How to Make an Immaculate Martini, According to a Bartender Who Mixes Over 1,000 a Night
Plus how to keep it frigid as you sip.
Look down the length of the glossy wooden bar at Bemelmans, a New York City institution, and you’ll notice at least every other is person sipping a martini that bristles with olives. A piano starts. Its notes gently tumble around the room, glancing off the wall murals painted by Ludgwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline children’s book series. Madeline and her friends smile down from their vantage point, waving, like they might start dancing. Several guests come up to the bar, greet the bartenders by name and request martinis — extra dirty — and suddenly, as you eye the woman who’s fabulous in a white blazer dress or the group of three impeccably well-dressed and well-preserved gentlemen of an indeterminate age, you, too, want a dirty martini in a flared glass.
It wasn’t always this way though. Several years ago, those drawn to the Upper East Side watering hole inside the Carlyle Hotel preferred Manhattans. Wine. Or maybe a Blue Moon. "Martinis are getting very, very popular," says Luis Serrano, head bartender at Bemelmans, who has been working at The Carlyle since 1989. "One night I collected all the receipts, and I believe over 80% of the drinks I made were martinis. Especially right now, it is completely impressive. I made far less before the pandemic." Between serving all the hotel’s dining spaces, he makes over 1,000 martinis a night.
And nowadays, most people prefer theirs dirty. "I used to have olive juice in a mixing glass, and that would last me for the whole night. But now I need three of these," he says, holding up a large pitcher filled with olive brine he special orders. "People don’t want to get drunk from the first martini. They want to have more than one. Olive juice cuts off a little bit of the volume of vodka or gin, so the drink isn’t as strong," he explains.
If, like many of us, you aren’t within drifting distance of Bemelmans, and can’t poke your head in for an impossibly icy martini, Serrano has distilled his over three decades-worth of martini-mixing expertise into some at-home tips and tricks.
What Is in a Martini?
Ice is an important ingredient in martini-making. When you stir a martini, the ice melts just a little bit, balancing out the strong spirits. Serrano cautions that you should never mix with pellet ice — the kind with a hole in the center — because it melts quickly and will make watery martinis.
Gin or Vodka
Some of Serrano’s gin picks are Monkey 47, which he describes as tasting like "a garland of flowers," Hendricks, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray. Grey Goose and Tito’s are classic vodka choices. Whatever you choose, Serrano suggests you store it in the freezer, so it starts off chilly.
Olives or a Lemon Twist
For dirty martinis, opt for cocktail or blue cheese-stuffed olives. For regular martinis or wet martinis, which lean on 1 part vermouth, garnish with a lemon twist.
Olive Juice (for Dirty Martinis)
Here is the exact olive juice brine that Serrano uses in dirty martinis in Bemelmans.
How to Make a Martini, Bemelmans-Style
Step 1: Chill the Glasses
Do as Bemelmans does and chill your martini glasses in the freezer for at least several hours — a glacial glass will keep your martini cold as you sip. Don’t have enough freezer space? Fill your glasses with ice and chill them in the fridge for a few hours.
Step 2: Rinse the Mixing Glass with Vermouth
Add an ounce or so of vermouth to a 16-ounce metal mixing glass (you can use the metal base of a cocktail shaker) and swirl the glass around to rinse the walls, then dump out the vermouth. In industry speak, this technique is called an "in and out."
Step 3: Fill the Mixing Glass with Ice
Fill the glass most of the way full.
Step 4: Add Gin or Vodka to the Mixing Glass
4 ounces of either will do; if you’re making a dirty martini, use 3 ounces of spirits and 1 ounce of olive juice.
Step 4: Stir Until the Metal Becomes Frosty
Most people mix martinis in a classic mixing glass that’s made of well, glass. Serrano prefers mixing in metal though because it becomes frosty as you stir. When the walls are completely fogged up (after about 1 minute of fast stirring), the martini is cold enough.
Step 5: Strain
Fit a strainer over the top of the mixing glass and pour the martini into a drinking glass. Serrano recommends you don’t fill the glass all the way up; instead, stop 3/4 of the way and store the remainder in the mixing glass in the fridge. This ensures the second half of your drink remains frigid. At Bemelmans, the remainder of your martini is poured into a small carafe that’s nestled in ice.
Step 6: Garnish
Skewer olives with a pick, then let them sink down into their briny bath. Or gently remove a curl of lemon skin with a Y-shaped peeler and perch it on the glass.
Should You Shake or Stir Martinis?
An age-old question! Thank you, James Bond. Although you can enjoy your martini however the heck you like it, Serrano thinks stirring is better. "When you shake a martini, it will become cloudy and watery," he explains.
Do You Really Need to Serve Martinis In Martini Glasses?
Devil’s advocate: coupe glasses might be more of the moment. Or even hipster tumblers. But Serrano is a big proponent of the classic cone-shaped martini glass. "You can drink the martini in whatever glass you want, but there’s a reason the martini glass has remained the same all these years," he says. "I believe it makes the flavor of the martini better, allowing the drink to breath and waft."