should be of a cold, taut surface with a bracing chill, punctuated by pockets of bright citrus oils, causing the mouth to water profusely and signal the stomach that whatever comes next is sustenance. Savor this feeling, as it is unmediated and direct--the feeling of being a jaguar, sleek and hungry.

Secondly, there is a primordial quality to gin that is irreplaceable. I remember reading of pre-historic people who gathered their homes near juniper forests for food, shelter, and fuel, which makes perfect sense to me: juniper is life giving. The presence of juniper in the dry martini, and accompanying botanicals, is paramount, each successive sip ought to peel away layers and mark the ancient diaspora of mankind with each spice, botanical, and peel conjuring images of exotic lands.

Lastly, "dry" originally referred to the use of dry gin and dry vermouth and had nothing to do with the pathetic swirls of vermouth beads that most bartenders coat the glass with and discard. Forget the posturing of literary types who practiced the rinse method, used droppers or waved the bottle past the glass: they no more had a martini than gnawing on a leg of a live cow is dining on a steak. Your drink should neither taste solely of gin nor vermouth; it ought to taste like a martini--the perfect balance of both.

Made well, the dry martini is singularly perfect, subtle as it is complex. Despite its first earthly appearance in the late 19th-century, the dry martini is, for me, both eternal and divine--what Bernard Devoto called, "...the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet."

My Favorite Version (also called the Crisp Cocktail):


    • 1 ½ oz. Tanqueray 10 Gin
    • 1 ½ oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
    • 1 dash Orange Bitters

Combine ingredients in pre-chilled mixing glass. Add ice--lots of it. Stir gently but with purpose. Thirty strokes, taste. Continue until diluted sufficiently that the drink is still pungent and oily. Strain in to chilled cocktail glass. Cut a 1 ¼" circle from an orange rind. Spray zest on top of Martini and discard. Add lemon twist.

The Dry Martini My Priest Prefers:


    • 2 ¼ oz. Tanqueray 10 Gin
    • ¾ oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
    • 1 dash Orange Bitters

Follow previous directions.

Lastly, replace the twist in the first one with a chilled cocktail onion and it's a Gibson.

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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