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Finding Your Perfect Martini Garnish

In Cocktail Codex, authors Alex Day, David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and contributor Devon Tarby, explore the minutiae of six recipes they say are the keys to mastering cocktails. One of these cocktails is the Martini. The first cocktail to match spirit with vermouth, it’s a “recipe that is frustratingly difficult to pin down in one form,” says Day. “Who orders just a Martini? No one. They order a Martini with gin, light on the vermouth and with an olive, or a Martini with vodka, then please gesture quizzically in the direction of France in place of the vermouth, and add a twist of lemon—every Martini drinker has their own preference!”

Mixing the ideal Martini is all about creating harmony between just a few elements. In the book, the authors discuss every nuance of the classic, from choosing the core ingredients to glassware, experimenting with proportions and proper dilution. But the garnish plays an especially pivotal role in the Martini—it’s what the authors call “the seasoning.” “In any cocktail—but the Martini in particular—the garnish can transform the entire experience of the drink, from aroma to flavor in different ways from the first sip to the last,” Day adds. “These differences, though, are nuanced. They’re subtle. It takes a little time to really see the layered dimensions of how a twist is so different from an olive—but isn’t that what a Martini is? Nuanced, subtle. To me, the choice of garnish is as much a part of the Martini’s recipe as is the choice of gin or vodka and the presence (or absence) of vermouth.”

Day says he used to be part of the lemon-twist-only crowd, because nothing makes for a bright, crisp Martini like a spritz of lemon oil, but more recently he’s started to appreciate the salty appeal of the olive. But only a really good olive, he says. Like, “a cold, large un-pitted Casteveltrano olive resting like the hero it is in the bottom of a delicate glass filled high with cold gin and vermouth. At first sip, the olive sluffs off a little saltiness, amplifying the savory flavors and aroma hidden deep within the gin and vermouth. But the magic of an olive is more so when its allowed to rest in the Martini for a few minutes—the simple saltiness slowly changing to a complex green brininess. It becomes a liquid snack.”

To find your ideal garnish, Day suggests an experiment that lays out all the options at once. “I love the seasoning experiment we feature in the book so much—every time I do it for someone, their eyes light up at the dramatic difference garnish can make in a drink that, on paper, looks nearly identical.”

To get started at home, set up six mini Martinis (make three full-sized cocktails and divide the liquid between six glasses), made with your favorite gin and vermouth balance (or go with the bar’s recipe). Leave one cocktail unadorned, one with an olive, one with an onion, a lemon twist, an orange twist and a lime twist. The Martini without the garnish is your control glass, used to reference between sips of each of the others. As you taste through each variation, take stock of what each garnish brings to the glass.

Here, in his own words, Day offers his thoughts on each garnish.

A lemon twist is best used to perfume the top of a cocktail, but never should its skin be rubbed on the glass where the lips will touch. Call me delicate, but I find lemon oil on the tongue so powerful as to overwhelm the flavor of the cocktail, to almost burn my tongue. If left in the drink for more than a few minutes, I find that a lemon twist may extract some unpleasant bitter flavors if pith is present—transforming a light and refreshing Martini into something a little too close to Lemon Pledge for my comfort. For this reason, I usually take mine out after about a minute—just enough time to add some additional complexity to a cocktail, but not so much to overwhelm.

The sweet oils of orange are amazing both as an aroma and as a flavoring element in a cocktail. While we never rub lemon peel on a glass, we do often with orange: its sweetness can act to amplify certain flavors within a cocktail, particularly those made with aged spirits like bourbon and rye—or when bitter ingredients are used, like amari.

Get the best olives you can. They are not the ones stuffed with peppers or blue cheese; they are the whole olives that look fresh. Keep them chilled. Add them to your Martini just before sipping, dropping to the bottom of the glass as a tasty reward for a finished cocktail.

I view onions in much the same way as I do olives; a quality pickled onion will change a Martini in amazing ways, while a lackluster generic one will add brine and little else. Look for hearty Cipollini onions pickled in a classic brine—or better yet, search out the pickle stand at your local farmer’s market for something truly unique or make your own!

The skin of lime is highly fragrant, but its oils can be a bit astringent when used as a twist on a drink. There are very special cases when a lime twist can work wonders, but by and large, we steer clear as it can easily overpower the cocktail and steer it in an odd direction.

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