The Shaken Martini

It’s funny how two ingredients can inspire so much discussion, conflict, anticipation, one-upmanship, derision, desire, ire, and postulating. Yes, I’m talking about the Martini cocktail. From what kind of gin to use, how much (if any) vermouth is added, whether it’s shaken or stirred, if you should add bitters, and whether an olive or lemon twist is preferred, few seem to agree on what makes a perfect martini. And let’s not forget vodka martinis, espresso martinis, appletinis, Gibsons, dirty martinis, Vespers, etc.

I started drinking martinis sometime in the early ’90s, I think. After work, someone would break out a bottle of Sapphire gin, we’d put on some mood music, and sip ice-cold martini cocktails in the kitchen, pulling up stools at the counter where we’d spent the night preparing food, and serving it. I also lived near the infamous Persian Aub Zam Zam on Haight Street in San Francisco, where Bruno, the owner, would kick anyone out if they didn’t order a gin martini, or have the temerity to sit at a table, or order anything as frilly as a Cosmo. Any of those actions would get you booted from the premises. He’d holler from behind the bar, “Why don’t you go to the bar down the street? You’ll like it there better” to the bewildered potential patrons, before slunk back out the door.

Bruno would “pound” his martinis with a muddler in a cocktail mixing glass. (He also only used Boord’s gin, poured from 1.75 liter jugs.) Anyone who thinks you can bruise gin would not only have gotten a reprimand from him, but nowadays from every liquor expert; you can’t “bruise” gin. If that was the case, every case of gin that’s been shipped would be black and blue from the bumpy ride Say what you want, though, his martinis were excellent.

Aside from the restaurant kitchen, and Bruno’s place, another San Francisco favorite for martinis was Bix. It was the height of elegance, at least to us unkept restaurant line cooks, who could feel a little more swanky sitting at their bar, which always had a big, snow-like tub of crushed ice on it with martini glasses upended in it, ensuring that they’d be icy-cold when filled. I was reminded of Bix, which is still going strong, when I was reading The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation On the World’s Greatest Drink, with Recipes by Robert Simonson.

According to the book, Doug “Bix” Biederbeck’s objective was to come up with a martini that was as cold as possible, so their martinis are shaken, but not overshaken, which would dilute the drink too much. When poured into a glass, a shaken martini sometimes has whisper-thin ice chips on top, that dissolve instantly when the drink hits your tongue, making it feel extra-cold.

People like to chime in that ice chips don’t belong in a martini but in Robert Simonson’s book, but claiming authenticity is tricky and can backfire, as at a talk I went to when the book was released this fall, Robert Simonson noted that one theory about the origin of the martini (there are several, noted in the book) is that the original martini may indeed have been served on the rocks, and got its name from Martini, Sola & Cia, now Martini & Rossi. The same company also makes Noilly Prat vermouth in France. That theory – which Robert concedes may not be plausible – would mean that the martini could be of European origin. People don’t associate Europe with cocktails, but gin and tonics are popular in Spain – and gaining in popularity in France, so perhaps there’s some merit to that theory?

One theory I think we can all agree on is that you should drink what you like. To be as equanimous as possible. The Martini Cocktail features a wide range of martinis, including a vodka martini (which is really a different drink, called the Kangaroo), Toby Cecchini‘s martini with a bit of Junmai sake (which he calls “A Martini,” rather than “The Martini”), Dale DeGroff’s martini which uses amber vermouth, the 50:50 martini from Audrey Sanders of Pegu Club which is half gin, half vermouth, as well as a martini-on-the-rocks.

I was delighted to see the Martini from Bix in San Francisco in the book, and decided to shake one up for myself.

The recipe uses Gordon’s London dry gin and Dolin French vermouth, which is very good in this particular martini. It has a clean flavor, and its alpine botanicals play well with gin. (You can read more about their vermouth, and my visit to their distillery in the alps, in Drinking French.) You can use an olive, lemon twist or even a cocktail onion as a garnish. And you’re welcome to call it what you want, but I’ll continue to call the martini – whether shaken or stirred – one of my favorite cocktails.

The Shaken Martini
Print Recipe
1 cocktail
Adapted from The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation On the World's Greatest Drink, with Recipes by Robert Simonson.  While the recommended gin is Gordon's in the original recipe, you can use any type of London dry gin. This martini is shaken to make it as cold as possible. If you favor a stirred martini, be my guest...
3 1/2 ounces London dry gin (see headnote)
1/2 ounce dry vermouth, preferably Dolin
1 green olive, cocktail onion, or lemon twist, for garnish
1. Add the gin and vermouth to a cocktail shaker.
2. Fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously until well-chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an olive, onion, or lemon twist.


The classic cocktail, served well-chilled!

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37 comments

  • December 3, 2019 8:13am

    Magnifique ce dossier David,
    -Romain Reply

  • phanmo
    December 3, 2019 12:54pm

    My current Martini preference is Gin du Trégor from Saint Maudez in the Côtes d’Armor and Noilly Prat.

    Or any Martini at all actually Reply

  • Charlie
    December 3, 2019 3:13pm

    People say shaking a Martini ‘bruises’ the gin but I think it opens it up a little. A gentle shake- not as if the thing went over Niagara Falls. Reply

  • Sandra Myers
    December 3, 2019 3:13pm

    My first martini was a dirty martini with Bombay Sapphire gin and lots of olives and juice, in NYC. If you asked me which restaurant, I couldn’t tell you. I had two and was very happy. We were there for a birthday party and the food seemed nonexistent, or the kitchen was overwhelmed. To this today, my favorite!! Reply

  • December 3, 2019 3:36pm

    Lovely!!! I lived in Trinidad and the Martini is popular, with dash of Agostura bitters..and crushed ice, Thanks Querino Reply

  • Ann Spivack
    December 3, 2019 3:50pm

    What Romain said. :-) Reply

  • Rosie Dunsford
    December 3, 2019 3:54pm

    I lived on Central Ave. just off the Haight in the early ’80’s. Once at the Zam Zam I ordered a whisky with hot water as I had a cold. I still recall the response: “Madam, occasionally during the holidays we will serve a hot drink. Not tonight.” And such a racket as he pounded away on the martinis! Reply

    • December 3, 2019 4:05pm
      David Lebovitz

      I remember once a woman came in, sat down, and ordered a glass of Grand Marnier. He promptly gave it to her in a nice footed glass. No problem. I think he thought of that as a “proper drink” but he was also known to favor women, who got napkins under their cocktails, but not the men. I also remember the silver dollars he gave as change! Reply

  • Joan
    December 3, 2019 4:04pm

    Oh my … I haven’t thought of Bruno at the Zam Zam in years! Sitting at his bar was one of the best free shows in SF. I remember he wasn’t particularly fond of the “damn hippies” … he’d throw them out before they were barely over the threshold. But yes, he made a mean martini, that’s for sure. Reply

  • Erin
    December 3, 2019 4:41pm

    I very much enjoyed this post, with coffee as it’s still a bit early with evidence of morning fog over the river.
    I keep a special bottle of gin for those rare evenings of relaxation, Monkey 47. Shaken on its own, poured into a pretty floral etched glass (I’m certain the gin knows the vessel compliments its beauty) and sipped right there in the kitchen. Surely, there are drinks to be mixed with the Monkey but I love to savor the gin on its own. Reply

  • Mary-Karen Euler
    December 3, 2019 4:51pm

    I recall my very 1st Martini vividly! in 1969 fancy friends prepared them in just this fashion, and they were delicious. It was the night of the Chinese New Year’s parade and at some point I realized that it had started without us, but nobody else was interested at that point so I ran out alone in the bitter cold trying to locate it. Eventually I came upon the dragon at the tail end somewhere around Broadway and returned back some time later with a handful of Red Guard pamphlets?! Reply

  • Didier
    December 3, 2019 5:02pm

    I misread your title and thought it was about a new band called “The Shakin’ Martinis.” Reply

  • kari
    December 3, 2019 5:05pm

    BTW, it´s Bix Beiderbecke… Reply

    • December 3, 2019 5:42pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks, but it is spelled Biederbeck…at least according to here, and here. (Unless I’m missing something?) Reply

  • Todd Merkel
    December 3, 2019 5:06pm

    Great read (over coffee as it’s 8am in Portland,OR.). There is nothing in the world as civilized and soothing as a simple shaken martini. The only rule we can all agree on that it must be ice cold.

    My gin of choice is Sapphire with plenty of castelveltrano olive juice, shaken for a 30 count and served with 3 of those olives in a frozen martini glass.

    Heaven on earth, plus the salt helps my rehydrate after my evening run, so I’m getting a double benefit Reply

  • kari
    December 3, 2019 5:52pm

    My “martini” has always been the American “up, twist”. A tall glass filled with crushed ice, then filled with gin and at the end a twist of lime peel and the airline hostesse´s short breath after she´d had a sip of vermouth… Reply

  • December 3, 2019 5:59pm

    I don’t know if it is true but according to Noël Coward, “A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy” after I read that I think of him every time I have one. Reply

    • December 3, 2019 6:06pm
      David Lebovitz

      There are a number of stories about how the “just wave the bottle of vermouth near the glass” (or similar quips) started. I think in Robert’s book he mentioned that Churchill was mad at France and made them keep the vermouth away. There are a number of variations on how much, or how little, vermouth is in a martini, but as Robert said at a talk I went to (if I recall correctly…and I may not be quoting him exactly), “If there’s no vermouth in it, it’s just a glass of cold gin.” Reply

  • tgt
    December 3, 2019 7:05pm

    I am also a martini lover (hint of vermouth, olives) and keep my martini glasses in the freezer. Our kids like dirty vodka “martinis” – over the Thanksgiving holiday I made little square ice cubes from the brine in the olive jar (ala Bar Hemingway), but also froze an olive in the cube. Big Hit!

    A few years ago, in Berlin, hubby went down the hotel bar a few minutes before me and ordered a martini for me. A glass of Martini & Rossi vermouth was delivered.

    Loved this post, David! Reply

  • Lee
    December 3, 2019 7:57pm

    In the inimitable words of Miss Parker, “I like to have a martini,
    Two at the very most.
    After three I’m under the table,
    after four I’m under my host.” Reply

    • Dev
      December 4, 2019 4:29am

      There was a question about the Algonquin Round Table on Jeopardy! tonight… it made me think of this verse. Reply

      • Cyndy
        December 4, 2019 4:41am

        They missed it, too! Along with Who was Rin Tin Tin? Too young by far. Reply

  • Pete Holland
    December 3, 2019 9:22pm

    Should not be ordered shaken at a restaurant/bar. It seems macho for the bartender to shake as hard as possible, leaving big shards. Saying “gentle shake” is an affront. I keep my gin in the frig, not frozen. if frozen, the viscosity is too much. Finally, insist on a Martini glass. otherwise, you look like a dork Reply

  • Joan
    December 3, 2019 9:30pm

    “…I like, then, on my rare and deeply savored debauches, to precede the luncheon or dinner with one double Gibson, to be served to me in a chilled champagne glass, with the lemon peel twisted once lightly over it. My favorite Bacchus give me a little dish of salty pearl onions, impaled properly on tiny sticks, lying in a bed of snow. I never touch them, but we respect each other for this sop to custom, a compromise on his part with putting onions into the drink itself, and on mine with wishing that they not appear at all.”
    – M.F.K. Fisher
    The Art of Eating Reply

  • Sara
    December 3, 2019 9:33pm

    I know nothing about martinis and don’t care for them. Yet, I loved reading this post and almost enjoy the comments from your readers even more! So many reasons to love your blog. Reply

  • Joan
    December 3, 2019 9:33pm

    …actually, the above is from

    An Alphabet for Gourmets 1949

    which was one of several compiled into
    The Art of Eating Reply

  • Shelly Murphy
    December 3, 2019 10:11pm

    What do martinis and women’s breast have in common?
    One is not enough and three is too many!
    I’m currently enjoying rhubarb gin from the Queens own garden…a lovely blush in color. Reply

  • Tati
    December 3, 2019 10:42pm

    Perfect! I took a bartending course a lifetime ago. People did that back then, and your martini is perfect! The tiny shares of ice as it hits your mouth are ideal and oh what a drink after a taxing day or night on the job! Reply

  • Simon
    December 3, 2019 10:55pm

    My favorite gin is G’Vine and believe it or not, it’s French! Give it a try. Reply

  • Gavrielle
    December 4, 2019 1:43am

    Thank you for clearing up the bruising thing! I’ve never understood how that could be possible and now I know – it isn’t:).

    (PS: You might want to let Romain know there’s a typo in the link from his name which stops a click from correctly going to his website. This is a terrible shame as it means clickers can’t see his incredible work.) Reply

  • December 4, 2019 3:54am

    Every time I hit a tiny ice chip in a shaken martini, I think of Patricia Lockwood (in her memoir Priestdaddy) happily comparing an icy martini to “jumping through a plate glass window”. Cheers! Reply

  • Todd
    December 4, 2019 4:02am

    Sapphire, splash of Dolin, 3 olives with some juice and shaken 50 times. Perfection!

    Martinis are like breasts. 1 is not enough and 3 is too many. Reply

  • MyrnaL
    December 4, 2019 4:40am

    What a great post. Brought back memories of Zam Zams and my pride in getting a napkin while my husband looked on but knew better than to ask. Now I think I’ll stream a Thin Man movie. Reply

    • December 4, 2019 8:25am
      David Lebovitz

      It’s funny because I was also hankering to see The Thin Man, and wanted to watch it with Romain, but couldn’t find a way to view it in France online via a streaming service. They’re pretty great movies, aren’t they? And yes – so many memories of Perian Aub Zam Zam. I remember feeling such a sense of pride that he allowed us to drink there, and never gave us the boot ; ) Reply

      • BJ
        December 4, 2019 4:12pm

        Thin Man Martini time (video)

        Thanks for the trip down martini memory lane in SF. Living in the Aude now, where classic dry martinis can only be found chez moi! Reply

  • December 4, 2019 6:11am

    My husband has learned how to make the perfect martini for me. Sapphire (or Hendrick’s if we have it) and vermouth – shaken enough to have those icy shards on top. He then pours it into a chilled martini glass and garnishes with lemon peel which he twists over the glass. He then makes himself a gin and tonic. Reply

  • Lee
    December 5, 2019 7:50pm

    Must be something in the air. The Intoxicating History of Gin This from today’s New Yorker online. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/09/the-intoxicating-history-of-gin Reply

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