The one cocktail that has stood both the test of time and cowboy barmen the world over. James Bond did a lot for it (if misguidedly) and today a good cocktail bar and its head mixologist (very fancy barman) is judged by their version of the original Martini (which was originally a Martinez, and no one is really sure whether it was gin or vodka in the first place so the lines are a little blurred to start off with.) I love it, and like any Martini afficionado, I get quite upset when presented with a half-arsed attempt. Its like a kitchen serving rillettes or something-or-the-other potted – you serve it with the buttery/fatty seal on top just hitting room temperature – not colder and harder, not softer and melted. And the toast has to be hot to make the contents spreadable, all accompanied by some sharp pickles. That’s it.
The Martini shares this simplicity; once you start dicking around, it all goes pear shaped. I am fascinated by all the different ways barmen swear they achieve the ultimate Martini – freezing the glass, using a room temperature glass and swirling ice cubes for several long seconds, swirling the alcohol with the ice, and of course all manners of shaking.
London boasts some of the best bars in the world and since I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have time to have a drink in all of them, appreciating their decor, and er, drinks, I formulated my very own Great Urban Swish Martini Expedition. 20 bars, 20 martinis. (Maybe more martini’s. Up first – Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel, tucked away in a cul-de-sac in St. James’ place. A tiny bar that claims to be the very place where Ian Fleming conceptualised Casino Royale, and the now famous “shaken…” phrase. We were easily the youngest patrons, but settled into the deep royal blue chairs, and ordered Dukes’ Gin Martini’s. (£14.90) Yep, pretty steep, but the drink is created tableside with such flair you could mistake it for ordering crepes suzette at a silver service French restaurant. Alex, our server, talked us through the whole process, from when the vermouth is splashed (also sometimes spritzed on the glass here) in the glass and swirled, the addition of Tanqueray Ten and then the oil from an Amalfi lemon rind which is dropped into the drink. The alcohols and glasses are stored until use in a freezer set at -25 centigrade, which eliminates any use for ice, he explains. Which makes for a very strong drink in which the aromas develop as you slowly sip the viscous liquid. Bar snacks including massive Gordal olives are topped up discreetly, and the experience soon became so enjoyable that we decided we couldn’t leave without trying the Vesper (the heroine in Casino Royale). At £16.50 this not the priciest Martini version in London I might add. Based on the classic , Potocki Vodka, Tanqueray Ten and Angostura Bitters are used, and the drink is finished with Lillet. Lemon oil is added again with the twist. This drink is loaded with different flavours, but its hard to imagine that more than one could be enjoyed, even though Dukes uses the smaller kind of Martini glass with a narrower bowl.
A few weeks later we decided to pay the Sanderson Hotel with its famous Phillipe Starck decor a visit. We opted not to sit at the Long Bar which is seriously lit up for people-watching, and had our Martini’s in the garden courtyard instead. Original martini’s (£12) were properly mixed but my second choice – a dirty martini, must have been 1/3 olive brine : 2/3 alcohol. Not good at all and the cheap IKEA-looking glassware wasn’t what one expected the Sanderson to come up with. Simon had a flavoured martini which was garnished with a very flamboyant physalis, but the drink could have been any fruit cocktail, which what flavoured Martini’s become I suppose. So Dukes is up ahead after 2 bars and 8 Martini’s…