Chicago Bartenders Offer Strong Opinions and Fresh Takes on the Martini

Here’s where to try their innovative versions of this classic cocktail

A martini with a lemon twist
What makes a martini? If you ask bartenders, be ready for a deluge.
Ambitious Creative Co. - Rick Barrett/Unsplash

When is a martini no longer a martini? Ask a bartender in Chicago for the cocktail, and you may get a drink that’s evolved beyond the straightforward classic so beloved by James Bond or Clark Gable’s James Gannon. These modern martinis are infused with za’atar or cherry blossom; they’re garnished with grapes or modernist olives — those which are not plucked from a tree, but recreated by means of molecular gastronomy.

Obviously, ask a different bartender in Chicago, and you’ll get a spirited defense of the classic form. The point at which a martini stops being a martini is a matter of debate, pitting purists against innovators. According to Torrence O’Haire, corporate beverage director at Gage Hospitality Group, a martini is “a specific cocktail, in the same way a margarita is.”

“You can have subtle variations: less or more sweet, ‘Make my margarita with mezcal instead of tequila,’ et cetera,” he explains. “But if I were to come in and ask you to make me a margarita but use whiskey, chocolate milk and zero citrus, you’d look at me like a space-alien — and rightly so. That’s not a margarita.”

When it comes to a true martini, then, the formula is simple, according to this self-described devotee and purist.

“A martini is originally gin — or, nouveau riche, vodka, if you insist — blended correctly with high-quality vermouth, and traditionally a dash of both maraschino and bitters,” he says. “And stop kidding yourselves: If you skip the vermouth entirely, it’s not a martini, it’s just cold gin.”

For Miguel Lancha, “cocktail innovator” for the José Andrés Group, “a martini stops being a martini” if you begin with any spirit other than gin or vodka or if you add liqueurs, crèmes or juices (basically anything with the goal of making the liquor easier to drink). For Scott Stroemer of Galit, the rules are even stricter.

“I don’t think vodka is suitable,” he says. “It’s missing all the flavor of gin.”

And of course, there’s the question of size.

“They should be cold, smooth and small, so you can finish it before the temperature changes,” says O’Haire. “Order a refill, not a larger drink.”

Above all, according to Patrick McGoldrick, beverage director at the Italian-inspired Canal Street Market & Eatery and Afterbar, “a martini is a very personal order with specificities that only that guest can determine and communicate to the bartender.” And our bartenders unsurprisingly have their ideal versions of the classic.

In breaking with the tradition imposed by Winston Churchill, whose ideal martini ostensibly saw the gin “balanced” by either glaring at an unopened bottle of vermouth or bowing in the general direction of Italy, McGoldrick prefers his gin martini “wet,” which means heavier on the dry vermouth than most. 

“I like two parts gin (usually something floral) and one part dry vermouth,” he says. “Add in a few dashes of orange bitters to play up the citrus, stir till well chilled and serve up in a coupe with a lemon twist.”

Stroemer likes his martini even wetter, with a 50/50 mix of gin to vermouth, finished off with a dash of orange bitters, an olive and a twist. O’Haire’s preferred classic martini is a two-to-one pairing of “flavorful gin” and “French vermouth from a freshly opened bottle” with a dash each of maraschino liqueur and orange bitters.

“Stir, strain, finish with a lemon twist, and consume repeatedly with a mountain of oysters and a bag of potato chips,” he suggests.

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Lancha, meanwhile, prefers two parts London dry gin and one part dry vermouth, as well as a few dashes of orange bitters — and in breaking with Bond (and in keeping with the wisdom of many of his profession), he says, the drink should be stirred-not-shaken.

“Express a lemon peel over the drink and accompany it with a side of toasted Marcona almonds and a few different kinds of olives,” he suggests.

For Keith Meicher, head bartender at Sepia, the ideal martini evolves with the seasons.

“Most of the time, I enjoy a classic martini build: three ounces gin, one ounce dry vermouth, one dash of orange bitters. Stir and serve up with a lemon twist,” he says. “But if it’s in the dead of summer and I’m craving a martini, I often switch it up: equal parts gin and blanc vermouth. Delicious!”

When departing from this classic build, care must be taken to ensure that the drink doesn’t lose its unique character. And as with their perfect martini orders, our bartenders differ in opinion as to what’s appropriate or even allowed, if you want your drink to boast the moniker.

“You can modify your gin and vermouth with infusions and the like and still be able to call it a martini riff,” says Meicher. “But when you start adding additional whole ingredients, it’s time to find a new name for your cocktail.”

O’Haire acknowledges variations like the Tuxedo, which sees the vermouth swapped for dry sherry and, he says, can be “absolutely lovely.”

“However, if your martini is purple, coated in chocolate and has a sparkler blazing on the edge, it may be delicious, but it’s not a martini,” he says. “Just because it’s served in a martini glass doesn’t make it a martini. When I drink orange juice out of a coffee mug, I don’t call it ‘coffee.’”

McGoldrick nevertheless allows for a bit more leeway. 

“If you are someone who just wants to have fun and let loose after a hard day’s work,” he says, “a martini can be anything you want it to be, as long as it’s served up in a swanky coupe.”

With that in mind, here are five of the most enticing martinis — or plays on the theme — we’re sipping in Chicago right now.

Martini from Paris Rose - The Gage
The Paris Rose from The Gage
Paris Rose – The Gage

The Paris Rose at The Gage

The Paris Rose was inspired not exactly by the martini, but rather, in keeping with the bar’s ethos, by a long-forgotten classic cocktail, born in an era when The Gage was a millinery factory. But the Rose, created in 1953, needed quite a bit of help to be palatable in 2023.

“The original Rose cocktail was a neat inspiration, but honestly is a pretty dreadful cocktail when made with modern ingredients,” says O’Haire. “This riff honors the history and style of the original Rose, but in a way that our guests can enjoy much better.’”

The resulting cocktail is made with a combo of Grey Goose vodka, kirsch, cherry blossom vermouth and lemon oil for a drink that’s complex yet delicate with lovely fragrant notes and a touch of salt for balance.

“Based on a very classic version of a martini, this is not dry,” explains O’Haire, “but definitely not fruity or sweet.”

Za’atar Martini from Galit in Chicago
Za’atar Martini from Galit

Za’atar Martini at Galit

For Stroemer, the most interesting way to riff on a martini isn’t to add more, but rather to consider the creativity possible within the confines of the classic recipe. To wit, the martini at Galit is less a variation than it is a “showcase” for top-quality ingredients: cool, citrus-forward Jun gin from Lebanon and Mattei Blanc quinquina, a longtime love of Stroemer’s. 

“Cocktails are only as good as the ingredients,” he says. “I think Jun gin and Mattei quinquina are among the best I’ve ever tasted.”

It’s finished with chef Zach Engel’s quick infusion of dried Jerusalem hyssop stem, aka za’atar, “to up the herbaceous qualities of both and bring a nice amount of tannin.” The herb is grown specially for the restaurant by Smits Farm in Chicago Heights, and it features not just in the martini but in the restaurant’s signature spice blend, combined with sumac, sesame and salt.

Martini from La Poca Viola - Afterbar
La Poca Viola

La Poca Viola at Canal Street Eatery

The signature house martini at Italian-inspired Canal Street Eatery is La Poca Viola, a gin cocktail jazzed up with lavender, lemon and egg white.

“We wanted to offer a floral, colorful option for our guests,” explains McGoldrick, alluding to its beautiful violet hue. “We often receive inquiries about that drink before it even lands on the table.”

While he acknowledges that the cocktail “certainly strays from a classic martini,” it’s a demure beauty that “piques the interest of everyone in the room.” And it’s not just a winner in terms of aesthetic.

“It has a deeply floral aroma,” he says, “while presenting a beautiful, frothy head and a gorgeous garnish.”

The Art Brut cocktail at Sepia in Chicago
Art Brut from Sepia

Art Brut at Sepia 

Lovers of the dirty martini are no strangers to more savory plays on the classic, and Michelin-starred Sepia takes this a bit further with its food-forward Art Brut, made with Brie-washed gin and basil-infused vermouth, garnished not with olives but rather with red grapes.

“I’ve been interested in leaning harder into savory cocktails lately,” says Meicher. “Something to provide a thought-provoking complement to all the insanely great food coming out of Sepia’s kitchen.”

His martini riff “tastes like a full-on appetizer,” he says. “It’s like a Brie and basil salad that gets you tipsy!”

Inverted Dirty Martini from Pigtail by José Andrés
Inverted Dirty Martini from Pigtail by José Andrés

Inverted Dirty Martini at Pigtail by José Andrés

Lancha’s Inverted Dirty Martini is yet another savory play on the classic, which takes full advantage of chef José Andrés’s technical prowess to create a spherified olive made using olive purée filled with a Valdeón blue cheese surprise. The garnish floats in a drink that pairs malty genever, a predecessor of gin, and a generous measure of Spanish blanco vermouth.

“A vermouth-forward martini is more Spanish than the higher-ABV, gin-forward version,” says Lancha, noting that his creation inverts the more typical ratios, with double the amount of vermouth over the spirit. “It’s easier on the alcohol level and complements the olive and cheese more playfully.”

To push the savory side of the drink up to 11, Lancha adds a dash of saline for a “dirty martini” that offers “bolder, more elaborate flavor than just alcohol and gin with brine.”

“Our cocktail is definitely not a dirty martini, as expected by someone who orders one,” he acknowledges, “but is still close enough to include the word ‘martini’ in its name for a guidance on how to understand what the cocktail is.”


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