The Martini: a pre-prandial drink with its own private language

It's a drink that means different things to different people. Joel Harrison turns his attention to the classic Martini – and shares how he drinks his

Words by Joel Harrison

connaught bar martini cocktail with lemon twist
The Connaught Bar's version of a classic Martini, where the service of the cocktail is like a performance

Just over 20 years ago, I handed in the final piece of work for my degree, a dissertation entitled Is Music a Language?. The aim of the piece was to weave together three topics I enjoyed studying: art, music and philosophy. The latter element was rooted in the work of 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his ‘private language’ theory, the concept that individual words can trigger different pictures, stories or items in people’s minds.

To demonstrate this in my work, I used the word ‘car’ as an example. For some, the simple three-letter word might evoke the image of a Ferrari or an Aston Martin; for others, a Mini or Ford Focus. If I were to rewrite my dissertation today, I might swap this reference for another equally diverse and divisive word: Martini.

If ever there were a drink that needed to see a therapist, it would be the Martini

If ever there were a drink that needed to see a therapist, it would be the Martini. This is a cocktail that comes in many guises, with various titles, colours and flavours. Find yourself in a neon nightclub in one of the UK’s towns or cities and, to the locals, a Martini might well mean the foamy, dark and delicious coffee cocktail. This three-ingredient combination of espresso, coffee liqueur and vodka, developed at the tail-end of the 1990s by bartender Dick Bradsell in London, ticks some of the boxes of what a Martini should be and is often served in a V-shaped glass. It’s a brilliantly clever drink which, when balanced, is utterly delicious (all too often it’s served overly sweet).

espresso martini cocktail at the bar
Utter the word 'Martini' and many minds will leap to the espresso take on the classic cocktail

One might also think of a Porn Star or Passion Fruit Martini, a drink that often tops the UK’s best-selling cocktail chart. Another London invention, this time the more recent side of the year 2000, the Porn Star Martini is about as much a Martini as potato salad is a salad. Sweet, sickly and typical of everything I dislike about cocktails (from the name to the flavour), for me the best part of this drink is the shot of sparkling wine on the side. I have never had a version of this drink I’ve enjoyed, and I’m as astonished by its success as I am the longevity of Britain’s Got Talent or the career of James Corden.

In my own ‘private language’, the Martini is a simple classic. Mention the word and I see a cold and crisp concoction, composed solely from gin or vodka, vermouth and a garnish. And this is a language understood by others too. In his book The Martini: Perfection in a Glass, author Matt Hranek writes, ‘the Martini is as simple as it is sophisticated,’ summing up the drink in fewer than 10 words.

Herein lies the brilliance of the Martini. Even with just three ingredients, there is a world of possibility: the choice of gin or vodka; the selection of dry vermouth and its ratio to the spirit; how and with what to garnish; what level of dilution should be introduced through stirring (never shaking, Mr Bond). These are all questions to be asked and everyone will have their own preference; their own ‘private language’ for the drink.

Gibson martini with cocktail onions
'You might envisage a savoury-led Gibson with small, hard, white cocktail onions lurking within'

When a Martini is mentioned, you might have a vision of a Dirty Martini with a giant green olive nestled in the base of the glass; you might envisage a savoury-led Gibson with small, hard, white cocktail onions lurking within; it might even be a Vesper, the mix of vodka and gin invented by Ian Fleming and beloved by Bond.

To witness the range of interpretations, you simply need to spend an afternoon wandering between two of London’s top hotel bars. Start at Dukes in St James’s (a favourite of Fleming’s) and experience the exhilaration of its famous Martini, where a frozen glass is rinsed with drops of vermouth and filled to the brim with gin straight from the freezer. Dilution? None whatsoever.

Less than 15 minutes away, on a walk north through Berkeley Square, you’ll find yourself at The Connaught. The bar’s Martini is stirred down with a choice of bespoke bitters (should the drinker approve), and then poured from a great height to deliver aeration and spectacle. In another flourish, oils from a garnish of lemon twist are expressed over the stream as it flows into the glass.

Martinis are poured from a great height at The Connaught Bar

If your thirst is not yet sated, you could walk a further 300 metres to Claridge’s for yet another example of a top-drawer Martini. This adventure could continue not just for an afternoon but for days – and all based around two small districts in London’s West End. Broaden this out to the whole of central London, Manchester, Manhattan or Madrid, and you could easily spend a year drinking Martinis at some of the world’s foremost cocktail institutions and never have the same version twice. All from a drink with just three ingredients.

I have my own preference for a Martini (if you’re asking, typically 70/30 in favour of a juniper-forward gin and with a twist of lemon), which can change depending on the time of day, my mood and tastes, and, well, just because it does. Whatever it is you see, whatever your own ‘private language’ for this simple-yet-elegant drink, rest assured that there is no wrong way to order a Martini; there is only your way.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • Blended Scotch comes in many shapes and sizes, but the historical blended house Dewars is always thinking a little bit differently. Its Double Double range is a seriously clever and very well aged blend, which comes in three age statements: a 21-years-old (finished in Oloroso sherry casks), a 27-years-old (finished in Palo Cortado sherry casks), and a 32-years-old (finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks). All delicious, they are housed in unusually square bottles and showcase the very best side of blended Scotch whisky. My pick? The 27-years-old, which is supple yet rich, smooth and bold.
  • A discovery for me this month has been a husband-and-wife team from Warwickshire, England, producing a brilliant elderflower liqueur. William and Kelsey Seymour first made the drink for guests at their wedding, and are now in full production using only local ingredients. St. Maur is brilliant dashed into sparkling wine, or as an addition to a gin and tonic. A super refreshing find for summer drinks ahead.
  • My cocktail of the moment is inspired by a new restaurant-bar on London’s Carnaby Street. Bar Kroketa serves up seriously tasty Spanish-inspired small plates with a focus on croquettes: small bombs of flavour that are the perfect accompaniment to a cocktail. On their list is an apple-based number called Basque & Stormy (see what they’ve done there?), which combines spiced rum, Basque cider, apple, cardamom and lime. My homemade take on this is to add two parts spiced rum, to one part apple juice, one part lime juice, four cardamom pods and just a dash of sugar syrup, and shake with ice. Strain into a coupe and top up with cider.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.