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Three Classic Martinis: Perfect, Gibson, and Dirty Variations

Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.

Shaken or stirred, the martini is a timeless classic.

Shaken or stirred, the martini is a timeless classic.

The Classic Martini

The martini is quite probably the quintessential cocktail. Gin, a touch of vermouth, and an olive. Perfection.

Go to any bar today and you can find hundreds of drinks that claim to be martinis. Especially since the birth of the artisanal cocktail movement, the number of "martinis" only seems to be growing. In my opinion, however, there are really only three variations allowed. Anything else and it's just not a martini anymore.

Don't get me wrong—I think appletinis are great, and one of the finer things I've ever tasted is a chocolate martini made with Godiva liqueur. But honestly, the only thing these drinks share with the classic martini is the glass in which they are served. So if you go to your favorite friendly neighborhood bartender and order a martini, you should get exactly what I describe here.

Three Classic Martinis

  • Perfect martini: Gin or vodka, vermouth, olive or lemon peel garnish
  • Gibson martini: Gin or vodka, vermouth, pickled onion garnish
  • Dirty martini: Gin or vodka, vermouth, splash of olive brine, olive garnish

"One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough."

— James Thurber

To make a classic martini, garnish with either a slice of lemon peel or an olive.

To make a classic martini, garnish with either a slice of lemon peel or an olive.

Gin or Vodka?

You will note that I mentioned gin above—not vodka. Lots of people make martinis with vodka, and if that's your thing, more power to you. But despite the fact that the nature of my culinary philosophy is to substitute at will, in this case, I draw the line. A true martini is a gin martini. There. I've made my stand.

Whichever alcohol you choose to use, it's critical that the quality is very good. Unlike most cocktails, where the liquor is covered up with the flavors of various mixers, in the case of a martini you taste almost nothing but the gin or (if you must) vodka. Therefore get the highest possible quality. It really matters here.

A martini made without the shaker just doesn't taste the same.

A martini made without the shaker just doesn't taste the same.

Shaken vs. Stirred

I also want to weigh in here on the shaken vs. stirred thing. I doubt I've seen more than two James Bond movies in my life, and I don't think I've ever heard him actually utter his famous "shaken, not stirred" line.

But he's right. A martini made without the shaker just doesn't taste the same. I'd love to hear from someone who can tell me why, but the extra 30 seconds it takes to shake the martini with ice makes a big difference in the final product. Invest a couple of dollars in a cocktail shaker, and take the few seconds to shake it. You'll be glad you did.

How Much Vermouth?

One of the three allowable variations is the amount of vermouth that's added.

  • Dry martini: Very little vermouth. The less vermouth, the drier the martini. I personally have been known to simply wave the bottle of vermouth over the gin, which is about as dry as it gets.
  • Perfect martini: Use a 5:1 ratio, meaning five parts gin or vodka and one part vermouth. The vermouth should be equal parts sweet vermouth and dry vermouth. Garnish with an olive, et voila.

In either case, be sure to keep the vermouth to a minimum. It quickly will overwhelm the flavor of the gin if you add too much.

The Gibson is garnished with pickled olive.

The Gibson is garnished with pickled olive.

What's the Difference Between a Martini and a Gibson?

The Gibson is quite possibly the simplest variation on the martini. The only difference between the two cocktails is the garnish: whereas a classic martini is garnished with an olive, a Gibson is garnished with a pickled onion.

Though its origins are debated, the Gibson is widely known as a favorite among teetotalers who don't want it known that they don't drink. Chilled water garnished with a pickled onion looks exactly like the regular cocktail. The story goes a businessman invented this version during three-martini lunches with his competition—allowing him to keep a clear head while his competitors got tipsy.

How to Make a Dirty Martini

A dirty martini adds a small splash of the brine from the olives or onions to the shaker. You can also make a dirty Gibson this way. So if you'd like you can order a martini dry and dirty, or just dirty, or just dry—and in any case you still have a martini.

Pro Dirty Martini Tip

Find an upscale supermarket with an olive bar. Try different olives and juice in your martinis. My personal favorite is a "French blend" of different olives and the pungent, tangy juice in which they arrive.

“Happiness is . . . finding two olives in your martini when you’re hungry.”

— Johnny Carson

Perfect Martini Recipe


  • 2 1/2 ounces gin or vodka
  • 1/2 ounce dry vermouth
  • 1 green olive or a twist of lemon peel
  • Handful of ice cubes


  1. Drop the ice cubes into a cocktail shaker. Add the gin (or vodka) and vermouth.
  2. Cap the shaker and shake well for at least 30 seconds. You're looking for the shaker to begin to frost.
  3. Strain and pour into a martini glass. Add the olive to the bottom of the glass or lemon peel twist on the edge, and enjoy!

© 2010 Jan Charles