Grape & Grain

Hong Kong’s love affair with the martini, now with added vermouth

The fortified wine, once all but sidelined in the classic cocktail – James Bond’s favourite drink – has made a comeback thanks to some innovative bartenders. Here are five places in the city to get your fix

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 5:02pm

Dry martinis are getting wetter. For many years, the mark of a sophisticated drinker was considered to be how close to neat spirit he or she liked a martini to be. Vermouth was being added merely as a light mist sprayed from an atomiser as early as the 1950s.

It was not always so. The origins of the cocktail we call a martini today are much disputed and none of the theories are verifiable, but it seems likely that the drink is descended from the Manhattan – made with American whiskey, vermouth and bitters – via another cocktail called the Martinez which substituted gin for whiskey.

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The 1887 Jerry Thomas recipe for the Martinez stipulates sweet vermouth, and early martini recipes call for the same, as well as for relatively sweet Old Tom gin.

The “dry” martini, which appeared early in the 20th century, originally included bitters, and used dry gin and dry vermouth mixed in roughly equal parts. Over time the bitters were sidelined, and when James Bond first ordered a martini “shaken not stirred”, subverting the usual practice, the proportion of spirit to vermouth was down to four measures of the first and only a half measure of the second.

Somewhere along the way the “dry” in dry martini came to be assumed not to refer to the type of vermouth but to be an instruction to reduce its presence. Most bartenders today would take the order “very dry” to mean use little or none.

Nevertheless, vermouths, both sweet and dry, are back in style, according to bartender and owner Antonio Lai, whose single best-known cocktail is probably the Earl Grey Caviar Martini at Quinary.

That one actually doesn’t contain any vermouth at all, but two new creations at VEA Restaurant and Lounge, a recently opened co-venture with business partner Charlene Dawes and chef Vicky Cheng, do – the Pistachio Martini and the PCC.

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The Pistachio Martini was created by VEA’s beverage creative manager, Leszek Stachura, and its base spirit is vodka redistilled with pistachio nuts. The Parmesan Martini, or Parmigiano Cheese Cocktail, is Lai’s, and is made with vodka that has been redistilled with parmesan cheese.

Neither spirit is available at retail. Lai has a still in his office. Under Hong Kong law he cannot make distilled alcohol, but is permitted to introduce flavour into imported spirits on which duty has been paid – usually Absolut vodka or Beefeater gin.

The nutty martini is made with sweet vermouth and garnished with an olive, while the cheesy one is made with dry vermouth and presented with a small piece of nut candy melted on to the base of the glass, the idea being that you prepare your palate for the dry experience to follow with a preliminary sweetener.

A good vermouth works very well in a martini
Antonio Lai

“We wanted something different to just a regular martini with some depth of flavour,” says Lai.

You can certainly taste the vermouth in both, and neither drink would be as well balanced without it.

“Vermouth is an aromatised wine and you are supposed to use a bottle within one or two weeks of opening,” Lai points out. “[In the past] in a lot of bars it just sat there for a long time, and people didn’t want it because it was oxidised. Now it’s a fast-moving product, and in most cocktail bars it is in good condition and people are happy to order it again. A good vermouth works very well in a martini.”

That is true of both gin and vodka martinis. The James Bond factor has been credited with giving rise to the vogue for vodka over gin, although the recipe Ian Fleming had Bond explain to a barman in 1953’s Casino Royale called for both spirits, and with three measures of gin to only one of vodka.

Fleming was also specific about the vermouth, Kina Lillet. Unfortunately that company changed its recipe drastically in the mid-1980s, and Lai uses Cocchi Americano, which is reckoned by bartenders to be the aromatised wine nearest in flavour to Bond’s original choice.

The gin revival has resulted in more customers ordering gin martinis in Lai’s bars, another of which is Ori-Gin, but he says the release last year of the Bond film Spectre gave the vodka version of the classic a serious boost.

“It’s about half and half. We still have guests drinking classic gin martinis, but vodka martinis sold well last year because of 007. Every time a Bond film comes out the vodka sales go up.”

Although he has a couple of other martini variations which have proven popular, including one with lemon grass at Ori-Gin and one with wasabi at Quinary, Lai says the martini is a drink in which most people’s tastes are classical.

Part of the martini’s remarkably enduring appeal, which has now lasted more than a century, is its essential simplicity. People who would be too intimidated by the science to tell a barman how they want most cocktails mixed, can assert their personalities by choosing shaken over stirred, an olive over a twist, gin over vodka, clean over dirty, or dry over not so dry.

Another is that interesting liberties can be taken with it, as Lai and Stachura have demonstrated, without compromising its classic appeal. As so often with cocktails, it’s all in the detail.

Many bars in Hong Kong offer memorable martini experiences, from the meticulously formal Japanese preparation of the drink at Butler to the relaxed American-style weekday 5pm to 7pm “Mortini” happy hour at the bar of Morton’s steakhouse.

Five places to get your Martini fix in Hong Kong

VEA Restaurant and Lounge, 29/F The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2711 8639

Butler, 5/F Mody House, 30 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2724 3828

Morton’s of Chicago, 4/F The Sheraton Hotel & Towers, 20 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2732 2343

56-58 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2851 3223

Ori-Gin, 48 Wyndham Street,
Central, tel: 2668 5583