It’s Saturday evening here in Siem Reap and Lara and I are starting to think about cocktails. It’s too early for a martini so we’ll probably start with a negroni. This time last Saturday night we were heading out to a fancy hotel bar for cocktails with friends from Bangkok. I delayed my martini there too, but for a different reason.
As travel writers starting out many years ago, we realised we needed yardsticks. If we were reviewing a hotel’s breakfast, the dish by which we’d compare it to other hotel breakfasts became Eggs Benedict. For reviewing bars, I decided I needed a cocktail by which to judge whether the bar had a barman who was up to scratch. I decided on the martini.
In hindsight, this was a great idea for assessing a bar, but a bad idea if we had to assess four bars in a night — sometimes two before dinner and sometimes two after dinner. The results were as predictable as they were messy.
I’d been to the hotel bar we went to last week once before and ordered my usual drink but they had failed miserably. The problem was, on that particular night, I had just described to our friend who was in charge of the hotel’s public relations that the martini was the drink by which I judged bars.
I had explained to her that I could tell whether a bar was serious about what it was serving, or whether it was just taking advantage of tired tourists too exhausted to take a tuk tuk somewhere better, by the way it made its martinis. She was a little embarrassed and professed that the bar was due for a makeover.
So here’s how I judge whether the bar knows how to make the classic cocktail. Think of it as a Martini 101 or tips on how to order a martini.
There should always be questions
When we’re visiting a bar for the first time, Lara will order something elaborate, exotic or local off the menu to test their creativity, while I stick to the martini to ensure they know their classics. When the bartender or waiter asks what I want, I just say “a martini, thanks” and wait for the questions. There should always be questions. If you’re not asked the following questions then use this as a guide to order the kind of martini you like.
Gin or vodka?
The first question, of course, should be whether you want gin or vodka. This is straightforward. Although a few years ago at The Ritz in Paris, where we interviewed Colin Field, the world’s greatest bartender according to Forbes magazine, he informed us dryly “if the martini is vodka-based, it’s a vodkatini.”
What kind of gin?
I’m happy when the barman asks if I want Tanqueray (oh, the Tanqueray No. 10!) or Bombay Sapphire or, one of my all-time favourites, the wonderfully botanical Hendrick’s. Sure they’re all premium spirits, but considering that the only other alcohol is a lesser percentage of dry white vermouth, it’s worth the couple of extra bucks. Although if a bottle of Hendrick’s is on the shelf in front of me, I might be tempted to go for a G&T just so I can get the full bouquet of the gin. On a night off from reviewing, of course.
Shaken or stirred?
It was James Bond who said he preferred his cocktails shaken not stirred and while shaken gets the martini colder much quicker, it may weaken the cocktail and make it cloudy for a short time. There is a difference in taste, but just remember, regardless, a martini needs to be really cold. I prefer shaken only because I want mine super cold and I generally don’t think most barmen know how to achieve that by stirring. There is some talk that the difference is at the molecular level, but I’m not a scientist, I just want a viscous, really cold, alcoholic beverage.
For those who prefer their martinis stirred (a martini-lover on Twitter insisted a martini must be stirred and that if a bartender can’t stir a martini then he’s not a good bartender) it’s worth noting that it takes 15 seconds of shaking to get the martini down to around -7˚C. The optimum coldness for a martini is between -5˚C and -10˚C. Of course there are many variables when it comes to stirring a cocktail, such as the temperature of the glass, the size and type of ice and how vigorously the drink is stirred, however, scientific tests have shown that it takes about one minute 45 seconds of fast stirring for the drink to to reach -3°C. Or even longer.
If you can find a bar with a Kold-Draft ice machine and an amazing bartender who can knock 30 seconds off the time to stir a martini, make it your local. I’d make it mine too, only I’m testing cocktails around the world. But the bottom line on the shaken or stirred debate is that it’s your choice.
A dry martini?
A super dry martini is a mix of 15-to-1 between gin and vermouth (yes, that’s why you need a great gin!) but most fall in between this and a 3-to-1 mix. Personally, I like mine dryish, usually around 8-to-1. You need to experiment to figure out what you prefer — preferably at home — but do it over a number of cocktail nights.
Olives or a twist?
Either is fine, but for me it depends on the gin. While Hendrick’s, packed full of flavour, can handle an olive or two, my personal opinion is that most martinis are better with a twist so that the flavour of the gin shines through — but, again, the martini needs to be really cold for olives to work too.
Do you want it dirty?
If you’ve requested olives, this should be the question that follows. A ‘dirty’ martini is with olives and some olive brine. I tend to shy away from them unless I know the bar and the barman (bar person?). There is nothing worse than brine from a jar that’s been in a refrigerator for months, as Lara recently discovered at a Siem Reap bar that shall remain nameless.
If you’re not a martini fan or a cocktail lover, I expect you might also have a few questions for me…
So what makes a martini special?
A martini makes everything right in the world, although Lara would say the same about a negroni — both are drinks for adults. But you know, when you’ve had one of those days when you hate your boss, you hate your life, or you’re just wondering what it all means? A martini might not provide all the answers, but by the second one it will certainly make you loose enough to not care for a few hours. Just don’t go for a third…
Why is two enough?
A martini is alcohol on alcohol with no respite. One before dinner and one after — if you still require one for medicinal purposes — is optimal.
How can barmen get such a simple cocktail so wrong?
You would not believe how easy it is. It’s either not cold enough. There’s way too much vermouth when you asked for it dry. The bartender defaults to using vodka instead of gin. Or uses cocktail olives older than me — and less, well, brined. They use the wrong glass — there’s a reason it’s called a martini glass. The list goes on.
The worst martini I ever had was from a barman at an upscale restaurant in Diani Beach, Kenya. He literally poured me a glass of Extra Dry Martini vermouth. Maybe it was lost in translation, but at least it wasn’t a full glass of Martini Rosso. Apparently people drink this. In public.
According to a barman on Twitter, who clearly thought we were American, if you order a ‘martini’ in Europe they’ll serve you a glass of this stuff without hesitation — that’s never been our experience in 15 years of travelling in Europe and we’ve ordered martinis in over 50 countries around the world. Maybe I’ve just been very lucky or look like I need a martini not a shot from a Martini bottle, which no-one should drink on its own. If you’re concerned, order a ‘martini cocktail’.
On our return to that posh hotel bar here in Siem Reap last week, I noticed a change. Order a martini and they use Tanqueray. And they make the cocktail table-side. Did my feedback have some effect? I like to think so. Cheers.
By the way, a couple of our favourite bars in Southeast Asia that do a grown-up’s martini are Ms Wong in Siem Reap, pictured above — the drink in the foreground is Lara’s favourite, the rose and lemongrass martini — and Soul Food in Bangkok.