I'm not a big fan of martinis. They often strike me as too astringent and bracing, with too much bitterness and too little acidity. And I suspect that I'm not alone. Despite their central place in the cocktail pantheon (and the burst of popularity the first season of "Mad Men" brought them), I rarely see people drinking them in bars, and I rarely encounter someone who cites it as their default drink.
Still, they're one of the oldest cocktails around, and are usually one of the first names out of people's mouths when they are asked to name a mixed drink. So when we were brainstorming cocktails to put through the Taste Test ringer, they were near the top of our list. (It helped that we had a bunch of gin left over from our G&T Taste Test.)
So we assembled four leading brands of vermouth -- two expensive ones and two cheap ones -- to pair with the nine types of gin we had on hand. Then we mixed up about 40 different martinis and served them to our brave staffers to see what they thought.
Almost all the martinis used a relatively (but not crazily) dry recipe of six parts gin to one part vermouth. (We experimented a bit with higher levels of vermouth, but we didn't include those in the central tasting.) We did not use any garnishes, so if you always include olives or lemon in your martinis, be aware that results may vary. And with all due respect to James Bond, we stirred the drinks rather than shaking them, to preserve their clarity.
Click through the slideshow below to see which brands of gin and vermouth we liked the most, then scroll down for a few more observations.
But we noticed that the gins that worked best in the gin and tonics didn't necessarily work as well here. The gins that we liked most in our G&T's had lots of floral, herbal and citrusy notes -- they were, in short, relatively sweet and light. But the ones that worked best here -- with the exception of Hendrick's -- were straightforward, savory gins, like Tanqueray and New Amsterdam.
As far as vermouths go, the signals we got from our testers were a little more ambiguous. In general, they gave higher ratings to the martinis made with the two high-end vermouths (Vya and Dolin) than they did to those made with the two low-end ones (Noilly Prat and Martini). That said, each brand had a fairly distinct taste profile, so different people were generally attracted to different vermouths. Here, roughly, was how the brands broke down:
Vya: The most vegetal and spiciest of the bunch. Tasters often picked up tomato and cucumber notes in martinis that used Vya vermouth. It was definitely the strangest- and most distinctive-tasting vermouth, but not in an off-putting way.
Dolin: The brightest and most citrusy vermouth we tasted. Tended to produce fairly clean-tasting martinis.
Noilly: By far the briniest. Martinis made with Noilly tended to taste so much like olive that some tasters suspected they were actually "dirty."
Martini: The most neutral. This one let the flavors in the gin shine through clearly, for better or worse.
In other words, we'd definitely stand by our rankings of the martinis, but if you're a lover of brininess or a hater of citrus, you may like martinis made with Noilly Prat more than we did.
This story appears in Issue 80 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Dec. 20in the iTunes App store.