History of The Martini


Written by Clara Wood

May 15, 2024

It appears that with every shift in social milieu comes a shift in Martini zeitgeist.  From sweet to dry to dirty to filthy the Martini has been stretched to fit a number of different forms, subtly speaking to the years. Here’s how the unassuming cocktail has navigated changing times.


1880s – Sweet beginnings

While the exact origins of the Martini remain unclear, we know it was quite a bit sweeter in its earlier days. While typically Martinis are made from just two ingredients: Gin and vermouth, back in its youth slightly sweetened Old Tom gin would likely have been the spirit of choice, accompanied by sweet or ‘Italian’ vermouth and additions such as gum syrup, maraschino liqueur, bitters, curacao and absinthe. Some, however attribute these qualities to a Martinez while others point to the combination of Tom’s gin, Italian Vermouth and Peruvian bitters as resulting in a Turf Club. The Martinez has however become a cocktail in its own right, calling for gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters.  


1890s The Dry Martini

The much drier flavours that we associate a martini with today, didn’t come into swing until about a decade later. By the turn of the century, sweetening syrups were less common, Sweet Vermouth was replaced with dry white Vermouth, and gins like Old Tom were replaced with drier gins like, Plymouth or London dry gins. Additionally, the 2: 1 Gin to Vermouth Ratio was born in this period, driving the foundation of the classic Martini today. This shift in preferences mirrored a growing appreciation for bolder flavours and drier styles in food and drink. 


1930s – Stirring up debate

Although interest in the Martini waned during the US Prohibition, it quickly rose again after restrictions were lifted, along with the emergence of the shaken or stirred debate. Thanks to its screen time in the 1934 film The Thin man, the Martini’s image was restored as the very height of sophisticated drinking as the ultra-suave lead character Nick Charles could rarely be spotted without a Martini glass in hand. And his iconic line “A Dry Martini, you always shake to waltz time,” sparked a shaken or stirred debate years before Bond. Ultimately a shaken Martini results in a more diluted and colder drink, which works to reduce the taste of alcohol. Perhaps no endorsement carried more weight, however, than that of Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. As the lore goes, the president was front and centre to mix and sip the very first legal Martini after the Prohibition was finally repealed. By this time, Orange bitters were being squeezed out of the Martini recipe favouring a clearer drink, with many Bitters manufacturers forced to shit during the prohibition years.  


1950s – The In –and-out Martini

The Martini’s increasingly dry trajectory was carrying on through the 1950s. The quest for the driest Martini became an obsession taking hold of drinkers and bartenders alike. This called for much higher gin to Vermouth ratios that deemed the classic 2:1 ratio now a recipe for disaster. A common practice for making an Extra-Dry Martini was to just swirl vermouth around the glass before pouring it away and ratios of at least 11: 1 were commonplace.  


1960s – The Rise of Vodka Martinis

Vodka’s profile was rising in the 1950s, so much that it’s wangling into the Martini can only be seen as inevitable. The spirit’s neutral, understated flavour provided an ideal blank canvas for the other Martini components, signalling the entrance of the Vodka Martini. This version was often enjoyed ‘Dirty’, made by adding a savoury splash of olive brine to the mix, and shaken not stirred.  

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1980s  – Anything goes Martini

As tastes embraced culinary experimentation, the trend of calling anything in a V-shaped coupe glass, a ‘Martini’ had emerged. Sweet flavours and novel colours were dominating the bar scene, from pink hued French Martinis, to aggressively green Appletinis. Once finding its way to a V-shaped glass, the Espresso Martini identity blossomed, from the Vodka Espresso name it originated from. The possibilities for novel Martini riffs seemed endless. Although these were divergent from the real Martini, the fun, sweet and drinkable flavours dominating the menu stimulated cocktail intrigue for the masses, which would act as the gateway to a wider interest in the more refined and traditional cocktails.  


00s – The Wet Martini

In transitioning from the sweet (barely) Martinis from the last centennial to the Extra dry Martinis of today, the Wet Martini, characterised by a Vermouth dominant ratio was working to bridge the gap. Having lost its way a bit in the last couple of decades, mixologists were looking back in the history books for inspiration in shaping the Martini. The ‘Fitty-Fitty’ version appeared, made with equal parts gin and dry vermouth and a splash of orange bitters, but true balance was restored with the reappearance of the classical 2:1 ratio. 


2020s – The Extra–Dirty Martini

Exhibiting olives and brine juice and made typically with vodka to allow the savoury olive brine to take centre stage, the Dirty Martini made its name in the 1980s. However, in today’s cocktail renaissance, this dirty, even filthy version is dominating the Martini scene. Naturally, modernity calls for bartenders to embrace a diverse array of brines and garnishes from fish sauce to pasta water to onion brine.


From its sweet beginnings to its modern incarnations, the Martini continues to evolve with each passing drink trend and societal shift. This liquid chameleon has survived a tumultuous century by adapting to mankind’s perpetually changing tastes and fashions – a true testament to its iconic legacy. 

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