Drink of the Week: The Vodka Martini

vodka martiniSo, this all started when, through the kindness of a smart and generous publicist working for Diageo, two bottles of very good vodka found their way to my door. Ketel One is the solid and very popular brand of premium liquor you probably all know, with its bright, clean taste. With a bit more complexity and bite than we usually associate with what was once marketed as “white whisky,” certified organic Moon Mountain Vodka, a small batch liquor, also came my way. Both are superior vodkas which, I’m certain, would do very well in any good vodka cocktail from a Bloody Mary to a Moscow Mule. Still, I decided to first enjoy them in probably their purest cocktail form, the vodka martini.

Now, careful readers with long memories may recall that we covered the martini — both gin and vodka — in the first ever edition of DOTW. Nevertheless, we didn’t really give the vodka variation its proper attention as a sturdy cocktail in its own right. (Many will insist it’s not the same drink and they’re not half wrong.) Today, we correct that oversight with, really, the first cocktail that ever became “my” drink and only partially because I grew up with James Bond on the brain. You’ll note that we’re using significantly less vermouth this time around.

The Vodka Martini

3 ounces vodka
1 teaspoon to 1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1 dash of orange bitters (optional)
Lemon twist or olive garnish

Combine vodka and a tiny, or teeny-tiny, amount of vermouth in a cocktail shaker. Also consider throwing in a very small amount of orange bitters. This may be heretical in some quarters, but we like our vodka martinis seriously cloudy with ice crystals, especially since we’re keeping the vermouth to a minimum this time, so all of these liquids should be poured over crushed ice, if you can manage it. Then shake like crazy for as long as you can stand to. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass with olives or a twist of lemon, though we prefer olives. Sip slowly, this is essentially two drinks in one. (Use 100 proof vodka only at your own risk.)

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I have to admit to some small consternation when trying this at home that I never quite reached the level of smooth perfection that my very longstanding and extremely good friend, hostess par excellance Dr. R., achieves regularly with her vodka martinis. Apparently, however, her secret involves using just a smidge of olive brine, which technically makes her drink a dirty martini.

I love dirty martinis and I’m sure I’ll cover them at some point later on, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait. Apparently, her trick is to just use a drop of vermouth, and a touch of brine and lots and lots of crushed ice — and no bitters. I like my version but, I have to admit, her’s is pretty damn perfect.

As for which brand of vodka worked better…that depends. The Moon Mountain is better for those who really like to know they’re imbibing alcohol while being kind to the environment, while the Ketel One is slightly preferable for those who’d like to pretend they’re drinking an intoxicating iceberg.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Americano

the AmericanoOf all the boozy discoveries I’ve made in the relatively short time I’ve been writing DOTW, easily the most personally fascinating to me is Campari and the great cocktail made with it, the Negroni. Mine is a lonely passion, however. American bartenders tend to play down Campari and Campari-based drinks, even while they usually stock it. It’s not hard to see why because it’s a dangerous drink, taste wise. It’s essentially the bitterest of bitters mixed with the sweetest of liqueurs. When you drink it straight — and you really should, just once — the sweet part leads the charge followed by a sharp, intoxicating punch of bitterness. Pleasure followed by a punishment I personally find quite addictive.

Fortunately, the Negroni is not alone among Campari-based cocktail classics. This history of the Americano goes back the mid-19th century, when it was first known as the Milano-Torino before the Italians noticed that we Yanks we’re taking to the drink. No doubt, that was because it does such a great job of softening the Campari 1-2 punch.

Wikipedia also points out that the Americano is the first bar order made by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Relax, however; you don’t have to be a super-spy to enjoy this and you certainly don’t need to be a super-mixologist to make it. In fact, it’s a perfect drink for lightweights and/or lazy bartenders with a mild adventurous streak.

The Americano

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Carbonated water
Orange slice or lemon peel (optional, but desirable, garnish)

Pour equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth over ice cubes in a rocks/old fashioned glass. Top off with carbonated water of your choice. Add citrus slice/peel of your choice. Stir.

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If you’d like a bit more hydration or if you’d like to put a bit more distance between yourself and the Campari bitters, it’s also perfectly acceptable to make an Americano in a Colllins/highball, leaving more room for the carbonated water. As to the type of soda water, club soda or plain seltzer/carbonated water are fine, though I understand 007/Ian Fleming suggested using Perrier with it in the short story, “A View to a Kill.” On the other hand, since that magnificent snob recommended using the French mineral water as a relatively inexpensive way to improve “a bad drink,” he couldn’t possibly have been talking about the Americano.

  

Drink of the Week: The Negroni

It is with some shame that your humble writer admits that, until a few days ago, he had never tasted Campari. In case you don’t know, Campari is theoretically a very popular Italian apĂ©ritif — that’s “before dinner drink” to us English speaking barbarians — that’s essentially a drinkable variety of bitters. You see it consumed with soda in European films and every bar in the world seems to stock it but, classic spirit or not, nobody we know seems to drink it or anything made with it.

So it was with great curiousity that yours truly brought home a bottle of the stuff and broke the lifelong Campari drought. First, a surprising and delicious burst of orangey sweetness reminiscent of a really tasty Italian vermouth, then, a bracing bitterness. A bit strong and not 100% pleasant in the usual sense, but fascinating. Time for had another sip.

the NegroniYep, it was good to take the bitter with the sweet. It was better to try the most famous cocktail made using Campari.

The Negroni

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce dry gin
Twist of orange peel (garnish)

Shake like the dickens and serve in a chilled martini glass. Semi-optional final step: swirl the orange twist around the rim of the glass and “express” it (twist it) over the drink. Drop it in.

If the above seems a bit too sweet for you, feel free to increase the gin slightly and decrease the Campari and vermouth. (David Wondrich‘s version is 1.5 ounces gin to 3/4 ounce Campari and vermouth, and it works beautifully.)

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Folks, I’m going to drop the “royal we” I’ve been using and say in the first person that I really love the Negroni. It appeals to my sweet tooth while also being plenty refreshing on a warm summer day and offering a delicious complexity thanks to the one-two sweet-bitter punch of the Campari, softened by the sweet vermouth and with a terrific tang coming from the gin. For some reason, bartenders I’ve met are skittish about this drink and it has a somewhat “difficult” reputation. My take is that, if you can enjoy a Manhattan, you’re probably more than definitely ready for a Negroni and it’s a lot more accessible than a martini. I love this drink and think you will, too.

The Negroni is often served on the rocks, particularly in Europe, but I tried it that way and, like most “up” drinks served on the rocks, the results were not exciting, almost sickly sweet. It’s also often served anti-James Bond style, stirred and not shaken, on account of the bar worker’s lore that gin should only be shaken when non-alcoholic ingredients are present. I tried that too and decided that worrying about the gin here was complete balderdash. Negronis demand a good shaking.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the name comes from, it’s simple enough. It seems that a turn-of-the-20th-century Italian count named Negroni was drinking another Campari-based cocktail, an Americano, (we’ll cover that some other time) and wanted a stronger version with some gin in it. That’s the whole story.

  

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