Martinis Are Having A Moment. Again. The Secret To Their Enduring Appeal According to Restaurateurs

By Johanna Thornton
Viva
The martini at Wellington's Boulcott Street Bistro is served with a pewter dish and a flask of additional liquid. Photo / Babiche Martens

Martinis are back, and they’re everywhere. Johanna Thornton speaks to restaurateurs about the everlasting appeal of the martini and why they’ll never come off the menu. Plus, find expert tips on how to order one, and make the perfect one at home.

In an age when classic cocktails have been

For me, its appeal is in the ceremony it offers. From the ordering — vodka, gin, dirty or with a twist – to the presentation — coup glass, extra chilled, extra olives – to the flavour: undeniably strong; herbal and bitter from the vermouth; botanical from the gin, salty from the brine — to the promise of a great night ahead, hopefully in a brilliant restaurant.

Juno Miers, who co-owns Margot in Wellington with husband and chef Tom Adam, shares these sentiments. In fact, she has a name for martini-induced anticipation — it’s called “big meal energy”.

“Tom and I have always subscribed to the Fergus Henderson school of thought that martinis give the drinker magic powers and are essential for providing what we call “big meal energy”, which is the excitement when you’re about to go and eat a lot of delicious food. There is no cocktail that primes you for such an occasion quite like a martini.”

Margot in Wellington. Photo / Babiche Martens
Margot in Wellington. Photo / Babiche Martens

Such is Juno’s love for the martini, she was crafting an imaginary one before she’d even opened the doors to her Newtown restaurant in 2022. “I always knew there needed to be a martini that was a constant on our menu and one that represents what we love to eat and drink.”

Their version of a dirty martini, Margot’s Martini, is “savoury, bracing and umami” with the clever addition of anchovy oil and an oil-washed gin, which Juno says adds more body and depth, rather than just brine.

It’s made with Olea olive oil-washed Reid + Reid gin, chosen for its herbaceous and savoury notes, dry vermouth, Manzanilla olive brine and several drops of Ortiz anchovy oil. It’s served with either a manzanilla olive or a gilda (a Basque tapa combining a guindilla pepper, a Manzanilla olive, a pickle and an anchovy), the latter of which is the perfect complement to the cocktail.

Margot's Martini, served with a gilda and a side of housemade bread and anchovies. Photo / Babiche Martens
Margot's Martini, served with a gilda and a side of housemade bread and anchovies. Photo / Babiche Martens

Juno believes martinis have always been popular, “but restaurants having bigger and better cocktail offerings has become more standard in New Zealand restaurants, and the dining public is trying and enjoying them”.

She says the rise of aperitivo hour has had an impact too, with “people ordering martinis and anything with vermouth”, which is the second key ingredient alongside gin in a classic martini.

“Aperitivo culture is becoming more of a thing in New Zealand, which is the European idea of having more herbaceous and savoury drinks to awaken the palate before a meal,” she says.

Reaching peak martini

Dry, dirty, with a twist. But what about miniature? At Westhaven restaurant First Mates, Last Laugh the martinis come in halves, with “Tiny Tinis” priced at $13 for 45ml of gin or vodka with dry vermouth, served with an olive or a twist.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of this adorable format (they’re served in a mini crystal coup!) among the lunch hun crowd. But aren’t they just a glorified shot dressed up as a lunch-appropriate cocktail?

“Oh no, they are far from it,” says owner Judith Tabron, “they’re crafted with the same attention to detail and quality ingredients as a full-sized martini, offering a sophisticated drinking experience but in a fun-size format.”

Tiny Tinis at First Mates, Last Laugh restaurant. Photo / Kayle Lawson
Tiny Tinis at First Mates, Last Laugh restaurant. Photo / Kayle Lawson

Batch-made and bite-sized, Judith’s variation was inspired by Bobby Heigel, the Houston-based cocktail bar owner and martini expert who created quite the stir with his batch-made freezer martinis during quarantine, when we were all gagging for a great cocktail at home. His pre-batched recipe, which favours juniper-forward Tanqueray London Dry and citrusy Tanqueray 10 gins, was so popular that he bottled it, selling it in 1-litre and single-serve glass bottles that are poured straight from the freezer, with no shaking required.

“I love the way the tiny-tini blends tradition with innovation, offering a fresh take on a timeless cocktail experience,” says Judith.

She attributes the martini’s icon status to pop culture. “From James Bond’s ‘shaken, not stirred preference’ to its appearances in classic films and literature, it’s got this cool, sophisticated vibe that’s hard to beat. People love how versatile it is — you can have it dry, dirty, or with a twist — I think that element of personalisation carries its relevance across generations and settings.”

Her secret to the perfect martini? It’s all down to the quality of the vermouth. “Vermouth acts as a crucial counterpart to the gin or vodka, adding depth, balance, and complexity to the cocktail. Balancing the ratio of vermouth to spirit according to personal taste is key, each sip should showcase both the spirit’s clarity and the vermouth’s nuanced flavours.”

Judith Tabron.
Judith Tabron.

Martinis are a triple threat

Another restaurant shaking it up with tiny martinis is Wellington dining institution Boulcott Street Bistro. Maitre D’ Jonathan Dawson says he’s “only seen martinis increase in popularity” during his time in hospitality, and loves them for their multi-faceted contribution to the dining experience — whether it’s a cleanser between courses, a celebratory toast or the perfect way to end a meal. “There aren’t too many other cocktails that have that same triple threat status, and therefore they become an easy ‘go to’ recommendation for our team too.”

He introduced a mini version to the cocktail menu after noticing guests were hesitant to commit to a whole cocktail. “To break down these barriers, we decided to offer them in smaller sizes. Being smaller and priced accordingly ($10), it’s now very easy to try all of the martinis during your meal, which we’ve found many guests do. We take a lot of pride in crafting a perfect, refined drink, regardless of the size.”

Boulcott Street Bistro's martini comes with pewter accessories. Photo / Babiche Martens
Boulcott Street Bistro's martini comes with pewter accessories. Photo / Babiche Martens

Those opting for the full size are awarded exacting attention to detail at Boulcott in the form of an antique pewter vessel filled with ice and a glass bottle containing a little extra martini for topping up your frosty coupe, alongside a delicate pewter dish for discarding olives in style.

Jonathan says the perfect martini is all about the ice: “It’ll make or break your cocktail”. He suggests skipping the petrol station bag of ice and investing in good-quality ice, or better yet cleaning out your freezer and making your own at home.

“You’ll have better ice than half the bars in town. A perfect martini should be greater than the sum of its parts, and that comes down to focusing on dilution, temperature, and the quality of your ingredients. Most importantly though, martinis are like lasagne; everyone has a secret recipe that is unbeatable for them. If you don’t know how you like them, head down to your favourite joint and drink one.”

The dining room at Wellington's Boulcott Street Bistro. Photo / Babiche Martens
The dining room at Wellington's Boulcott Street Bistro. Photo / Babiche Martens

If you’re having one, I’ll have one

Ordering a martini can sometimes have a knock-on effect — just ask any bartender who’s had to make a round of 10 espresso martinis. See or hear one person order a martini? Chances are you will too. It’s all about the romance of it, says Jonathan.

“There is something cool about walking into a room and seeing people drinking martinis. Martinis have got a romance akin to Champagne, but the serve is so versatile and can be perfectly personalised.

“Drinking a great martini can be a special moment, and in the hospitality industry that’s ultimately what we seek to create every day. Yes, guests are certainly requesting martinis and all their variations, but it’s those special moments that we’re looking to be remembered for in our venues. When one can bring about the other, it makes sense to shine a spotlight on it.”

Martini cocktail cheat sheet

What’s in it?

Gin (or vodka), dry vermouth, garnished with an olive or a twist (lemon peel).

What are its origins?

Some say it’s derived from the Martinez cocktail, which was invented in the mid-19th century in California when a gold miner asked the bartender to make them something special (Encyclopedia Brittanica), named the Martinez, said to include gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters. Another theory says it’s simply named after Martini & Rossi vermouth, which has been around since 1863, another that it originates from New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel in the early 20th century, created for John D Rockefeller. If only they’d had the internet back then.

Wet or dry?

That depends on the amount of vermouth — the more vermouth, the wetter the martini.

What is vermouth and what does it add to the martini?

Vermouth is a type of fortified wine flavoured with botanicals including herbs, spices and roots. Dry vermouth is more commonly used in martinis, it’s lighter in colour, less sweet, and has a more herbal and slightly bitter taste. Sweet or red vermouth is used in classic cocktails like negronis, but can also be drunk on its own as an aperitif.

The Vesper martini, invented by author Ian Fleming for his character James Bond, made with gin and vodka.
The Vesper martini, invented by author Ian Fleming for his character James Bond, made with gin and vodka.

Shaken or stirred?

A term made famous by James Bond, a shaken martini is colder, cloudier, has a softer mouthfeel and is vermouth-forward, while a stirred martini is smoother and retains more flavour because shards of shaken ice haven’t diluted the liquid.

Dirty or with a twist?

Ask yourself if your preference is citrus-forward or something more savoury and go from there, says Judith.

The iterations are endless

The dirty martini adds a splash of olive brine to the mix and is garnished with an olive.

The Gibson is garnished with a cocktail onion instead of a lemon twist or olive.

The 50-50 martini uses equal parts gin and dry vermouth for a more balanced, less dry martini.

The vodka martini substitutes gin with vodka

The Vesper martini combines gin AND vodka

Flavoured martinis have joined the party too: espresso martini, lychee martini, lemon drop.

What glass and why?

Usually a V-shaped sloping cone with a long, thin stem. The shape helps to aerate the liquid and open up the flavours.

How to make the perfect martini cocktail at home

We enlisted the advice of expert cocktail maker Heather Garland, co-owner of Caretaker, Deadshot and Rocketman to create a classic martini, and put a Caretaker spin on another.

Classic gin martini

1 oz of Dolin dry vermouth

2 oz gin (we use Caretaker gin made by 1919 distilling specifically for use in cocktails)

1. Add vermouth and gin to a cocktail shaker with good-quality ice.

2. Stir down and strain into a martini glass.

3. Garnish with a lemon twist or olive.

Turf cocktail

3/4 oz dry vermouth

1/4 oz maraschino liqueur

2 dashes orange bitters

2 dashes absinthe

2 oz gin

1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with good-quality ice.

2. Stir down and strain into a martini glass.

3. Garnish with an olive and a lemon twist.

Heather’s pro tips for making the perfect martini

It’s all about dilution. The sweet spot of perfect dilution is very small and if you aren’t paying attention you’ll miss it. So taste, taste, taste. As soon as you find that perfect moment, strain it out immediately. You only have a few seconds to get it off the ice before the drink is ruined.

Ice is important. I’ll often see people use lovely gin and a great vermouth and then ruin it by adding ice that’s been sitting out melting for ages, or even worse bagged ice from the service station. Ice needs to come straight from the freezer. Ice also needs to be made of good-quality water so it doesn’t affect the taste of the drink. Ideally, with filtered water and not stored with open food in the freezer as it will absorb odours from food and taste different.

Chill everything - ensure all components, including the glass, are well-chilled to maintain the drink’s crispness.

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