We inaugurate the first of our "Classic Cocktails" articles with what is arguably the classic. Martinis are elegant and sophisticated, and always feel like a luxurious reward. Regardless of whether you've earned it.
Consider that the martini is a goddamned dinosaur of a cocktail, but people are still drinking them today. That should tell you something. If I had to explain the popularity (James Bond references aside), my best answer is that for a drink with relatively few ingredients, it's almost alchemy how well everything marries.
Now, before we really get rolling, I'll say this: classic though it may be, the martini is most definitely a booze-heavy drink. For that reason, I wouldn't recommend it as the very first drink you buy your kid sister for her twenty-first birthday. If you do, she'll hate it. The martini is a cocktail for adults. It's a drink that rewards those with clear preferences formulated from past experience. As such, there are several correct answers when it comes to how a martini "should" be built based on what you like.
I will argue that there are three rules for making a martini worth drinking, however.
The first is to use vermouth. I've mentioned this before in an article specifically about vermouth, but if you're recycling that old-ass joke about pointing the cocktail shaker in the general direction of Italy to substitute for the vermouth, you're not making a dry martini. You're just drinking gin. Which is fine! But it's not a martini any more than a skateboard without wheels is anything but a board.
The second non-negotiable is to use good vermouth. If you suspect your vermouth is more than a month old, get a new bottle. If you're using spoiled vermouth that reeks of vinegar from across the room, you aren't going to get a good drink. (It's why I think martini-haters actually dislike martinis.) And use enough vermouth so you can actually taste and smell it in the cocktail.
Third, use gin. I'm not going to say that vodka is the pond scum of the spirit world, but I don't think it has enough backbone to work in this application. Most of the people I know who like Vodka martinis like them really dirty, at which point an already light set of flavors is being shouted down by olive brine. I like the taste of bold spirits that can talk over the back-chatter of brine, vermouth, and/or bitters, so I'm firmly in camp gin.
With all of that said, here are a few variations of how I make my martinis at home:
The Classic Martini
2 oz gin (something citrus-forward, like Broker's)
3/4oz dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
We begin with what I see as the most common and traditional style, which tends to be more citric. This is timeless for a reason: it's a great flavor. Combine all ingredients save for the lemon twist in a pint glass, stir with ice for about 30 seconds, and strain into a chilled martini glass. The lemon twist at the end seems like a bit of a headache, but it doesn't take too much time to do and you won't believe the effect it will have on your enjoyment of the drink.
The Spirit Animal Wet Martini
2oz Gin (something strong and juniper-forward, like Boodle's or Plymouth)
1 oz Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Some explanation is in order as to my "house" style. This variation of the Martini—sometimes referred to as a “pink gin”—is flat-out dynamite. Rather than citrus, the angostura provides big herbal flavors. For gin, I like Boodles because it's an unapologetic, prototypical London dry. The ginniest of gins. But it plays very well with the aromatics from the Noilly Prat, a very full-flavored vermouth that isn't content to roll over. Especially at a 2:1 ratio. Angostura goes with gin like leather goes with heavy metal.
You can get fancy in the presentation, but you don't have to. With a gin batting at or above 45% ABV, you won't get a weak-ass drink even with the effects of dilution. Which is definitely a thing if you build it as I do: right into the glass I'm going to drink out of, ice and all. It's technically wrong, but it still tastes great. I'm partial to any drink variation that shrugs off my lack of effort.
The Working Man's Dirty Martini
2oz Gordon's gin
0.5oz Dry vermouth (Martini & Rossi will do)
0.25oz olive brine
2 big-ass olives stuffed with something you like
So you want something that tastes like a million dollars on a beer budget? Whip one of these up. Throw everything (including the brine) into a pint glass, stir it until real cold, then strain into a chilled glass. The olive brine adds savory sophistication and almost completely obliterates any fault in the Gordon's, an $11 gin. Every single element works in total harmony. (Although I have to admit, as of recently I've taken to garnishing with cocktail onions instead of olives, which would technically make this a dirty Gibson.)
Remember: there's no wrong answer of how to combine the gin, vermouth, and other add-ins if it comes out how you like it. Cheers!