The History of the Vodka Martini

vodka martini

When it comes to the classic Martini, there are two camps when it comes to base spirit. One says they need to be made with gin, the other vodka. Neither are wrong, but just as with any other thing that people love, there are die-hards willing to fight for both sides. Today, we’re going to take a dive into the history of the vodka martini which, while the purists may scoff at it, is still a delicious and easy-to-make classic drink.

Seeing as Martinis weren’t always made with vodka, we spoke with Beam Suntory Master Mixologist Bobby Gleason to find out how it all started.

“After World War II, Americans began celebrating all things and cocktails were a big part of that. Gin was still a popular spirit (number two to Whiskey) and many of the classic cocktails were based on gin. As vodka became more readily available, marketing carried vodka to new heights,” Gleason said. “In 1950 around 50,000 cases were sold and by 1955 that number reached over 5 million. By 1967, vodka sales exceeded that of gin and in 1976 surpassed the sales of whiskey.”

With so much vodka flooding the market, bartenders needed a way to use it. The simple idea was to replace gin with vodka. The Orange Blossom became the Screwdriver and the Martini, when made with vodka, was originally called the Kangaroo Cocktail (details on the origin of this name of sketchy at best. Bobby Heugel, writing for the Houston Chronicle, merely says the name was given when “vodka was first being imported.”).

The biggest influence on the vodka martini’s popularity though, Gleason said, was the spy of spies, James Bond. The vodka martini was first seen in the 1956 novel Diamonds are Forever (previous to this appearance, author Ian Fleming used gin) and the famous direction “Shaken, not stirred” came two years later in Dr. No.

Another icon in pop culture, Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie, also utilized vodka martinis (making them gush from a rock for Captain Nelson). It was, thanks to pop culture, the drink to be seen with. As far as the garnish, that too, evolved.

“The lemon peel makes way for the olive. One olive becomes two, then three as glasses kept getting bigger. Then those olives were stuffed with pimentos, blue cheese, hot peppers, caviar, and whatever else you could put in it. Eventually olive brine was added (olive juice is oil so it doesn’t really mix with vodka),” Gleason said.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The vodka martini has grown and developed over the years into one of the more popular classic cocktails out there, with as many variations as there are olives in Italy. If you’re new to making a vodka martini, we’ve got some tips and tricks for you to ensure that the first time you make one, you will basically feel as suave as 007.

Vodka Martini

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First, you need to decide on the type of vodka you want to use. For Gleason, “a clean, pure wheat based vodka such as Pinnacle Original will meet even the most discerning drinker’s needs for a vodka martini. For a more robust martini, Pinnacle 100 proof is my choice for a shaken vodka martini, as the extra level of proof will stand up the shaking of the ice.”

From there, you need to decide on what vermouth and how much to use. “The amount of vermouth is a personal choice and for me I like the herbaceous flavors of a quality fresh vermouth and will go with a 3 or 4 to 1 ratio, stirred, and served up,” Gleason said. The most important things to remember when picking a vermouth, according to Gleason are:

  1. Buy quality – saving a little will cost you the whole of the cocktail.
  2. Buy small – vermouth is a wine-based product and should be handled like a wine. Start with a 375 ml bottle, if you can use that within a week go to a 750 ml.
  3. Always put the cap back on it, never put a pour spout in it.
  4. Most importantly, keep it refrigerated.

When it comes to the shaking or stirring argument, here’s what Gleason had to say: “When preparing a martini that contains ingredients such as citrus or egg whites, shaking is a must. This introduces bubbles and the end result is a delicious, frothy concoction. For spirit-forward martinis, stirring is essential as it ensures the drink isn’t too watered down.”

Finally, we’ve got the how-to for all those variations mentioned above? By following a simple formula—2 parts vodka + 1 part modifier + 2 parts juice + 1 part sweetener—you’ll be able to create any type of flavored vodka martini. Here’s an example:

  • 2 parts Pinnacle Original Vodka
  • 1 part Orange Liqueur or Triple Sec
  • 2 parts Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 1 part Simple syrup
  • ½ part egg white 

Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. To add more depth of lemon flavor substitute a limoncello for the orange liqueur.

Now, you’ve got the history of the vodka martini and the tools to make your own. It’s time to forth and drink deliciously.