I've always been a huge advocate of the humble Martini. Such a simple cocktail, yet few others possess its prowess in pulling off the sort of focus that it provides. To me, the Martini is a perfect restorative; it picks you up after a hard day, offers a gentle rejuvenation, and narrows your thoughts in the most perfect way. Sharing a well-made Martini with a loved one prior to a good meal is one of life's perfect moments.
But therein lies the problem. Despite being a composite of very few ingredients, it requires a huge amount of skill to get spot on (one of the reasons I made this) and knowing how you like it is only part of the battle.
I have a great fall back Martini - a wet Gin Martini with fresh vermouth, crisp gin, and greedily, both a buttery green olive and a lemon twist - but depending on mood, bartender or setting, I'll happily switch. Vodka Martinis work for me too, they're just suited to different settings to a Gin Martini.
But part of the problem is knowing how to order exactly what you want. Leaving aside the issue of trying to convey subjective flavour preferences to another, the simple language of how to order your favorite drink can often be overlooked. In your favourite bar, your bartender should know your preferences and should exemplify soothsayer capabilities of finding out the perfect serve even you didn't know you needed, but in new scenarios, knowing what to order can be tough. Menus help, but if you're hankering for something specific, it's worth brushing up on the lingo.
The wonderful Claire Smith - head of spirit creation at Belvedere Vodka - lamented at the opening of her exhibition celebrating the magic of the Martini at the Royal Academy (with amazing photography from the awesome Jess Bonham) "If we can give long complicated orders in Starbucks we should be able to do it in bars as well. You don't have to drink martinis the way James Bond does." So with that in mind, hopefully some of these terms should help:
On the rocks, straight up, stirred, shaken or long
Obviously these don't all apply to a Martini, and some are fairly obvious, but these are useful terms for understanding how your cocktail might come, or a means of ordering a drink you want, and one that will behave in the way you want. Stirred and straight up drinks will have a richer texture and stay closer to the booze. Shaken drinks will be lighter and if served over ice will continue to open out and evolve. And don't be fooled that long drinks mean more booze or better value - they're simply a different serve. Usually served long in a narrow glass to preserve effervescence of a sparkling mixer, they're ideal for lighter serves that continue to unfold as they dilute.
Wet, dry, dirty or naked
A Martini is the perfect harmony of spirit and vermouth, chilled down and opened out with dilution. Different ratios suit different spirits, and different settings. A very dry Vodka Martini washes across the palate and plays up to the texture of the spirit, whereas a wetter (with more vermouth) Gin Martini balances the botanicals of the gin with that of the vermouth to create a complex serve that is ideal before a meal (both gin and vermouth contain complimentary herbs and spices that were historically used to prepare your digestive system for incoming food).
The above terms simply refer to this ratio of spirit to vermouth (in my opinion, gin plays better with vermouth, and vodka martinis are better closer to the spirit to showcase its subtleties and the texture of the specific carb base). From less (or no) vermouth to closer to equal parts, the terminology moves: Naked > dry > wet, with dirty referring to the addition of olive brine. Bonus points go to 'Sweet' for the use of - you guessed it - sweet vermouth (more suited to a Manhattan, but a sweet Martini can be great too). 'Perfect' simply refers to the use of both sweet and dry vermouths, rather than the qualitative nature of the drink. You can also qualify these terms with further descriptors such as very dry, or slightly wet etc.
Zesty, bittersweet, rich, dry, clean...
A bartender is trying to take a snapshot assessment of your tastes, preferences and mood without asking a hundred questions to try and get you the perfect drink for the moment, so any help you can give to ballpark your mood is hugely helpful. Knowing what you adamantly don't like helps, but unless it's a bonafide aversion (and if it's an allergy, say straight away - not all ingredients are listed) try not to limit your options; a good bartender might be able to bring you round to different ingredients. On the flip side though, some descriptors aren't helpful. If you're in a good bar, I wouldn't worry about saying you don't like, say, a 'sweet' drink; all the drinks should come through balanced. Similarly, saying you want a 'strong' drink tends to indicate a worry about value, rather than a direction towards what you might be after - a request for a lower abv drink however, is particularly useful to know.
A great tactic is to use a common drink (or foodstuff) that you like, and use that as a reference. This will help you to be able to vocalise your preferences, and result in a better drink in front of you.
In the meantime, I'm happy to leave the details to the bartender,. But I'd love a Negroni - not too rich, dealer's choice on the London dry gin, Campari and a lighter sweet vermouth...