Keeping dry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 2003, 12:00am

THE DRY MARTINI IS A PARADOX. On the one hand, in its purest form, it is simply the classic cocktail. On the other it is subject to seemingly endless variations at the whim of the barman or customer.

Issuing explicit instructions on how to mix one is seen as an assertion of individuality, yet when Sean Connery asked for a Martini made with vodka rather than gin, thousands of would-be James Bonds the world over slavishly followed suit. The Cosmopolitan - one of the most popular of the hundreds of variants on the Dry Martini theme - is fashionable at least partly because it is the Sex And The City girls' poison.

The Dry Martini's origins are shrouded in mystery, although the original drink appears to have surfaced in the latter part of the 19th century. It has always been made with vermouth, often of the Martini and Rossi brand, but contrary to popular belief that association was probably not the source of the name. One theory is that the drink was named after a bartender named Martini, while another traces its origins to Martinez, California. Whatever the truth we do know the drink originally consisted of gin and dry vermouth, probably mixed half and half.

Between the two world wars the Martini became progressively dryer, finally reaching a point at which, garnished with an olive or a twist of lemon or both, it came to consist essentially of neat spirit. Winston Churchill's personal recipe famously consisted of chilling the gin with ice in a cocktail shaker, glancing at a bottle of vermouth on the other side of the room, then drinking the gin.

The Dry Martini's heyday was the 1950s and 1960s - the era of the 'three-Martini lunch'. The 80s and early 90s were the 'three-Perrier lunch' era, but in more recent years the Martini has made a comeback, with cocktail bars becoming cool places to hang out. Many establishments now devote themselves more or less exclusively to making the drink.

Real Martini lovers know just what they want, and will usually stipulate a preferred brand of gin or vodka, how dry they like it, and whether they want the drink shaken or stirred. Connoisseurs believe shaking can 'bruise' gin, making it cloudy, but it is thought shaking is best for vodka. All agree the cocktail must be strong and cold.

Two Hong Kong bars have taken the Martini as their theme: Tango Martini (3/F, 81 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai; tel: 2528 0855) and the Martini Bar at the Royal Garden Hotel (69 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui; tel: 2733 2995). Tango Martini caters for the purist, and its Martinis are meticulously made. All popular premium gins and vodkas are available, and for those who like their cocktails seriously dry the bar has atomisers that spray only a thin film of vermouth onto the inside of the glass.

The Martini Bar serves no fewer than 74 different Martinis, all priced at $70, ranging from established favourites such as the Dirty Martini (made with a little brine from the olive jar) to exotic creations of the bar's own.

Other fashion-conscious venues such as Drop (39 Hollywood Road, tel: 2543 9230) and One-Fifth (9 Star Street, Admiralty; tel:2520 2515) also make a big feature of their Martini service, and pride themselves on a creative approach to the cocktail.

Some of the drinks bear little resem-blance to the classic Dry Martini other than being served in that distinctive art deco glass, but the results can be interesting. One-Fifth, which offers a twist on the Cos-mopolitan involving a splash of champagne, has a pleasant line in fresh-fruit Martinis, but notwithstanding its trendy image sells more of the classic variety. Gin Martinis are apparently beginning to make something of a comeback there; stirred, not shaken.