While researching my novel, COOKING FOR PICASSO, I talked to Michelin-starred chefs on the Côte d’Azur, and, at my favorite grand hotel (which was recently awarded the French rating of a palais or "palace" that is reserved for only the finest five-star hotels) the bartender made me the best martini I’ve ever had. He believes that simplicity is the key when mixing cocktails.
And if I had to distill the advice he gave me about cocktail-making into one phrase, it would be this: Stirred, not Shaken. Yes, that’s right—James Bond was not only wrong, he had it utterly backwards (or as his fellow Brits say, balls-up).
Because if you shake a cocktail, the clackety-clack noise is impressive, but you will just end up with slush. The only drinks you should shake are the ones best served in the tropics with a paper parasol stuck in it. A frozen Margarita? Sure, shake all you want. A frozen Daiquiri? Rock on. But these drinks are best quaffed at hot-weather vacations, where you can also indulge in floral shirts and bright sarongs and big hats. I think of them as afternoon ices, not pre-dinner cocktails.
However, with proper cocktails like a martini, if you shake it you are “offending the spirits” and diluting them into snow cones.
So let's begin: Use the finest ingredients you can get.
Vermouth. You want dry vermouth for a martini, versus sweet vermouth for a Manhattan. Vermouth is wine mixed with special herbs, so find a good one, taste and compare.
Fill a glass tumbler with clean ice. Yes, clean ice. Don’t just buy sacks of it. Make it yourself from pure, plain water. Why do we ice drinks? Because the spirits can burn your throat if you drink them warm. Glass tumblers are better than those show-off-y metal ones since, these days, most metal shakers are poorly made, and the metal bits get into the drink.
Here are 2 basic cocktails:
THE CLASSIC MARTINI
2-4 ounces of good-quality gin per drink. NOT vodka. If you don’t like gin, then you have never tasted a good one. The best are usually handmade in small batches, with the purest water. Taste by the teaspoon to find the one you like, before you make a full-fledged drink out of one.
One or two drops of dry vermouth. You measure a drop with a clean plastic teaspoon, into which you pour the vermouth and then control the drops as you add them to the actual drink.
Place both ingredients into a glass pitcher filled with ice. Stir with glass or plastic, not metal. Do NOT move away from that drink until you are sure it’s chilled enough. Feel the outside of the glass to see if it’s cold, then remove the ice. This is a crucial moment that separates the good bartender from the boys. Nobody wants a martini filled with melted ice, even though 99% of bartenders give you this because they are too busy and get distracted. You should not taste the ice-water.
Serve in a modest-sized martini (cocktail) glass. Use cocktail glasses that areelegantly nimble. Monster-big glasses are arriviste because they are greedy and because the drink gets warm before you’ve finished it. Better to have a second small martini than to gulp a huge one.
A word about olives. Yes, you definitely should eat olives when you drink, so that you don’t shock an empty stomach. However, I prefer to have plain green olives eaten on the side, in a little dish. They shouldn’t even be pitted, because pitted ones get waterlogged with their brine and will change the taste of the drink. For this reason as well, never, ever drop a pimento-stuffed olive (or any other kind of stuffed olive) into a martini.
If you really feel you must add something to your martini, a twist of delicate lemon peel is nice done over the drink; these days I don’t drop the peel into the drink because most citrus is waxed.
THE CLASSIC MANHATTAN
2-3 ounces of good-quality whiskey. Regarding whiskey, a good bourbon or rye is best here (I am not a fan of scotch for this drink.) Again, taste different ones and see what appeals to you.
The same matching amount (2-3 ounces) of sweet vermouth. (I prefer red sweet vermouth in winter, versus a white or blanc vermouth in summer).
A squeeze of fresh orange juice (from an actual orange, folks, not bottled) or a twist of orange peel.
A dried cherry (never use maraschino!)
Ice these ingredients together, remove the cubes and serve in a cocktail glass or an Old-Fashioned glass.