The best thing about a gin martini is how bracing it is—invitingly ice-cold and silken, the juniper wallop of the gin smoothed out by a glug of vermouth. Plus—if we’re being honest—it’s guaranteed to get you tipsy. But the current fascination with classic cocktails has, for the most part, neglected the martini. Maybe it’s because a two-ingredient drink doesn’t offer much opportunity for mixology fireworks, like homemade bitters and obscure liqueurs. Or maybe its very popularity makes it unappealing—Sex and the City, as one of my friends noted, ruined the martini glass.
I recently did a martini crawl through our fair city, sizing up the state of the most classic drink. General lessons learned: Martinis, these days, are as big as a bucket, and served very, very dry. Hendrick’s gin is very popular with bartenders, perhaps because of its premium price tag, though not actually well suited to a martini. And for the love of God, someone get some good olives. But it’s not all bad news. A martini is like a gray suit: Everyone’s got one, but everyone wears it a little differently.
Before embarking on this binge, I caught up with Alex Day, a barkeep at Death + Co. “A martini is all about texture—smooth, über-cold, velvety texture,” he says. And the best way to get that, he notes, is a gentle stirring—not shaking. Ice crystals in the drink are an obvious gaffe. He finds that assertive, clean London dry gins, like Beefeater or Tanqueray, make the best martinis, and uses Plymouth for a softer concoction. And finally: “You’re not making a cold glass of booze. You’re making a martini. Use vermouth!” (After one too many glasses of pure gin, I say Amen to that.) Day recommends a 3-1, or even a 1-1, ratio of gin to vermouth—but to get a martini that wet, you’ll have to request it.
In my imagination, Delmonico’s (56 Beaver Street) would be the perfect place for a martini—purported birthplace of lobster Newburg and baked Alaska! It would be full of suits eating steaks and drinking martinis—quiet, wood-paneled, leather-seated, 170-year-old perfection. In reality, we tromped down to the Financial District only to discover John Mayer caterwauling over the sound system, CNBC on the flat-screens, and a small troop of businesspeople getting very drunk. The bartender, straight out of New Jersey, flipped her long, brown ponytail to the side, and pondered our order. “We got Tanqueeerraaaay. . . .” I asked her to make it how she likes it best, and she went for the Bombay Sapphire, combined it with the barest dash of vermouth, shook the mixture vigorously, and served it with three fat green olives in an enormous glass ($12). It was harsh, and too strong. By the time the glass was empty, Journey was singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I think.
Next, we weaved our way over to Harry’s (1 Hanover Square), a warm, subterranean steakhouse and bar in the India House building, a private club where captains of industry have lunched for almost 100 years. At Harry’s, the TVs were set to ESPN, and a bald bartender who looked like he might moonlight as an ultimate fighter asked if I liked Hendrick’s. Whatever you think’s best, I told him. A good slug of the gin, a tiny bit of vermouth, shake-shake-shake, olives identical to the ones at Delmonico’s, and we were splashing into our second middling martini ($11.50) of the night.
Hendrick’s is sometimes called a “new-generation gin,” one that relies less on juniper and citrus, and more on newfangled botanicals like rose and cucumber. Day says he has “loads of respect for it, but it ain’t my first choice in a martini.”
What atmosphere Delmonico’s lacks, Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street) nails—the white-aproned, black-tied bartenders, the low ceilings, the dark wood bar, and the sense of the ceremony of drinking. Reservations are nearly impossible, and the bar gets crowded after about 7:30. So, like your very agreeable grandmother, settle in for an early-bird martini. At 6 p.m. on a recent Monday, the bar was already crowded, but not so packed as to be unpleasant. I eavesdropped on two pretty girls trading waitressing horror stories and some beefy, be-suited men (“Pete, you’ve gotta see the new scotch they’ve got. It’s a peat monster!”), while the bartender, who had recommended Hendrick’s, calmly stirred my garden-variety martini ($13) with a long silver spoon.
If you want to spend a fortune on a martini, there are plenty of places that will oblige, but unsurprisingly, it won’t guarantee a good drink. At the new Crosby Hotel Bar (79 Crosby Street), which is outfitted in multicolored stripes reminiscent of a clown college, patrons dug into expensive mac-and-cheese while the bartender recommended—surprise!—Hendrick’s, and proceeded to stir it up with a drop of vermouth and charge $22 for it. My friend ordered an $18 cosmo just for the sheer horror of it.
Uptown, The St. Regis (2 East 55th Street) offers more atmosphere for your buck, and fantastic people-watching—one fellow in particular, his blond hair rippled back like a Ken doll, seemed to be actually wearing a cape. The martini here was excellent—although for $21, it had better be—a frigid, refreshing mix of citrusy Beefeater, plus a large dose of vermouth, stirred. For the first time, I understood how a martini could have a silky texture.
For about $10 less, Employees Only (510 Hudson Street) makes an identically perfect specimen, although served in the presence of hipsters, not counts. Beefeater gets stirred with a generous amount of vermouth, and served in a large coupe glass with a centimeter’s head room—making it possible to carry the drink across the room without slopping it all over, or being obliged to lower your head to the glass and slurp from the trough of alcohol before picking it up.
But for value and scenery, Jimmy’s Corner (140 West 44th Street) prevails. At this worn-in Times Square joint, $6 buys you a martini that probably hasn’t changed since the bar opened nearly 40 years ago. It’s tiny by today’s standards, and concocted with Fleischmann’s, the first American-made gin, founded in 1870. Served nice and cold by the gruff lady bartender, it tastes like, well, gin. The bar’s walls are jammed with black-and-white photos of boxers, and the long, narrow space is thronged with regulars. A handwritten sign on the wall politely suggests, “Let’s not talk politics.” Now that’s civilized.
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