Kansas City’s Hampton Stevens takes the dive and comes up with some pearls.
A great martini is made before the mixing of spirits ever begins. Ice, first off, is crucial. Ice is food, after all, and one must only imbibe at establishments that use filtered water to make it. Ice must also be hard frozen. “Clean” ice will make for a faster heat transfer and thus a less watery drink, creating the martini’s requisite, delightfully bubbly sensation on the tongue.
Glass preparation is equally key. Glasses must be refrigerated to create the coldest possible surface. Serving the world’s most famous cocktail in a warm glass is akin to serving frozen chili on a stick. Sadly, some lesser establishments merely fill their glassware with ice and slosh to chill before the pour. For shame! This creates a sloppy, flat beverage no matter how flamboyantly the bartender flings droplets from the glass.
Thankfully, Kansas City has loads of well-equipped bars such as Voltaire in the West Bottoms, Grünauer in the Crossroads and Rye, deep in the wilds of Leawood. The Tap Room at Waldo Pizza is a little-lauded gem where your drink will be as affordable as it is carefully made.
Beyond clean, fresh ice and suitably frosty glassware, the martini’s proper composition is a matter of personal taste. Tastes, though, have changed over the decades. The “standard” martini, like American culture itself, has grown ever less sweet, ever more acerbic and salty.
David Smuckler at Tavern in the Village is of the more modern school. He mixed us a minimalist, near-spartan version of the drink. Dave chilled a measure of Plymouth Gin with its spicy, cardamom and coriander bouquet. He then used precisely zero vermouth, allowing only that he might glance at the bottle while he shook and strained.
Being traditionalist—at least in the realm of cocktails—our preference is for a more time-honored mix. Take, for instance, the classic drink crafted by Adam Ryffe at Kill Devil Club. Ryffe reverentially mixed equal parts gin and dry vermouth. He chose Tanqueray No. Ten—unique for fresh citrus botanicals—and Dolin Dry Vermouth, famed for being lighter and less pungent than the better-known brands.
Then, as we all must, Ryffe faced the famed “Dickens Question.” That is: “Olive or twist?” Mercifully, he chose the latter. Adam painted a wide swath of lemon zest on the drink’s surface and around the rim of the glass. The oily, briny heft of an olive, or—perish the thought—olive juice, will overwhelm the subtle flavors of any good spirits. The martini, no matter where in our city you may have one, is always best when served sweet, clean and cold.