Essential Cocktails: How to Make, and Where to Find, the Perfect Martini

The first in a series of step-by-step drink tutorials from cocktail masters

You like drinking, sure, and maybe you even have a few favorite cocktails that you like to order when out and about. But do you know how to make ‘em for yourself at home? If not, stay tuned because over the next few weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few essential cocktails with which to start your home bartending career. Nothing crazy complicated, but rather, classics that everyone should have in their back pocket. I wager that after you’ve got these down, your friends will be asking you to bartend at their parties…. Um, OK, so maybe we won’t tell them about your new skills. And for the non-DIYers, I’ll include *THE* places to get the best example of the spotlighted cocktails.

We’ll start things off with the martini, a simple cocktail made with either vodka or gin, and vermouth.

When I polled L.A. bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts asking who made the best martini in town, a majority of them pointed toward Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. Veteran bartender Manny Aguirre, over his 20-plus years at Musso & Frank’s, has generated a loyal following of cocktail enthusiasts. His martinis are stirred and served with a sidecar of excess cocktail. You feel like you’re getting more than your money’s worth with that little sidecar. Plus, for visiting cocktail geeks and L.A. historians, being waited on by Manny is their celebrity sighting.

But another establishment known for making a perfect martini is Mixology 101 at the Original Farmers Market in Mid-City West. The bar is the brainchild of bartender Salvatore Calabrese, who hails from the famous Playboy Club in London. (You might know him better as the guy who recently broke the world record for creating the most expensive cocktail in the world.)

Legend has it that Calabrese perfected his martini after working at Dukes Hotel in London. A visiting San Francisco food critic always found something wrong with the bartender’s martinis—they were too cold, too diluted, etc. But Salvatore worked to perfect his recipe, finally trying a new method of freezing the bottle and the glass, serving it with no shake or stir of ice, minimizing dilution with just a spritz of water, followed by a few dashes of vermouth and a twist of lemon. The critic—Stanton Delaplane—was finally content, and he returned to San Francisco to tell the world: “Salvatore Calabrese makes the best martini in England.”

Bartender Joseph Brooke had overseen Salvatore’s bar program at Mixology 101 since its opening in March of last year. While he just left his post at the bar last week, Joe invited me to his home bar, and dressed in his lazy Saturday attire, he happily demonstrated how to make Calabrese’s “Perfect Martini” with panache.

Perfect Martini recipe
Recipe courtesy Salvatore Calabrese, Mixology 101

  • 1 lemon
  • Rinse of water
  • 3.5 ounces of frozen gin or vodka
  • 3 to 6 dashes of dry vermouth

1) Thinly peel a large piece of zest from your lemon, taking care not to get any of the bitter white pith underneath. Get a nice length, usually longer than the height of the glass. If you want to take it a step further, you can clean it up and trim the edges. “It’s a martini. It should be a feast for the eyes,” said Brooke.

2) Spritz a pre-frozen martini glass with water, coating it. “It’s essentially a rinse of water.”

3) Pour 3.5 ounces of frozen vodka or gin into the glass.

4) Add dashes of dry vermouth. (Brooke recommends Noilly Prat, Cinzano, or Martini Extra Dry.)

5) Finish by twisting the lemon peel over the cocktail and then drop the garnish into the glass.

Unlike the standard recipe for the martini, this one has minimal dilution. Instead of stirring the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, you simply spritz water onto the cocktail glass. “The criticism I’ve heard from Salvatore’s frozen martini is that it’s too strong and I can see how that is, but a martini drinker, I would assume, would want something really stiff,” said Brooke. “The one drawback to this martini if you’re used to having it a certain way is the lack of dilution; it’s absolutely minimal. It’s a lot colder though so it becomes a viscosity thing but for some people… the wine geek guys included, it’s not diluted enough. So it’s a little rough.”

And with regards to the whole “gin vs. vodka” debate, Brooke said it comes down to personal preference. “Vodka is more of a sensation than a flavor. A vodka drinker likes when it’s hidden in their flavors; a gin drinker wants to taste their gin.”

Recommended vodka: Stoli Elit, Beluga, Russian Standard, or Chopin. “The only way you can tell vodkas apart from each other is in the finish. If you want something nice and punchy, go with rye, go with Belvedere. I wouldn’t recommend anything like Cîroc.”

Recommended gin: Beefeater, Beefeater 24, Tanqueray, Tanqueray 10, Plymouth, No. 3, Ford’s Gin. Joe uses Beefeater when making a martini for himself. “It’s [got] lemon and orange… it’s so citrusy and nice. Beefeater’s always going to be my number one.”

(By the way, if you’re looking for help in how to start building up your own home bar, check out SoCal author Dave Stolte’s Home Bar Basics for tips.)

Mixology 101, 6333 W 3rd St., Suite 020, Los Angeles,
Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood,