Beginner’s guide to the martini in pop culture: from James Bond to Mad Men

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Shaken, stirred, dirty, with a twist or straight up – the Martini has been a staple of pop culture for decades, with stylish appearances in James Bond movies and “Mad Men.” But for beginners, it can be daunting knowing what to order. Explore this classic cocktail so you’ll know how to order and enjoy a perfect martini like a pro.

Professional bartender pouring a transparent alcoholic drink from the measuring cup to the martini glass on the bar counter in the dark blurred background
Bartender Pouring a Martini Cocktail. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

A brief history of the martini 

You’ve seen it on cocktail menus and in blockbuster films, but where does the martini come from? It’s believed to have originated in the United States in the late 19th century. The most popular belief is that it evolved from the Martinez, and over time it included dry vermouth and garnishes of olives or a lemon twist.

The sophisticated, affluent elite crowd helped to grow its popularity in the early 20th century. During Prohibition in the 1920s, this stylish cocktail symbolized rebellion and defiance in secret speakeasies. After Prohibition ended, the martini’s popularity grew, with many bars and restaurants offering unique versions of the classic cocktail recipe.

There is nothing more elegant than a sipping on a dry martini before dinner. Maybe it is the glass with a stem, or maybe it is the savory quality that’s an acquired taste for some, but they have a sophistication to them that is unmatched. I usually order an extra dirty martini with extra olives, but I won’t say no to any martini. Martinis never go out of style.”

Susannah Brinkley Henry, Feast + West,
Several glasses of famous cocktail Martini, shot at a bar with shallow depth of field
Martini Cocktails. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Martini: the ultimate symbol of sophistication and class

Favored by the upper classes, this elegant cocktail earned its reputation as a sophisticated drink. Its sleek appearance, clear, crisp liquid, and distinctive glassware conveyed a sense of refinement. 

As its popularity grew in the mid-20th century, it became even more closely associated with high society and glamour, mainly through its portrayal in Hollywood films, from classic movies like “Casablanca” and “The Thin Man” to more recent hits like James Bond and “Mad Men,” often shown being stirred or shaken by a suave bartender. It’s usually the most elegant of characters who order it.

James Bond’s famous “shaken, not stirred” martini order

When you think of James Bond, you probably think of the iconic, sophisticated British spy and his words, “shaken, not stirred,” when ordering at the bar in “Casino Royale.” But why did he like it this way? The idea behind shaking the Martini was to create a more refreshing drink and aerate the ingredients for a smoother taste. Bond’s Martini order helped cement the drink’s status as the ultimate symbol of sophistication and cool.

“Mad Men” TV show and its impact on the martini’s popularity

Mad Men” is a critically acclaimed television drama set in the 1960s; the show follows the lives of the employees of an advertising agency in New York City. Its attention to detail and historical accuracy helped create a vivid portrayal of life in the 1960s and significantly impacted the popularity of classic cocktails like the martini. The show’s characters often drink martinis in stylish bars and restaurants, and their sophisticated and glamorous lifestyle helped to create a renewed interest in the drink.

The show’s attention to detail in its portrayal of the martini was also notable, with characters often discussing the nuances of the drink’s preparation and presentation. The show’s emphasis on the martini helped to create a renewed interest in classic cocktails and elevated the drink’s status as a symbol of sophistication and style.

cocktails in glasses on bar counter in pup or restaurant
Martini Cocktail. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Gin and its role as the traditional base spirit for a martini

Gin is a clear spirit made from juniper berries and other botanicals. It originated in the Netherlands in the 17th century and was popularized in England during the 18th century. In its early days, gin was used as a medicinal tonic, but it eventually became a popular recreational drink. Gin’s popularity as a base spirit for cocktails grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it became the traditional base spirit for a martini.

Botanical flavors in gin and how they contribute to the taste of a martini

The botanicals used in gin can vary depending on the brand and the distillation process, but most gins contain juniper berries as their primary flavoring agent. Other common botanicals include coriander, angelica root, citrus peel, and various spices. These contribute to the distinct flavor profile of gin and can significantly impact the taste of a martini. 

There are several different types of gin, each with its unique flavor profile. London dry gin is the most common type in most classic martini recipes, and it is known for its dry, juniper-forward flavor and is typically made with a neutral grain spirit. Other types of gin include old Tom gin, which is sweeter and less juniper-forward than London dry gin, and genever, a gin style similar to the original Dutch gin and has a malty flavor. 

The type of gin used in a martini can significantly impact the drink’s flavor, so choosing a gin that complements the other ingredients in the cocktail is essential. Bond preferred Gordon’s Gin when ordering a vesper martini in ‘Casino Royale.’ 

Overview of vodka as an alternative to gin in a martini

While gin is the traditional base spirit for a martini, vodka has become a popular alternative in recent decades. Vodka is a clear, neutral spirit typically made from grains or potatoes. It was first introduced in Russia in the 14th century but became popular in the United States in the 1950s. Vodka’s neutral flavor profile makes it a versatile base spirit used in cocktails, including the Martini.

You’d use vodka in a dirty martini which can be made with either gin or vodka, along with dry vermouth and olive brine, Or the French martini, which is a sweet martini made with vodka, Chambord, and pineapple juice.

dirty martini chilled and served on a busy bar top with a shallow depth of field and color lights and glasses in the background garnished with a lemon twist
Dirty Martini Cocktail. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Differences in flavor between a gin martini and a vodka Martini

A gin martini has a distinctive herbal and floral flavor from the juniper berries and other botanicals used in the gin. In contrast, a vodka martini has a much milder flavor profile, as the neutral spirit doesn’t contribute any additional flavors. Vodka has a clean, crisp taste that allows the other ingredients in the cocktail to shine.

Distinctive martini glass and its role in the cocktail’s image

The martini glass is an iconic part of the martini’s image. Its long, thin stem and broad, shallow bowl are synonymous with the cocktail. The unique shape of the glass serves a few purposes:

  1. The wide bowl allows you to see the color and clarity of the cocktail.
  2. The long stem keeps your hand away from the bowl, preventing the drink from warming up too quickly.
  3. The distinctive shape of the glass has become a symbol of sophistication and class and is often associated with high-end cocktails.

Garnishes used in a martini

Garnishes not only look stylish, but they’re also an essential part of the martini’s flavor. The most common garnish for a martini is a green olive or two, often stuffed with pimentos or blue cheese. Olives are traditionally used in gin martinis, while you garnish vodka martinis with a twist of lemon or lime. A twist is a thin slice of citrus peel twisted over the cocktail to release its oils. 

So whether you’re ordering your martini shaken, not stirred, or with a gin or vodka base, next time you’re at the bar, you can be confident that you are ordering a cocktail that’s the epitome of sophistication and style.

Mandy is the enthusiastic creator of the vegetarian website Splash of Taste; she makes meat-free cooking fun and easy. When Mandy’s not cooking and writing, you’ll find her traveling, exploring countries and cuisines, and spending time with her chihuahua. Download her free 5 x Easy Vegetarian Meals eBook.

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