Entry 6: The origins of the martini aren’t particularly interesting, but they’re very sweet.
By the 1890s recipes for a drink now known as the Martini were appearing. In Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks (1895), George J. Kappeler writes:
Half a mixing-glass full of fine ice, three dashes orange bitters, one-half jigger Tom gin, one-half jigger Italian vermouth, a piece lemon peel. Mix, strain into cocktail-glass. Add a maraschino cherry, if desired by customer.
From this we can see that the Martini, containing just gin, sweet vermouth, and bitters, was really a gin version of the Manhattan. And like the Manhattan, when ordered normally it would be made with sweet vermouth, and when ordered “dry” with dry (French) vermouth.
The precise origins of the martini are unknown and unknowable, which is to be expected—par for the course in matters related to the 19th hole. What is slightly odd, however, is that the most interesting thing about the debunked fables and improbable claims that serve in their stead is how uninteresting they are. You might have heard that the first martini is named after Martini & Rossi vermouth or the Martini-Henry rifle or that it was mixed by a New York bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia. Such dull stories as these simply cannot compare to the cluster of legends attracted by the margarita, for instance, supposedly invented for Marjorie King or Rita Hayworth or perhaps Ms. Peggy Lee.
What we have, instead of hard facts or fun fancy, is the understanding is that the drink descends from the Martinez cocktail—the hinge in history between the Manhattan and the martini. Indeed, the Martinez made its first appearance in print in 1884, in O.H. Byron’s Modern Bartenders’ Guide, explicitly described as a “Manhattan substituting gin for whiskey.” Byron’s drink, very similar to the Kappeler martini outlined above, involves 2 ounces each of gin and sweet vermouth and two dashes each of curaçao and Angostura bitters. I have had one of these, and it made an impression on me. That impression was: I can see why they kept working on that.
They kept working, and they came to a fork in the road. Down one path, they involved themselves with dry vermouth and then shortly came to another fork, which they picked up and used to fish an olive from a jar and make history. Down the other path, they stuck with sweet vermouth. This is obviously the road less taken.
We must wonder what accidents of fate and inclinations of taste conspired to make the sweet martini an iconographical also-ran, especially because so many variations on it and on the Martinez and on the “perfect martini” are so very tasty. A perfect martini is so-called because, like the perfect Manhattan, it involves both sweet and dry vermouth, not because anyone in the history of making drinks has ever hailed it as a flawless beverage. Quite the contrary: People have kept working on it, adding an extra something to pull the flavors together, using Bénédictine to fine tune the perfect into the Rolls-Royce (a cult favorite among professional bartenders) and adding elderflower liqueur to fashion a Maddow (invented by a Manhattan barkeep who hoped that the MSNBC host would come in to drink one).
Which of these recipes works best for you? Let us know by upvoting and downvoting the recipes below; the most popular will enter into Slate’s Martini Madness tournament. (Voting ends Sunday, March 17 at 6 p.m. EDT; tipoff is Tuesday, March 19.)
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.